My connection to the 4th of July picnic people yielded me an invitation to a reception at their house here in town organized by a local environmental group. When I responded to the invitation, I asked if I could bring something to share. I didn’t have a lot of time on my hands, so it needed to be something I could throw together quickly. Something that didn’t need a fussy presentation. The field was narrowing by the minute.
As luck would have it, I was again today catching up on podcasts from The Splendid Table. Lynne Rosetto Kasper had a conversation with food writer and former chef Sally Schneider, who writes the beautiful blog The Improvised Life, in which she talked about various herbed salts. In addition to the Tuscan blend which she made for Lynne, she also served some cookies she had prepared with a blend of sea salt, lavender and rosemary. One taste took Lynne’s breath away. Just listening to her response told me I had to have them.
I don’t know what sort of cookies they were, but I had a feeling that shortbread, given its relatively high butter content (okay, its off the charts butter content) would be a good vehicle for deeply floral/herbal flavors. Plus, there is no faster or easier cookie: throw all the ingredients into the bowl of a mixer, turn it on, scrape the dough into a baking pan, press it flat with your hands, bake it.
I’m in love with this new twist on an old favorite. I’ve been making a basic version of these for years. They are my daughter’s all-time favorite cookie, and I think of her every time I make them. Now that I’m thinking of her, I need to make another batch to wrap up and send to her.
Makes a dozen 1.5″ square cookies
1 tablespoon sea or kosher salt
2 teaspoons dried organic lavender blossoms (if you can cut some of your own, lucky you!)
1 teaspoon minced rosemary leaves
3 strips of lemon zest cut into very narrow ribbons
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup powdered sugar
12 ounces room temperature unsalted butter*
A couple of tablespoons of powdered sugar for dusting
Lemon zest for garnish
* When I need room temperature butter, I leave it out overnight. Actually, I hide it in a cupboard so the cats don’t think I left a treat for them. I used to stash it in the oven until . . . well, I didn’t pass GO, but instead proceeded directly to step 1 below too many times.
- Preheat your oven to 325º.
- First listen to the podcast so you can hear them rhapsodizing over salt blends. Then make the blend for these cookies. On a cutting board, mince together the salt, lavender blossoms, rosemary, and lemon zest. Keep working the knife through everything over and over until everything is very finely minced and fragrant beyond belief.
- Could you cut to the chase and pulse everything in a coffee or spice grinder? Of course. But really, why would you? You would miss the satisfaction of hearing the salt crystals crunch beneath your knife, miss being intoxicated by the heady blend of fragrances perfuming your kitchen, your hands, your life. You’d miss the most fragrant five minutes of your day.
- Measure the flour and powdered sugar into the bowl of a mixer fitted with the paddle. Chop the butter into cubes of 1″ or so and dot them over the surface of the dry ingredients. Scatter the minced blend over the top.
- Begin mixing on low speed. Actually, I pulse the motor (On-Off-On-Off) a few times to break up the butter and keep flour from shooting out over the edge of the bowl, then set it to low speed. The mixture will go through a phase of looking dry and crumbly, much like coarse cornmeal. Very coarse. Mix it just beyond that point until you can see clumps beginning to form around the edges of the bowl. If you mix it much longer, it will turn into a dense paste. It’s not the end of the world if that happens (God knows, I’ve done it enough times – multitasking, you know), but it just makes the dough harder to spread out evenly.
- I used a 10″ x 10″ baking pan. You don’t even need to butter or spray it. This dough contains enough butter that it couldn’t possibly stick to anything. If you have a white plastic scraper, use it to scoop the dough into the baking pan and nudge it out into a relatively even layer. While you use your hands to press the dough out into an even layer across the pan, you’ll be thinking of a tool that would make it easier or perhaps more even. There isn’t one. I’ve tried many ways, and always revert to using my hands. I’m told by friends with exceptionally long fingernails, real and otherwise, that a rice paddle presses along the edges nicely after they’ve gotten as close to them with their hands as they are able. Don’t worry if you can see finger ridges. They’ll disappear during baking. Press very firmly. If you don’t, the cookies will tend to be crumbly after they’re baked.
- Just before you set the baking pan in the oven, prick the dough all over with a fork; this is called docking, and it will create vents for moisture to evaporate without creating large, destabilizing bubbles in your dough. Bake for 30-35 minutes. The surface should be a light golden brown.
- Remove the baking pan from the oven. You need to cut the cookies immediately right in the pan; if you wait until they’re cool, they will tend to shatter when cut. I cut them into 1.5″ squares by dividing the pan in half one way, then divide the halves in half. I turn it 90 degrees and do the same thing on the other axis. They are so rich and deeply flavored that that size is perfect. Don’t worry if your squares aren’t perfectly square – mine rarely are. Allow them to cool completely before depanning.
- Before depanning the cookies, once again run a knife through all of your previous cuts just in case some grew back together while they were cooling. The first one can be a bugger to remove, but if you ease it out gently with a sharp knife, the rest will slip out easily with a narrow spatula. You could set a cutting board on top of the pan and invert them both, but the cookies tend to look a bit battered after being dumped upside down, then turned right side up.
- Remove the cookies to a serving platter. Garnish them with some sprigs of lavender blossoms from your garden if you have some. If not, scatter a few dried blossoms over the cookies along with some additional lemon zest.
Be prepared to take someone’s breath away. Even it it’s your own.