There’s probably no cookie that reminds me more of Christmas than a classic, buttery shortbread cookie. When I was growing up, holiday tradition I looked forward to most every year was the “Cookie Countdowns” my Aunt Julie would send to all her nieces and nephews – 24 cookies individually wrapped and stapled to a long strip of gingham ribbon. It was like a vertical advent calendar, meant to be hung up on a doorframe. Each day of December, you unwrapped and ate another butter cookie, and on Christmas eve, once you’d worked your way through all the cookies, there was a little present to open. Now whenever I eat a shortbread cookie, I’m flooded with the feeling of anticipation, and I think of big red and green swoops of ribbon.
The recipe we made on our very first day of Pâtisserie program at Le Cordon Bleu were shortbread cookies, and they were some of the best I’ve ever had.They were of course made with real butter, and they looked like this.
They were delicious, BUT oh my gosh, the sheer amount of butter we go through at that place! The flour and sugar and spices are really just garnish at this storied institution. As a result, as soon as you walk up onto the fourth floor where the girls’ locker rooms and all of the pastry kitchens are, it smells amazing. But imagining the carbon footprint makes me cringe.
So I wanted to adapt the recipe and come up with a reliable vegan shortbread cookie. The main thing I wanted to reproduce was the sandy, crumbly texture that makes a shortbread cookie, well, short. Through a side-by-side taste test of a few different options – kindly undertaken by some dear friends in Paris at their Montmartre apartment – we arrived at this version.
It’s important to note that the type of butter-alternative you use will affect both flavor and texture. I recommend using a vegan butter (like the popular-in-the-US Earth Balance, or popular-in-France Primavere) that’s a composite of several types of vegetable oils. It’s important for the butter to be a solid or semi-solid at room temperature. Olive oil will not create the right texture. Using coconut oil made the cookies spread out too much for my liking, but it did create a wonderful flavor. Do what you will, but whatever you do: Keep the vegan butter cold at all stages: when you’re working it into the dough, and once the dough is formed and before the cookies go into the oven.
Recipe: Vegan Shortbread Cookies
Total time: 1 hour (Prep time: 15-20 minutes, Chilling time: 20 minutes, Baking time: 15-20 minutes)
Makes 2 dozen cookies
- 75g vegan margarine, + 10g to melt for “egg wash”
- 100g all-purpose flour
- 30g powdered sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Pinch salt
- Granulated sugar or sprinkles to decorate
- Weigh ingredients for a mise-en-place that’ll have you feeling like a French pastry chef.
- Add flour to a large mixing bowl.
- Cut chilled vegan butter into small (1-cm) pieces, then pop in the freezer 10 minutes to chill more. (This makes a big difference in the texture.)
- Once chilled, add the vegan butter to the flour bowl, and mix together by hand, pressing the bits between your thumb and forefinger to help coat the flour in fat, and to make the pieces smaller. Use a light touch and keep mixing – you’re aiming for a texture like chunky sand.
- Add the 1/4 teaspoon vanilla, salt, and powdered sugar.
- Sift together with your fingers until the ingredients are distributed evenly, then press into a dough.
- Put dough on countertop and form into a rough rectangle, then roll into a log. Place on parchment paper-lined baking tray and refrigerate 20 minutes.
- Meanwhile, preheat oven to 160 Celsius / 325 Fahrenheit.
- Once chilled, remove from fridge and using a pastry brush, coat log with melted vegan butter. Roll the whole log in sugar or sprinkles (it can sometimes be easier to cut the log in two first).
- Slice sprinkle-bedecked log into 1-cm cookies. Place on baking tray, and bake 15-20 minutes, or until edges start to brown slightly and your whole kitchen smells like heaven.