Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cinnamon Cranberry Shortbread . . . Simplify the Christmas Cookie Marathon!

When your holiday to-do list is longer than the tobaggon hanging on the wall in your garage, how do you  find the time and energy to enjoy non-critical tasks like making cookies without that activity, too, seeming like just another chore? If you're like me, every year you wish you had the time and gusto to make at least a dozen varieties of Christmas cookies, some from brand new recipes and some from old faithfuls. In theory, the cookie-baking marathon sounds so delightful, doesn't it?

Think about it. There you are, bustling around in the kitchen, carols playing in the background, snowflakes twinkling on the window sill. Maybe you're even wearing that cute apron--the one that's been in a drawer for the past ten years because you've never had the guts to expose it to robust molasses or melted dark chocolate? I know, I know. I've been there. Sometimes the Christmas cookie mega-bake experience is just a pipe dream.

But then again, maybe it's not? I figure the answer to this dilemma is two-fold. It requires breaking the work down into chunks--like making the doughs all in one long work session, and then baking the cookies in another. Of course, even that prospect can be daunting. So if you're really stressed, consider making it easier on yourself by using just one base recipe for a simple but fail-proof cookie that can be adapted with any number of different flavorings or add-ins.

Shortbread is a perfect candidate for this approach because:
  • it's comprised of very few ingredients and mixes together fairly quickly
  • it handles easily compared to stickier roll-out doughs for gingerbread or sugar cookies
  • it can be pressed into tart pans by hand, or rolled out and cut with cookie cutters
  • it bakes slowly and at a low temperature, which greatly minimizes the chances of burning the cookies
  • it's sturdy and not delicate, thus not problematic to store or ship
  • it has a long shelf life and can handle reasonable variations in temperature
  • it can be customized with the addition of chocolate, with finely chopped nuts or dried fruits, or any variety of extracts--try vanilla, citrus, or almond
  • the finished cookies can be dipped in melted chocolate, glazed with a thin icing, or sprinkled with sugar

Just remember, don't fiddle with the the proportions of flour, sugar, and butter. They're kind of sacrosanct in a scenario like this. But everything else is up for grabs. Really. It's a miracle cookie. It's the original Christmas Miracle Cookie! Not kidding. So don't panic if you committed to producing a zillion cookies for this office party and that church event. Stick with one basic recipe, adjust it to suit your whims, and everything will be fine. These cinnamon cranberry shortbread cut-outs are a case-in-point. Made from a recipe I adapted, they won't let you down.

This is adapted from the classic shortbread recipe in Dede Wilson's book, The Baker's Field Guide to Christmas Cookies.

Cinnamon Cranberry Shortbread Cookies
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line a couple of cookie sheets with parchment paper.

1 lb. of unsalted butter, softened (4 sticks)
1 cup granulated sugar, plus a little extra for sprinkling
5 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp. salt (a generous 1/4 tsp.; I think a wee bit of salt is vital in a cookie--without it, it's just flat)
3 drops vanilla extract
2 drops almond extract
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon (or less, if you prefer; more, though, can overpower this recipe)
3/4 cup dried cranberries chopped very small (loosely packed into the measuring cup)

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, and cinnamon. Set aside. 

In the large bowl of your mixer, beat the butter at medium high speed for three minutes, until light and fluffy. Still on medium high speed, slowly pour in the sugar over a period of about 8 minutes (yes, I said 8 minutes), until the mixture is almost white in color and extremely fluffy. Add in the vanilla and almond extracts.

Now on the lowest speed, add in the flour mixture in three portions, mixing just until each portion is  incorporated. Pour in the cranberry pieces and beat only until they seem fairly evenly distributed in the dough, not long at all. The dough should not be so soft that it needs to be chilled before rolling.

Divide the dough into thirds. Working with one third at a time, on a lightly floured work surface, roll the dough out to about 1/4" thickness--no thinner. Using small cookie cutters of your choice, firmly cut the pieces and place them carefully onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet. They can be placed pretty close together as they'll spread very, very little in the oven. Sprinkle each cookie with a couple pinches of granulated sugar.

Bake each tray for approximately 15 minutes or more, checking the cookies regularly; remove them from the oven when they just start to turn slightly golden around the edges. They're not supposed to become golden brown all over. Allow them to cool on the pans for 10 minutes before removing them to cooling racks.

Alternately, you can press the dough evenly into 8" or 9" tart pans with removable bottoms. This is a very quick and easy method if you don't feel like using cookie cutters. Sprinkle sugar on top and place the pans on top of cookie sheets to bake. If you make them this way, slice the baked cookies pie-wedge fashion while they're still somewhat warm from the oven; if you wait to slice them until they're cool, they'll be far more prone to breaking apart.

(If you'd like to comment on this post, or to read any existing comments, please click on the purple COMMENTS below!)


All That's Left Are The Crumbs said...

Sometimes I find it hard to get motivated to make cookies because I live in a tropical climate. These however could definitely motivate me to get in the kitchen and do some baking.

Unknown said...

That is a great idea on the shortbread! I want to make packages for people but always lack a big variety.

Holly said...

Love those recipes that make a bunch and you can change up!! These sound really good:)

Taylor said...

I love Christmas baking but sometimes I get so overwhelmed by all of the options! I love these shortbread and all of the different options!

Anonymous said...

These are so Christmas-y! I love the recipe you put together. These cookies are beautiful.

Josipa said...

I really, really like them! Today, I bought some cranberries and this looks like the perfect recipe to use them. :)

Mary said...

You have described my feeling about baking Christmas cookies perfectly! I usually make so many versions and get myself completely frazzled. So, this year, I am not making rolled sugar cookies, and I am not going to feel like I have to make so many varieties. I also have a friend who sends fabulous shortbread, so I am going to focus on something different this year. Your idea is a great one, and it looks like you have already managed to make a ton. Great work!

Jane said...

Hi Felice,
A tropical climate, huh? We have the opposite problem here--trying to stay warm! Having the oven on really helps.
Keep on baking!
Jane :)

Hi Jennifurla,
I know what you mean. I had to make cookies for my husband to take to work a couple days ago, and I really hoped to make quite a variety but just couldn't accomplish that. Ended up with four or five tops, and a couple of them were shortbreads!
:) Jane

Hi there Holly,
Thanks very much for your comment and for visiting!

Hello Taylor--
The options, the options! You are so right about them being overwhelming. There are more Christmas cookie recipes out there than anyone could possibly count. Just narrowing down the choices is a task in itself!
Don't let yourself get too overwhelmed, lady! :)
Merry Christmas,

Dear WarmVanillaSugar,
Thank you so much for such nice words!
:) Jane

Hi Josipa,
Well, it certainly is the time to use those cranberries. Seems like I've been baking with them an awful lot this fall. Can't beat 'em!
:) Jane

Dear Mary,
Sounds like we're kindred spirits in the cookie department! It's so easy to let oneself get completely frazzled this time of year, I agree with you. I have to guard against it. It can be hard to know where to start, there are just so many things to be done. We need to remember to relax and just enjoy! Happy holidays to you!
Jane :) said...

Wow I missed this post, not good :-), good thing I just saw it....

I wish I could have some of these marvelous cookies. As always your baking inspires.
I also like all the different shapes you made with this recipe, very clever :-)

Anne said...

Your shortbread looks absolutely picture perfect Jane! You know, cookies are my favorite thing to make but I still can't get motivated to make them for neighbor gifts. You make it look easy though (and your pictures are stunning as usual!)

Anonymous said...

Just a little note...the recipe doesn't say when to incorporate the vanilla and almond...

Anonymous said...

A little disappointed, very crumbly, I am not sure I will be able to even roll it out...

Anonymous said...

I couldn't roll it out, I ended up throwing the whole thing away. I was really looking forward to this too :(

Jane said...

Dear Anonymous,
Thanks very much for letting me know that the directions didn't say when to add in the vanilla and almond extracts. I fixed that in the post and will fix it in the printable version as well. I am so sorry that your cookie dough turned out badly. I can't say that I know why that happened. Did you measure your flour carefully (perhaps too much flour in your batch)? I have made this recipe more than once and had no problems with it at all. As I noted, the recipe is essentially from A Baker's Field Guide to Christmas Cookies, and I simply followed their basic formula, just adding in my own flavorings and spices. Again, I'm really sorry it did not work for you and I appreciate your feedback.
-- Jane

Anonymous said...

Too crumbly for me, too. I added more softened butter to fix it. (extra 3/4 stick extra for 1/2 batch)