Shortbread cookies are so addictive — buttery rich and melt-in-your-mouth.
But what version are we talking about? Kindred to Scotland, shortbread cookies are quite different in size, shape and taste depending on the kitchen they are baked in and the culture they come from. And they are found in many cultures.
In India, nankhatai are made with clarified butter (ghee) and spiced with cardamom. In Greece, kourabiedes are covered with powdered sugar and baked for the Christmas holidays. In Italy, canestrelli sometimes use hard-cooked egg yolks in the cookie dough.
Why is this cookie called shortbread? Short, in baking terms, means crumbly. The first shortbread was believed to have been baked like bread in a high-temperature oven. The high fat content provided by butter or shortening or lard (manteca in Spanish) gives this cookie a crumbly but soft texture.
My favorite version is a classic in Puerto Rico: the not-so-sweet mantecadas. In Puerto Rico, a bakery, or panadería, is the best place to get freshly baked mantecadas or mantecaditos each morning.
Daisy Martinez, a TV chef and cookbook author, has an authentic version of this Puerto Rican cookie in her book, Daisy: Morning, Noon and Night. Her thumbprint cookie is mixed by hand and has a classic guava filling. She uses just butter in her recipe, which bakes into a flavorful and soft cookie. She considers this cookie typical of a leisurely Puerto Rican breakfast. That's my kind of breakfast.
My recipe variation adds the nutty flavor of almond flour. I intensify the flavors with the addition of lemon zest, getting the most flavor from any citrus zest by simply rubbing the sugar and zest together until fragrant.
A stand mixer on low speed gently mixes the dough ingredients. I start with cold butter pieces and slowly mix in the dry ingredients, much like making a biscuit. The cookie is rolled in vanilla sugar just before baking for just a bit of crunch.
I'm also suggesting three tasty choices for fillings that include tropical flavors and jams.
Contact Lorraine Fina Stevenski at email@example.com.
Puerto Rican Shortbread Cookies (Mantecadas) With Strawberry Jam
¾ cup finely granulated sugar
Zest of 1 lemon
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup almond flour
½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), cold, cut into small pieces
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon pure almond extract
¼ cup vanilla sugar, or cane sugar
⅓ cup strawberry jam, stirred to a smooth consistency
In a medium mixing bowl, add the sugar and lemon zest. With your fingers, rub the zest into the sugar until the mixture is fragrant and moistened.
To the bowl of a stand mixer, add the flour, almond flour, sugar/lemon zest mixture and salt. On low speed, mix a few seconds to blend. Continuing on low speed, add the cold butter pieces and mix until there is no trace of butter pieces and a crumbly dough forms.
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On medium-low speed, add the eggs and vanilla and almond extracts. Beat just until the dough is smooth and holds together. Turn the dough out on a lightly floured surface and knead into a ball. Form into tablespoon-sized balls using a cookie scoop. The dough will be very soft. Arrange on a quarter-sheet pan, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes to firm up.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line three half-sheet pans with parchment paper. Remove the formed cookies from the refrigerator and re-roll with your hands to soften the dough. Roll in the vanilla sugar and arrange about 12 on each cookie sheet. The cookies will not spread too much. Make an indentation in the middle of each cookie about ½ inch deep. Use the pointy tip of a lemon reamer. With a teaspoon, fill with just enough jam to fill the hole but not drip over.
Bake for about 15 minutes or just until golden brown around the edges. Let the cookies cool on the sheet for 15 minutes to firm up.
Makes about 32 cookies.
Source: Adapted from Daisy: Morning, Noon and Night by Daisy Martinez
Try these variations:
Orange and fig: Replace lemon zest in recipe with 1 tablespoon orange zest and mix it with the sugar. For the filling, add 1 tablespoon orange zest and a pinch of allspice to ⅓ cup fig preserves and stir until smooth.
Lemon and orange: Make dough as directed but add ¼ teaspoon lemon extract. For the filling, use ⅓ cup orange marmalade, stirring until smooth but some orange rind still remains.
Pineapple, lime and toasted coconut: Replace lemon zest in recipe with 1 tablespoon lime zest and mix it with the sugar. To the dough, add ¼ cup coarsely ground toasted coconut and 1 tablespoon cream of coconut. For the filling, add 1 tablespoon cream of coconut to ⅓ cup pineapple preserves and mix.
Guava: For this classic filling, use ⅓ cup guava jelly, stirred until smooth.