Years ago my friend Dana and I took a cookie decorating class in San Francisco at Baking Arts. The emphasis that day was not on baking, but the instructor did make a point of saying that there is really no point to a pretty cookie if it isn’t also delicious. Crisp and buttery with an amazing shelf life, these shortbread cookies are that winning combination of good looking and good to eat. And this presentation, with a simple swipe of icing dipped in sanding sugar, is not difficult. I’ll save the more complex “flooded” icing technique for another day, or perhaps just refer you to Baking Arts new San Mateo location where you can sign up for a class from the experts.
There are only a few ingredients in these cookies so it’s worth making sure you have quality products. I use Clover unsalted butter, which is local to Petaluma. I also highly recommend Nielsen Massey vanilla extract, it is truly the best. These cookies have a whole tablespoon of vanilla in them and you really want to make sure you have that deep flavor that comes from an intense extract. I know it’s a little pricey, but the bottle lasts a long time and it is worth the splurge. Trust me! I once did a chocolate chip cookie throwdown pitting two batches of chocolate chip cookies against each other with the only difference being the vanilla. The Nielsen Massey cookies won for a reason, try it and see for yourself.
For these cookies you want your butter really soft, I usually get mine out 24 hours in advance. You’ll be mixing everything at low speed so as not to add any air into the dough and super soft butter just works better. If you turn up the power on your mixer you will aerate the dough and this cookie should be free from air bubbles, especially if you’re moving on to those more complicated icing techniques!
Wrap the dough in plastic and chill until firm, about 1 hour. I roll the dough out between sheets of parchment paper, which you will need for baking the cookies on anyway. There is no issue with sticky dough this way, and if you add too much flour during the rolling/re-rolling process your dough will become tough. The goal is evenly rolled out dough 1/4″ thick and this rolling pin from Food 52 takes the guesswork out of that entirely. It isn’t possible to roll it thinner than 1/4″ thanks to the graduated side so you get a perfectly flat sheet of dough that is just the right thickness every time! Another plus to the parchment is that you can slide your rolled out dough onto sheet pans and pop it back into the fridge to cut and bake later. If you just leave the dough in there for hours until you’re ready to bake you may end up having a hard time rolling it out!
Cut your cookies and bake in a preheated 375° oven for 15-20 minutes depending on their size. The edges and bottom should be a deep golden color for the best flavor. It also helps to have extra cookie sheets here because you want to let them cool completely on the pan. At that point they are ready to decorate! I also think they taste great plain and usually have mine that way with a cup of tea.
Scottish Shortbread Cookies
- 1 lb unsalted butter at room temperature
- 1 tbsp vanilla extract
- 1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
- 1 tsp kosher salt
- 3 3/4 cups all purpose flour
- Place the butter, vanilla, salt, and powdered sugar in the mixing bowl of a stand mixer. Beat with the paddle attachment on low until homogenous and creamy. Do not aerate. Scrape the bowl.
- Add the four all at once and beat on the lowest speed until the dough just comes together. Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill until firm, about 1 hour.
- Cut the chilled dough in half and roll between sheets of parchemnt paper, or on lightly floured surface, until it is 1/4" thick.
- Bake cookies in preheated 375° oven for 15-20 minutes. They should be golden to bring out the richest flavor. Cool completely on the pan and then store airtight.
Royal icing is pretty easy to make, although it can be a little tricky to find dried egg whites. I am including a link here to a reasonably sized bag, do not ask me how the 2 lb. bag ended up in my cart! Guess I’m ready to frost a lot of cookies!
Once the frosting is done you can put some in a smaller bowl to mix with food coloring. I use gel paste food coloring which has a deeper color. I also stuck with red and white, but pink is a nice touch this time of year, too.
Let the cookies sit on a sheet pan until the icing is completely set before stacking in air tight containers. These last a lot longer than sugar cookies and will stay fresh for a good week that way… if they last that long!
- Stand Mixer
- 3 tbsp dried egg whites
- 1 lb powdered sugar about 4 cups
- 1/2 cup water, less 1 tbsp
- Combine ingredients, mixing slowly, then beat at medium speed for 5-10 minutes until icing has "soft serve curl" when holding up spoon or spatula. Icing will have the consistency of sour cream, ideal for spreading on cookies.
- Be sure all utensils are grease free or icing will not come together. Press plastic wrap directly on surface of icing if not using immediately, it dries out quickly.