It's time to spruce up your holiday cookie selection...pun intended. Cookies are the main ingredient to a happy holiday in our home. There is the usual tried and true platter full of things like almond crescents, peanut butter cookies, sesame balls, and the traditional spritz. Then there's usually 2 or 3 experiments. A new recipe I've been dying to try or a cookie I made with specific quests in mind. Something I am making for the first time to try and keep things interesting. So of course, first there is the hunt to find a recipe I haven't made yet... not always easy. So this has inspired me to share one of my own favorites for all the other bakers out there like me, looking for a new cookie to wow their family this year.
Evergreen and Orange. Not your normal everyday flavor, but man does it pack a punch. It all starts with a little foraging. Now don't be nervous, I know foraging for wild food is not for everyone. But conifer needles are about as easy as they come, and most are edible. The only evergreen tree that cannot be consumed is called a Yew. Their needles are slightly different in shape. (click this link for easy conifer identification flash cards)
For Evergreen and Orange Shortbread you will want to find Spruce, Fir, Hemlock, or Pine needles. My personal favorite is Balsam Fir. The needles have a strong fragrance, and sharp taste, almost like a mixture of citrus, mint, and rosemary. The best part is, around the holidays you most likely have a Balsam Fir right standing in your living room. Christmas trees that are being sold often have a tag on them that identifies the tree when you buy it, if not you can always ask the purveyor. Even if you don't have your own tree, they are sure to be found on almost every street corner here in the city. Or you can go into your home town and find them at larger stores. Just be sure if you are taking needles from a fresh Christmas tree, or foraging for needles, that you are choosing to consume needles from a responsibly sourced tree. If its not growing in a clean area with natural soil, its not for eating.
Now, back to the cookies. These are a traditional shortbread with a flavorful twist. So the secret is all in the dough. Mix or knead your dough too much and you'll have a denser more crunchy cookie. if you just barely combine your cookie dough, and are careful not to knead it when rolling out you'll have a light, layered melt in your mouth treat. Oh, and did I mention there is only 5 ingredients?
An electric mixer
Rolling pin and flat surface
Microplane or fine grater
Parchment paper or sil-pats
Optional: mortar and pestle
First lets preheat the oven to 325F and prep the flavorful add-ins
Strip the needles off of 3-4 small evergreen branches and discard all the woody branch parts. Mince the needles up very fine. Transfer to a mortar and pestle if you've got one and grind down until they appear wet. You can also try to do this in a bowl with the back of a spoon of end of a rolling pin. Although this is an optional step, grinding the needles help release the natural oils in the plant and will result in a more flavorful cookie. Next, using a fine grater or microplane, shave off the zest of 2 large oranges. Avoid shaving the bitter white pith.
Using a stand or hand held electric mixer, beat three sticks of softened salted butter until soft and smooth. Scrape down the bowl and stir in the zest of two oranges and minced evergreen needles.
In a separate bowl, sift together 3 cups of all purpose flour and 1 cup of powdered sugar. OK, I'l be honest. When I find a recipe and it tells your to sift something, I usually just skip it. I'm fully aware of the consequences, but I do it to save time and make less dishes. I wouldn't have put it in the recipe if I wasn't sure it was necessary. In this recipe, It really helps this cookie melt in your mouth. But if you arn't a stickler on the classic texture of shortbread, by all means, go ahead and skip it.
Pour the dry mixture into the mixing bowl and stir it on low until just combined. Seriously... watch it! Don't walk away, don't forget about it, as soon as you see a bowl of crumbles with almost all the dry mixed in, stop the mixer and pour the loose dough onto a heavily floured surface. I prefer wood, so I use a large pasta board for all of my rolling. When you pour the dough out, it will look like a pile of floury crumbles. This is good. Be sure not to mash it and knead it with your hands.
Slowly and carefully roll the dough from the center out, until it is at your desired cookie thickness. I like about 1/4 inch shortbread cookies. Keep dusting flour handy, in order not to mash up the dough so much, you will use lots of flour on the dough and the rolling pin.
Grab a cookie cutter and cut out the cookies. You will want to use a knife or spatula to lift the cookies off the surface and place them onto a lined baking sheet.
To roll out the dough a second time, just carefully grab all the little left over pieces of dough and pile them int the center. DON'T SQUEEZE THEM TOGETHER. (OK, have I expressed this enough yet? Repetitive right?) Repeat the rolling process one more time. Compost/discard the last left over pieces.
Garnish with a small piece of evergreen. I use scissors to cut the very tip off the branches. These tips are not very woody. You can garnish with whatever you like. Bake in a 325F oven for 12-15 minutes. You want your cookies just barely browned. Too much browning will change the light flavor and result in a stiffer, crunchier cookie. When they are stiff and lightly browned on the bottoms and edges, take them out and transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool.
The flavor is surprising and delightful. It tastes like the Holidays in a bite. I usually put them on a platter and wait for people to try them, they always end up asking what the flavor is. Then you'll have a great conversation piece right on your tabletop for dessert. Who doesn't love an all new holiday flavor?
Evergreen & Orange Shortbread
1 1/2 cups (12oz) Salted butter (softened)
1 cup (4.5oz) Powdered sugar (sifted)
3 cups (13.2oz) All purpose flour (sifted)
1 Tbsp Balsam Fir needles (or edible conifer needles of choice) minced/ground
1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp Orange zest (about 2 large oranges)
Preheat oven to 325F
Pick evergreen needles off branch being sure to discard any pieces of the branch. Mince needles very fine. Optional: Grind needles in a mortar and pestle or with the back of a spoon in a bowl until slightly wet to the touch. set aside.
Use a fine grater to grate the zest of about 2 oranges. Set aside.
Cream softened butter until smooth in a large bowl with an electric mixer.
Stir in evergreen needles and orange zest.
In a separate bowl, sift together flour and sugar.
Slowly add dry mixture to butter and beat until just combined. It should be a very crumbly dough.
Dump the dough onto a floured surface. With a floured rolling pin, roll the dough out to desired thickness. Be sure not to overwork the dough.
Cut into desired shape and transfer to a parchment lined baking sheet.
Bake for 12-15 minutes until firm but very little browning. Transfer to a rack to cool.
*Be sure to be safe when foraging for evergreens. Not all conifers are edible.*
If you'd like to save time, you can skip the sifting. But your shortbread texture will not be as light and tender if you don't sift the dry ingredients.
Using the mortar and pestle on your minced needles will help bring out the natural oils and result in a more flavorful cookie.
The most important part of this recipe is to not overwork the dough. You want it to be very crumbly in order to stay light and flaky. You can roll out your dough more than once if you don't kneed it, but I would not suggest rolling out any more than two times.