A solstice celebration: shortbread

Sunday, December 21, 2008, 7:04 a.m.

What’s the significance of that date and time? Beginning of winter, right? Which sounds a bit discouraging if you live up North, where winter means 5 or 6 months of heavy coats, slick roads, and horrendous heating bills.

But Dec. 21 is also the winter solstice: the shortest day of the year. Which means—hallelujah!—on December 22, the days start getting longer. On the very first day of winter, we start the long journey back to summer.

Many cultures mark the winter solstice with celebrations and bonfires. Shortbread, that buttery confection we associate so heavily with Scotland, is one of the season’s traditional foods in that country. Baked in large rounds with notched edges to resemble the sun, it’s served both on the day of the solstice, as well as on Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve), and New Year’s Day.

And why not? Butter, sugar, and flour produce a tender/crumbly cookie that’s ridiculously easy to make. Just work the ingredients together, press into a couple of round cake pans, bake, and cut into wedges. I add non-traditional vanilla, and the merest touch of almond because those two flavors shout COOKIE to me. But feel free to add your own special flavor—how about butter-rum, or coconut?

And speaking of non-traditional, shortbread is a great base for a drizzle of melted chocolate or caramel; a shower of snowy pearl sugar, or even a dollop of apricot or raspberry jam, applied just before serving. Or all of the above. If you’re looking for an easy way to brighten the holiday cookie platter, you’ve found it.

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Although we usually use unsalted butter in the test kitchen, for shortbread we use salted. Why? Because with no liquid in the recipe, adding salt is problematic; it doesn’t disperse well and adds a slightly gritty texture. Salted butter is a good solution.

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First, beat together the butter, sugar, and vanilla; a touch of almond extract is welcome, too.

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Add the flour, mixing to make a cohesive dough. The mixture is quite dry; it’ll take awhile to come together. If it remains crumbly, dribble in up to a tablespoon of water to make it cohesive.

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Next, divide the dough in half. A scale makes this easy.

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See? Exactly half of the dough goes in each pan.

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Pat and press the dough to the edges of the pan with your fingers.

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To flatten and smooth, cover with plastic wrap and roll with a pastry roller. Or press with the bottom of a measuring cup.

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Remove the plastic wrap, and prick the dough all over with a fork; this will prevent it from bubbling as it bakes.

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Bake the shortbread till it’s a light golden brown, and a tiny bit darker brown around the edges.

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Loosen the edges of the shortbread…

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…and immediately turn it out onto a clean work surface. Notice how much browner the bottom is than the top. Cut into wedges with a long knife…

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…or with a rolling pizza wheel. Be sure to do this while the shortbread is warm; as it cools it becomes crisp, and cutting crumb-free, intact wedges becomes more of a challenge.

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Here they are, ready to enjoy. Or…

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…decorate and enjoy. We’ve drizzled these with caramel sauce; fudge sauce topped with diced nuts; and jam topped with shortbread crumbs.

Read, rate, and review (please!) our recipe for Shortbread.

Buy vs. Bake

Buy: Keebler’s Sandies shortbread cookies, 24¢/ounce
Walker’s shortbread fingers, 94¢/ounce

Bake at home: Plain shortbread, 15¢/ounce

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel was born in Wisconsin, grew up in New England, and graduated from Brown University. She was a journalist in Massachusetts and Maine before joining the King Arthur Flour Company in 1990, where she's been ever since. Author or co-author of three King Arthur ...

comments

  1. Stephanie

    I just made this over the weekend since it’s the one treat that my hubby actually requested.

    WOW is it tasty (I added some fresh grated nutmeg in lieu of the almond)! And the texture was fantastic – perfect for a cupa tea. And despite forgetting to dock the dough, I didn’t have any bubbles on the surface.

    Reply
  2. skeptic7

    There is a Keebler version with dark chocolate and almonds. I really love the almonds. How much almonds could be safely added?

    Don’t know, Skeptic. Are the almonds ground, chopped, or…? I say, when you’re not sure about something, wing it and see what happens – that’s the best way to find out. PJH

    Reply
  3. Brenda

    C’mon, now; this is cruel & unusual punishment. I’ve been doing fairly well not making anything pretty much nutritionally empty lately that would bug me ’til it’s gone, but it’s been years since I’ve made shortbread and suspect I’ll be taking a fresh batch out of the oven Saturday morning…thanks for all the great recipes and wonderful blog!

    Reply
  4. Catherine

    I always substitute a half cup or so of rice flour for the plain flour. This gives a slightly gritty, melt-in-the-mouth feel. Do you ever use cornflour or rice flour in these?

    Reply
  5. Lee

    Has anyone tried making this with Splenda or Splenda blend for baking? I’m a homesick diabetic Brit and would love some shortbread!!!

    Hi Lee – Not sure how it would work – but read our blog on baking sugar cookies with Splenda, because it would probably be much the same. Good luck – PJH

    Reply
  6. amy

    Can you decorate these with a glaze or royal icing like a sugar cookie?

    Yes, certainly. They’re the most basic type of sugar cookie. If the glaze or icing is too wet it’ll turn them soft, but so long as you accept that, it’s fine. PJH

    Reply
  7. Becca

    This looks great! Silly question: did you grease the cake pan before putting the shortbread in it?

    NOT a silly question at all. Actually, I lined the pan with parchment – that way the shortbread slips right out, no problem. Then I just peeled off the parchment, and cut the shortbread while it was warm. PJH

    Reply
  8. Cynthia

    Your “Shortbread Gone Wild” is one of my favorite recipes! It is pure heaven with a nice cup of Earl Grey tea on a dreary afternoon.
    And I wondered why my silicone pastry roller (bought specifically for shortbread) kept sticking to the dough! Plastic wrap is the secret. THANK YOU!

    Reply
  9. chiara

    Catherine, I think that the cornstarch in the confectioner’s sugar (which is added to prevent lumping) acts in the same way that rice flour would. I use rice flour too when I make shortbread but I usually use granulated sugar. So with confectioner’s sugar, I think you don’t need the rice flour.

    Reply
  10. katep

    I love shortbread & prefer it plain and simple; the only substitution I do is Fiore di Sicilia in place of the vanilla and almond. Talk about a flavor that screams COOKIE!! to me… Yum.

    Reply
  11. Alissa

    I love shortbread. I’ll have to try this recipe. Someone earlier mentioned making almond shortbread. I just made a hazelnut shortbread using a different recipe with 1 cup KA all purpose flour and 1 cup hazelnut flour/meal. They turned out great, especially with a drizzle of bittersweet chocolate on top. I’m sure you could sub almond meal/flour similarly.

    Yes, Alissa, nut flours work very well in shortbread – they contribute to both flavor and crumbly texture. Shortbread is actually one time you WANT your cookie to crumble! Thanks for the input – PJH

    Reply
  12. Eleanor A.

    How far in advance can this cookie be made? I’m having an open house this weekend. Thanks for you help and keep up the good works.
    Eleanor

    You can definitely make the shortbread now and store it tightly wrapped at room temperature, Eleanor. Just don’t top it with anything till this weekend. – PJH

    Reply
  13. Lee

    I LOVE shortbread! I like to use a little oat flour in mine – must be the Scot in me, I just love the sweet taste of oats. :)
    by the way I don’t think using Keebler cookies is a fair comparison – the homemade stuff with REAL butter is so much better it’s unfair to the fake stuff.

    Reply
  14. skeptic7

    How about a recipe for fudge sauce? Then I could just stick the almonds on top and not worry about using chopped almonds or sliced almonds or slivered almonds. Of course I could make a double batch of cookie dough, divide into four parts and add 1/2 cup of a different type of almond to each of three parts leaving one part plain as control. Then I could find some poor fool and ask him to award the prize to the tastiest. This could start an epic spawning cookie war.

    Take a look at the Fudge Sauce I blogged earlier this year. And as for your cookie war – send pictures!!! PJH

    Reply
  15. Shirley Meskenas

    A question I know you can answer. I have one of those fancy pans that have a design on the bottom made especially for shortbread. I’ve used it several times and when I turn the shortbread out, the design isn’t crisp and hardly visible. Do you have any suggestions on how I can make this work to have the pretty design. I believe I got the pan from KA.

    Shirley, it’s tough to get the design to be sharp. You could try substituting some shortening for the butter, but then you lose the taste. Be sure to bake thoroughly, as the design seems to show up a bit better on a darker crust. Also, try emailing bakers@kingarthurflour.com; our baker’s hotline folks might have some advice, something I’m not thinking of. Good luck – PJH

    Reply
  16. Beth

    Hi PJ, I’ve been thinking over the reasoning behind using salted butter in this recipe, which makes sense of course, but since all I have is unsalted butter (5 pounds of it at the moment), do you think it would work if I mixed or beat in a teaspoon of salt to the liquid flavorings before I added the flavorings to the butter and sugar? I’m glad you posted this blog. I knew there was another cookie I needed to make for Christmas. Thanks. Hi Beth, A 1/2 teaspoon of salt will do for this recipe. Molly @ KAF

    Reply
  17. Kim

    Could you use butter flavored shortening? Maybe half butter and half shortening? Or all shortening?

    You could use butter flavored shortening, or all shortening. Since butter is the main flavor, I think it would be quite – uh, bad tasting with shortening…. PJH

    Reply
  18. Liz

    This sounds close to my grandmother’s recipe but hers had a little less sugar and a little more flour and no extract (the extract hides the rich butter taste). Hers made double the amount (4 cakes). She was from Glasgow, Scotland and her recipe was:

    1 lb. butter
    1/2 cup icing (confectioner’s) sugar
    1/2 cup fruit (superfine granulated) sugar
    Enough flour to make the correct consistency (she used part rice flour when she could get it)

    Don’t you love old recipes? Since she passed away when I was seven, I never really learned the right consistency, but through years of trial and error, I came up with my own version that the whole family agreed was Nana’s.

    I have also made 2 other changes. One is based on discovering KA White Whole Wheat Flour and the other is my Kitchen Aid 525W 6 quart mixer. Nana always mixed hers by hand but I’m sure she would have used a mixer if she’d had one that wouldn’t burn up with the stiff dough. My recipe is:

    1 lb. butter
    1/2 cup icing (confectioner’s) sugar
    1/2 cup fruit (superfine granulated) sugar
    2 cups KA All Purpose Flour
    2 cups KA White Whole Wheat Flour
    1 cup white rice four (if you don’t have the rice flour, increase each of the other flours to 2 1/2 cups)

    I find it’s much better after it has sat in a tin or other container for a day or two; the flavor seems to develop over time.

    I also have several variations. For one, I just add 1/2 cup of mini semi-sweet morsels by hand after the dough is thoroughly mixed. For another, I substitute 1 cup of Almond Flour (toasted or not) for 1/2 cup each of the All Purpose and White Whole Wheat and add 2 tsp. almond extract. Sometimes I just add some lemon extract and a touch of lemon oil for a lemon shortbread. The variations are endless. (dipped in melted chocolate and chopped pecans, adding chopped (fill in your favorite variety) nuts, adding chopped dried fruit of your choice….)

    I’ve also found that there are as many different recipes to make shortbread as there are people who love it! I’m partial to this one that tastes like my grandmother’s; experiment around and you’ll find your favorite.

    P.S. I always used to make mine in those stoneware molds – different patterns for different flavors. One trick I found was to make sure they are baked enough otherwise the design isn’t too clear. Also, if you let them cool too long (more than 5 minutes) before you turn them out, they will stick. I got to the point where I found it easier to just form them into rounds freehand on my cookie sheets, dock them and use the fork to decorate the edges. I still have a few of the molds for decorative purposes.

    Liz, thank you SOOOOOO much for sharing. And yes, I love old recipes. Thanks for the tips, the variations – you’re making me anxious to go make more shortbread! :) PJH

    Reply
  19. Margaret Woodside

    I have been thinking about making shortbread for gifts this year. (My dad came from Edinburgh so shortbread is a tradition in my house.) I’m going to try your recipe because I’ve never made it with confectioner’s sugar. How about rolling shortbread for cutout cookies? Have you ever done that, PJ? I’d like to mail these.

    So long as it’s chilled enough, Margaret, I think this would roll out just fine. I wouldn’t roll it ultra-thin, probably 1/8″ to 3/16″ would be just about right. Go for it! PJH

    Reply
  20. Sandy

    I have been making shortbread for eons at Christmas. The recipe I use calls for superfine sugar instead of powdered sugar. It also comes out so tender that it just melts in the mouth. Shortbread is my all-time favorite cookie…not too sweet but so nice and buttery. Yum!

    Reply
  21. Susan H

    I have been making a shortbread with a similar proportion of ingredients for several years with finely chopped crystallized ginger (about 3 tablespoons for one 9″ pan). No other flavorings. My method is not traditional, but quick. I blend the dry ingredients and then add frozen butter all in the food processor. You will not have dough, but crumbs. Pat into the pan as in the recipe or bake in a loose bottom tart pan and no problem removing the baked cookie.

    Reply
  22. calli

    Since all I had was unsalted butter, I added 1/4 tsp salt to the butter and essences, beating it for 1 minute before adding the sugar. I also replaced about 2.5 oz of the flour with almond meal. Less than I wanted, but I wasn’t sure how far I could go without overdoing the “butter” factor. Came out great, crisp and crumbly.
    Thanks for another great recipe.

    Glad that worked for you, Calli. I had a lot of trouble trying to get the salt to disperse. If I’d had some Diamond Crystal (fine) salt, I think it would have been fine. And the almond meal is a wonderful idea, too. – PJH

    Reply
  23. Deanna Forget

    I made your delicious shortbread last weekend and it is nearly all gone. My son took it to work and his boss and another co-worker wanted the recipe. I put a whole almond on top of each cookie and sprinkled raw sugar on top before baking them. As they baked the raw sugar carmelized on top and made each piece glisten like snow. This is the best shortbread I’ve ever tried. My son-in-law who is scottish said they were better than his mother’s recipe. THAT is a compliment. Merry Xmas everyone. Laval, Quebec Canada

    What a great compliment – thanks for passing it along! And good idea, with the almond and raw sugar… PJH

    Reply
  24. Jessica

    I have a dairy allergy. Do you think I could use “futter” (fake butter) to get the same effect?

    No idea, Jessica. I’ve never heard of futter. Is it like margarine? You could try a non-dairy margarine. Will you get the same cookie? Not even close. Will you get something edible? Maybe. Probably. Depends on your definition. Your main issue will be taste, followed by texture; if there’s a lot of water in the substitute fat, the cookies will be hard, not tender/crunchy. All I can say is, go for it. You won’t know till you try. PJH

    Reply
  25. SusanM

    I love making shortbread adding the wonderful soft ginger that KA sells. A nice rounded tablespoon dollop is delicious.

    I have wondered about using Fiori di Sicilia. Its flavor is divine – would it blend in with the buttery flavor of shortbread?

    I too, have had difficulty in getting the celtic pattern on my shortbread pan to show up. What if I brushed the shortbread pan with oil before putting in the dough? It sounds like bringing coals to Newcastle, but perhaps it would aid in releasing the cooked shortbread?

    I’m having roughly 60 people over to my house next week for an early Wearin of the Green party – not on St. Pat’s day, as we can’t afford musicians then – and I expect to make a great deal of shortbread for the party. I’d love any suggestions before then on how to perfect the shortbread! Thanks

    Susan: a wee drop of Fiori in Shortbread wouldn’t be amiss; just remember that less is more, and you don’t want to overwhelm the butter.

    Brushing the mold with oil wouldn’t hurt, especially if it’s never been used before. But there’s really enough butter
    in the shortbread so that sticking shouldn’t be an issue. As for no holes, its more about packing the dough tightly into the mold than anything else. If you dough is pretty soft (room temperature) you can almost smear some of it into the design before packing the rest on top. We give the molds several hearty whacks on the counter to try and release any air bubbles. Once the mold is filled, I’d chill the dough a little bit before baking if it was very soft when you filled them so the butter firms up a little.

    As you probably know, shortbread actually improves a bit with some aging in an airtight container, so don’t hesitate to get ahead on your baking for all those people! Best of luck. Susan

    Reply
  26. Laurie

    My step-mom has a gluten allergy. Do you think it would be possible to substitute all the flour in this recipe with rice and/or corn flour to make it gluten free?

    I think they’ll be VERY crumbly; perhaps so crumbly you won’t be able to get them out of the pan whole. You could try it, but a better bet might be to find a cookie recipe in a gluten-free baking book and try that. I know gluten-free baking really requires some binders, like xanthan gum or tapioca starch, but I don’t know the exact percentages… Good luck – PJH

    Reply
  27. Chris

    I have been in love with Shortbread ever since my mom and I made them together as a kid. Nothing better that butter, flour and sugar, right? And after losing her recipe (SIGH!), and she can’t remember it now, I found that the KAF one was really really good! I like it simple as-is, with just a touch of suger sprinkled on right after cutting! Next to try some half chocolate dipped. Now, in order to surprise my mom this Christmas, I ordered the Shortbread Mold (which is no longer on your site, and I ordered it last week… weird..) to make some really spectacular cookies. But it didn’t come with instructions/recipes. Any help? Thanks in advance for all the great ideas and products!

    Chris, products come and go quickly during the holidays – it may be on back order temporarily, but never fear, we always offer some kind of shortbread mold. Please call our Hotline, 802-649-3717 – the mold is supposed to come with a little recipe booklet/instructions, I believe. They can help you out. Cheers – PJH

    Reply
  28. oldone

    oldone here. Having read all the above as well as the ‘watch how its done’ section, I want to roll and cut cookies, adding the raw sugar on top. My question is, how would I alter the baking time?
    Thanks.

    oldone

    Depends how thin you roll the cookies -the thinner the cookie, the shorter the bake time. I’d suggest baking 3 cookies first, as a test, removing one from the oven when it appears set; one when it has a brown edge, and one when the surface has started to brown, too. Let them cool, and see which you prefer, texture-wise. Then apply your results to the rest of the batch. Good luck – PJH

    Reply
  29. oldone

    Old one here again. No way these can be cut with cookie cutter – I tried, and thank heavens I only did the suggested three cookies, as I then used the rest of the dough in the two pans, and they turned out lovely, a great hit at the Buccaneer Yacht Club here in Mobile – and, yes, requests for the recipe, which I honored. Thanks.

    Old One

    Thanks for reporting back, OO- your feedback will help keep someone else from gong down that path… glad they were a hit, in the end. PJH

    Reply
  30. oldone

    OldOne here again. My first batch were so good that I made another today – total disaster. Even after dribbling in a bit of water, the dough didn’t come together in my stand mixer, so finally I scraped it all out, divided it between the two buttered pans, and pressed down with my fingers, using plastic wrap, and pricked and baked. One pan batch just fell apart, and the second held together and when cut into wedges, it was a bit crumbly.

    I know the recipe works as the first batch was very good, and I believe the failure of the dough to come together was the cause of this disaster. I’ll try again next week, but would appreciate any suggestions.
    It sounds like you have too much flour in your dough. We recommend measuring flour this way: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipe/measuring-flour.html. If you’re still having problems, please give us a call on the Baker’s Hotline 1-800-827-6836 ~Mel

    Reply
  31. oldone

    OldOne here again. I will do the hotline all, and appreciate very much your being here for us.

    I do measure flour the KA way, fluffing it up and spooning it into the measuring cup, your method which has stood me in good stead for years. The batch of flour and the box of confectioner’s sugar was the same used for the previous successful recipe. I’ve received several requests for the recipe, but hesitate to pass it on until this problem has been sorted out.

    Thanks again, and I will call tomorrow.

    OldOne

    I’m sure our team of savvy bakers will be able to help you out, OO – PJH

    Reply
  32. oldone

    Just discussed my problem with your baker, and the diagnosis was that my butter had gotten too soft; and he advised me as follows: if the dough won’t come together, to scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl and with floured hands to shape the dough into a ball in order to divide.

    This I will try and post the results, and my thanks to all.

    OldOne

    Reply
  33. oldone

    This is a note of thanks to Frank,the baker who talked me through my mistake of letting the butter get too soft, resulting in a batch that fell apart. I just made a perfect batch of these shortbread cookies, and they are just as they should be, solid, tender, delicious. Great recipe, great products, and a very nice young man who truly made my day.

    OldOne

    Reply
  34. tikidoc

    I don’t have a huge sweet tooth but I love shortbread. I add a TB of chopped fresh rosemary to the mix, and then sprinkle just a little kosher salt on top before baking. It is amazing. I find the plain ones a little one dimensional, and unless you are talking about dipping them in dark chocolate (YUM), most of the toppings discussed make them too sweet for me.

    I also substitute some of the flour with whole wheat pastry flour to delude myself into thinking it has some nutritional value! I have substituted 1/4 of the flour (by weight) with good results but may try upping it some more next time. At 1/4, I can’t tell the difference and neither can the kids.

    Lastly, making the wedges makes a small number of big cookies (translation – gone fast). So I can make them last a little longer (portion control), I take the dough and make a long log that I wrap in a piece of parchment or plastic wrap, kind of like making a compound butter. Pop in the fridge until firm (or make ahead and bake off as needed) and slice into little rounds.

    Happy Holidays, PJ!!!

    Jess

    Jess, love the idea of pairing herbs and salt with the sweet – I’m totally going to try that. And I like the log idea for making smaller cookies, too – although, I’ve never EVER had success with logs. they always get flat on one side, and I slice them lopsided… But for those more coordinated than I, sounds like a plan! PJH

    Reply
  35. tikidoc

    PJ, I agree, mine were not perfectly round, so if I needed perfect looking cookies, I would go for the wedges. But in order to keep my family from snarfing them down in one evening, (“yes, you can have ONE more shortbread cookie, but that’s it!” – imagine how fast they would go with big wedges!), I sacrifice looks a little. One thing that helps is taking out the log when it is firmer but not yet hard and rolling it a little more to even it out, then back in the fridge. As for slicing, I have a bench scraper with a ruler on it, I score the log first then cut, and they are pretty uniform. Still not perfect, but close enough. Besides, they look homemade, and they disappear so fast, nobody cares if they look perfect.

    I gave out tons of treat bags at work this year (rosemary shortbread, choc.chip cookies, PB cookies, oatmeal cc cookies, homemade marshmallows, caramel corn, and English toffee), and just about everyone asked for the shortbread and toffee recipes. The two simplest recipes in the bunch, by the way.

    Let me if you like the rosemary and salt!

    Jess

    Reply
  36. oldone

    Well, Oldone just made another, and perfect, batch of these cookies, this time adding a cup of toasted and finely chopped pecans – living here in the south where pecans grow – heh heh heh – and even though I neglected to punch the little holes, this batch was perfect. Thanks again, KAF!

    Oldone

    Oldone, you’re totally going to town. I crown you the Shortbread Expert! Thanks for sharing your success here – PJH

    Reply
  37. stephendag

    Solstice shortbread, and I’m having a cookie party on December 21. Perfect!

    I have the snowflake shortbread pan from KAF. Would the recipe here work for that pan? Do I need to make any adjustments?

    Thanks! Stephen

    Stephen, you could definitely use the shortbread pan, though you’ll need another pan, as well, since the recipe needs two pans. Or bake in batches. You may need to bake a slight bit longer in stone, rather than metal, but just keep your eye on it – when it’s a light golden brown around the edges and feels set in the middle, it’s done. Good luck – PJH

    Reply
  38. judy

    The picture shows square cookies instead of wedges. What size pan should be used to do the square
    version?
    Thanks,
    Judy

    Reply
  39. gayle

    I also want to use my new shortbread pan, do I need to prick the dough with a fork when using the square pan? Also since it says it’s non stick, should you still spray it with something like Pam and lighly flour it?
    Thanks Gayle

    Reply
    1. PJ Hamel , post author

      Gayle, yes, still prick it – this lets the steam escapes and prevents it from ballooning up as it bakes. And I’d still spray with some non-stick vegetable oil spray, though no need to flour. Good luck – PJH

  40. Dawn

    I know this is an older post, but skimming through the comments I saw some questions about using shortbread for cutout cookies. You can absolutely make cutouts from shortbread dough. I have done it many times. I chill the dough before cutting and then freeze it for at least few minutes before popping it in the oven. That helps it hold its shape in the oven. I’ve actually had better success doing this with shortbread dough than some sugar cookie doughs I’ve tried.

    Now for my question. How much liquid can you safely mix into the dough before making a big ol’ mess of it. I’d like to incorporate some of the boiled cider I recently bought from you. It’s fairly thick, so I was wondering if I could get away with a couple of tablespoons. Have you ever tried it? I’m up for the experiment, but thought I’d ask some pros first. ;)

    Reply
    1. MaryJane Robbins

      HI Dawn,
      I think you could safely add at least a heaping tablespoon of cider to the dough without any trouble. That should be enough to flavor the batch, and then maybe brush with a little cider glaze. ~ MJ

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