Hands down, my grandma is the best baker I’ve ever known. Of course, she is also a great cook; I still sometimes make scrambled eggs the way she did, low, slow, and creamy, in the same continental style Julia Child championed. But, grandma always seemed to be baking — probably because we were always eating. Demand was high. Sorry and thank you, grandma.
One of my favorite possessions (uh, borrowed possessions) is this old notebook of my mom’s, full of handwritten recipes and the occasional sewing patterns. 1970s Home Ec in Lithuania was no joke, it seems. She started the notebook in school, but went on to collect other favorite recipes from friends and relatives. This habit continued when we moved to the States in 1996 — toward the end, there are clippings for spinach dip and a handwritten recipe for a coworker’s holiday cookies, which I find charming. There’s a lot of range in this tattered little notebook.
Somewhere in the middle it includes a recipe for these cookies (above). It’s actually in my sister’s handwriting, probably recorded for posterity on a weekend visit to my grandparents’.
It’s kind of an odd recipe, to me and probably to you, too. No traditional cream-the-butter-and-sugar-add-flour affair here. My grandma actually made a sugar syrup first by boiling sugar and a bit of water. Then, she’d add a slurry of flour and water to the mix, cook it a little more, and cool the mixture before adding to the butter. I always liked the texture of these, though the differences from traditional shortbread are subtle. I’d say it’s a touch less crumbly, but otherwise, a buttery, familiar classic.
Shortbread purists would also tell us that this isn’t shortbread. Traditionally, shortbread is one part sugar, two parts butter, three parts flour. That’s it. Although the ratios are close, this contains a little baking powder and a touch of vanilla extract. That said, as you can see, the cookies neither look nor feel leavened. As for the extract — that’s just good manners, especially when it’s vanilla.
Flavor and texture aside, the look of these is a crucial piece of the nostalgia puzzle for me. My grandma had this rad waffle-patterned rolling pin. Sort of like a springerle rolling pin, but with a series of tiny squares. She’d often use that on her shortbread — other times, she’d roll it out flat, and use whatever was around to cut out circles and half-moons, and imprint interesting patterns on top. My sister and I both have a bit of a creative streak, and I’m sure it’s our grandmother’s influence. She was always baking, sewing, knitting — making stuff in one way or another. It looked like domesticity to me then, but now it looks like ingenuity.
Anyway, the waffle pattern. I made up for it with an egg wash and a sprinkle of coarse sugar. Traditional shortbread is supposed to be a creamy white color, baked at low temperatures. You can see these got a little browner than traditional shortbread anyway. I don’t mind, but I made notes in the recipe for you to make some adjustments, if you’d like.
Speaking of tan shortbread… Did you read what I was saying above about the sugar syrup and think, “Why not take it a step further and just caramelize the sugar?” I’m right there with you, and I’m thinking there’s a way to brown the butter while we’re at it to make the brownest, nuttiest, most intense not-shortbread (tallbread?) possible. I’ll get to it, but for now, I just wanted to record the recipe as is.
I am wholeheartedly planning on slowly but surely making my way through that lovely old notebook. I promised my mom I’d give it back, after all, and I’m sure I will. Eventually. Eventually, give or take a couple years.
Get ready for some vintage and foreign fun, gang! I saw a recipe in there for a milkshake with a whole egg, orange juice, and apple juice. I don’t remember my mom ever making anything like that, but who knows? It might be awesome. It might be terrible. One thing is certain: things might get weird.
But for now, innocent, traditional vanilla. We’ll ease into it together.
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- 2 cups flour, divided use
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- An egg, for egg wash
- Coarse sugar, like turbinado, for sprinkling on top (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. (Note: I actually would recommend trying this at 325, keeping baking time the same. I will update the recipe once I try it and know for sure). Prepare two large cookie sheets by lining with parchment paper.
- In a small saucepan, combine granulated sugar with a tablespoon of water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. While mixture is heating up, combine 2 tablespoons of the flour with 2 tablespoons of water and stir well to make a slurry. When sugar mixture is bubbly and sugar is melted, whisk in the flour slurry. Keep cooking the mixture, whisking constantly, for a couple of minutes. Remove from heat and cook, whisking often to keep sugar crystals from forming.
- Beat the room-temperature butter with a handheld mixer on medium-high speed until creamy, 1-2 minutes. Slowly add in the sugar and flour mixture, beating until well combined. Beat in the baking powder and vanilla extract.
- Lower mixer speed to low and beat in the flour slowly. Mixture will be crumbly. Use your hands to bring it together into a ball.
- Divide dough in half and, on a floured surface, roll out until about 1/3-inch thick. Use a pastry cutter (a pizza cutter will do just fine, too) to cut dough into strips about 3/4-inch by 2-inch strips. Transfer to cookie sheets, spacing about an inch apart.
- To make egg wash, whisk together an egg with a tablespoon of water or milk. Use a pastry brush (I found using my fingertips easier--these are pretty delicate) to thinly coat the tops of cookies. Follow with a sprinkle of coarse sugar.
- Bake for 12-14 minutes, until browned at the edges. Cool briefly on cookie sheet, then transfer cookies to rack to cool completely.
- Makes 50-ish 2-inch cookies.