Scottish in origin, shortbread cookies (or biscuits) weren't a popular baked good until the 16th century when butter was widely accepted and regulary used in kitchens. A recipe with a simple foundation of butter, sugar, and flour, this rich dough is characterized by its fragile, crumbly texture. Shortbread cookies are now ubiquitous in coffee shops, bakeries, and markets around the world. Ranging from high-end, oh-so-tender cookies to mass-market boxes barely reminiscent of their namesake, the quality of butter and ingredients has a significant impact on the flavor, color, and texture of shortbread. As versatile as the dough is, I most frequently spot this sweet biscuit with a classic vanilla flavoring. Surely a crowd pleaser, but here we've updated a traditional recipe with a touch of savory.
Complete disclosure: shortbreads are usually the last choice I'd make when faced with a case of fancier options, but this recipe has changed my mind. We adapted a shortbread recipe from the incredibly talented, Kir Jensen, a Portland baker giving locals sugar highs with treats out of her tiny food cart, The Sugar Cube, and author of an upcoming cookbook. We think her addition of cornmeal is genius. Here, fennel pollen and citrus zest is mixed into the dough for a floral, herbaceous lift, and flaky sea salt is sprinkled over the top for crunch and flavor. The intoxicating perfume of fennel pollen is subtle yet vivid when combined with sea salt, and the simultaneous effect of sweet and savory makes it impossible to stop at just one bite.
Fennel Sea Salt Shortbread Cookies
Makes about 4 dozen
Adapted from Kir Jensen
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup finely ground cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 3/4 teaspoons fennel pollen
2 large egg yolks, room temperature
1/4 cup superfine sugar for coating
Sea salt for topping
In a medium bowl whisk together flour, cornmeal, and salt. In a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, beat together butter and sugar until well-incorporated, but not fluffy, about 1 minute. Scrape down bowl, beat in zest, fennel pollen, and egg yolks one at a time, beating just to combine. Scrape down bowl. With mixer on low speed, add in dry ingredients and mix just to combine.
Scrape dough out onto a floured surface, form into a ball, and divide in half. With floured hands, shape each half into a 12-inch-long log, pressing sides against work surface and hands to make 4 flat edges so the cookies will be square. Wrap tightly in plastic wrap, twist ends, and refrigerate for at least 3 hours or until completely firm.
Heat oven to 350°F. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Put superfine sugar in a small bowl. Cut each log crosswise into 1/2-inch thick slices. Toss each in sugar to coat. Place 1-inch apart on baking sheets. Sprinkle tops with sea salt. Bake until lightly golden about 15 minutes, rotating pans halfway through. Let cookies cool for a minute on sheets, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely. Store in a tightly sealed container for at least one week.