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You should not be making shortbread cookies without this ingredient

A very simple yet very festive Christmas cookie.

All due respect to shortbread cookies, but sometimes they are just Too Much.

Perhaps the simplest cookie to ever exist, classic shortbread is typically just three ingredients: flour, sugar and butter. So much butter.

Shortbread is a treasured holiday tradition in my house. My grandma’s classic Christmas cookie was a shortbread cookie. Growing up, no December trip to the mall was complete without a stop at Barnie’s Coffee and Tea Co. for a Cookies and Cream Freezer and a two-pack of Walkers Shortbread.

There is nothing wrong with classic shortbread. But when I saw a recent roundup of holiday cookie recipes on Food52, I was immediately drawn to one: Salted Rosemary Shortbread. This is the second year I’ve made a rosemary-esque shortbread cookie for the holidays, and the second year it is the first cookie to disappear.

The hearty herb gives the classic cookie just a little something extra, offering a fragrant hint of pine perfect for this time of year. It also cuts through all that butter, creating a more nuanced cookie with all the delights of shortbread.

Shortbread cookies already trend in a more savory direction, and rosemary reinforces that with a gentle touch. It’s not the kind of flavor you can immediately suss out; if you don’t tell anyone there is rosemary in these, they may not know, in a good way.

The original recipe calls for grapefruit zest, which makes for an inspired pairing (and also makes me want a gin-rosemary-grapefruit cocktail). I made these twice, and used lemon zest the second time with equally good results. That little bit of acidic, citrus tang helps brighten the cookie and bring out the rosemary.

Don’t skimp on the salt on top, even if it sounds weird. It’s crucial to balancing the flavors of this cookie, too. If you don’t have flaky sea salt (add it to your Christmas list immediately), regular sea salt or even kosher salt would work in a pinch.

I omitted one of the other original ingredients, rice flour, because I did not want to buy one more cookiemaking thing, and found that all-purpose worked just fine. Rice flour would give the cookies a slightly lighter, crispier quality.

These are cooked in a square pan, then cut right in the pan while they are still warm. I think they would benefit from a short second baking, kind of like biscotti, once you get them out of that square pan, just to really crisp up the edges.

But you probably don’t have time for that this time of year, so that step is purely optional, as the beauty of this recipe lies in its simplicity. Also in the fragrant touch of that rosemary. I’ll never make shortbread cookies without it again.

Rosemary Shortbread Cookies

Rosemary shortbread
Rosemary shortbread [ MICHELLE STARK | Tampa Bay Times ]

1 ½ plus ⅓ cups unbleached all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, very finely chopped

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

½ cup granulated sugar, plus more for topping

2 teaspoons finely grated grapefruit or lemon zest

Flaky sea salt, for topping

Line a 8- by 8-inch baking pan (preferably glass) with parchment paper, leaving overhang on two sides.

Whisk together all-purpose flour, rosemary and salt; set aside.

Combine the butter, ½ cup sugar and grapefruit or lemon zest in the bowl of a stand mixer and beat with paddle attachment on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, 2 to 3 minutes, scraping down bowl as needed.

Add flour mixture. Beat on low speed until crumbly, then increase speed to medium and beat until well combined, scraping down bowl as needed, about 2 minutes more. Transfer dough to prepared pan, then spread and press dough evenly into pan (I used my hands), smoothing the top. Chill until firm, at least 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Prick shortbread all over with a fork. Sprinkle evenly with more sugar, then sprinkle flaky salt over. I used about 1 tablespoon of each.

Bake until golden brown around edges and evenly golden on surface, 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from oven and immediately cut shortbread (still in pan) into four 2-inch-wide strips lengthwise. Rotate pan 90 degrees and make eight 1-inch-wide cuts perpendicular to the first ones to make 32 rectangular cookies.

Let cool completely in pan. Using parchment, lift cookies out of pan. At this point, you could place them on a baking sheet, parchment and all, and bake in a 350-degree oven for another 5 to 7 minutes, until just lightly golden brown all over. But you definitely don’t have to.

Cookies can be baked, cut and cooled 1 week in advance. Store at room temperature in an airtight container, or freeze for up to 3 months.

Makes 32 cookies.

Source: Adapted from Carla Lalli Music