January Calendar Fun: Butter and Almond Shortbread and Homemade Vanilla Extract

IMG_8189I have what I believe is a very fun calendar for my desk at work.  It’s this Country Cooking calendar for 2014. I normally have a cupcake calendar at my desk every year, but for some reason, I chose this one instead this year.

I like to keep the element of surprise, so I don’t look ahead at the upcoming month until the first day of that month! I have to say that I’ve never been disappointed. They’re always really good recipes.  I guess they’d have to be, you have to look at them for at least 28-31 days in a row!  Since today is February 1st, and it’s Saturday, I won’t know what February’s recipe is until Monday.

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For the month of January, day in and day out, I’ve been sitting at my desk staring at these cookies, and yesterday I came up with the idea  that I should prepare the recipe at the end of every month.. and then write about it. Well..I will usually try to follow a recipe to the tee, but there are times when I have a strong gut feeling that it just doesn’t sound right. This just happened to be one of those recipes…

When I first read this recipe, I was a little worried that it didn’t call for enough wet ingredients.  I thought one cup of butter, along with the two egg yolks, and  3 tbsp brandy / to five cups of flour didn’t sound like a good ratio.  But what do I know?  I’m not a baker.

So, I did a little research.

It turns out that shortbread  is made with one part sugar, two parts butter, and three parts flour.  I did learn a little bit about shortbread… it originated in Scotland, but was made from medieval bread dough that was rolled in sugar and spice, and then twice baked into a hardened biscuit which is called a rusk.  Apparently Mary, Queen of Scots, took a liking to them with her afternoon tea, and ate shortbread flavored with caraway.   They were expensive to make, so they were considered a luxury, made only for special occasions such as Christmas or weddings.

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I went with my gut feeling, and decided to cut the flour down to three cups.  Instead of using brandy, I used orange juice, which gave the cookies a lovely orangey-citrus flavor.  I’m going to call my version: Orange and Almond Shortbread.

After making my own changes, this turned out to be a nice cookie recipe, one that would easily fit into your Christmas repertoire, or just to use as an everyday type of cookie. The most common shape for these cookies a circle of the dough cut into wedges named petticoat tails. They’re also popular cut into circles, or long rectangular shapes. You can use any shape, really. I chose hearts just because we’re so close to Valentine’s Day.

These cookies would be perfect for that cup of afternoon tea, or added as a little bit of dolce to go with a cheese platter and a glass of wine…

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My Version: Orange and Almond Shortbread
Makes 2 dozen cookies

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 egg yolks
1 tsp vanilla
½ tsp baking soda
3 tbsp orange juice
½ tsp salt
3 cups all purpose flour
1 cup toasted almonds, coarsely chopped

2 cups powdered sugar, divided

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

To toast the almonds:
Heat your oven to 350 degrees.  Spread almonds onto a baking sheet, and bake for 5-10 minutes.  When you can smell them baking, they’re done. Mine took exactly 7 minutes.

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In a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks one at a time. Add the vanilla and orange juice. Beat for another minute.

Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together.  Add to the butter mixture one cup at a time until fully incorporated.  Stir in the almonds.

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On a lightly floured surface, roll half of the dough to about an inch thick.  Using your favorite cookie cutter, press out shapes, and place on the prepared baking sheet.  Repeat with the remaining half of dough.

Bake for about 12 minutes, until the cookies are set and a very light brown on the bottom.

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Add 1 cup of powdered sugar to a dish or a bowl.  As soon as the cookies come out of the oven, roll them around in the powdered sugar until they’re coated.

Let the cookies for about 15 minutes on a wire rack, and then using a fine mesh sieve, generously sift the remaining powdered sugar over the cookies until they are pure white.

Enjoy!

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Their Version: Butter and Almond Shortbread

225g/8oz/1 cup unsalted butter
150g/5oz/ 2/3 cup caster (superfine) sugar
2 egg yolks
5 ml / 1 tsp vanilla
2/5 ml / ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda  (baking soda)
45 ml / 3 tbsp brandy (optional)
500g / 1 ¼ lbs / 5 cups all purpose flour, sifted with a pinch of salt
175g/6 oz/ 1 cup blanched almonds, toasted and coarsely chopped
350g/12 oz/ 3 cups icing (confectioners’) sugar

  1. In a mixing bowl, cream the butter with the sugar, until it is light and fluffy.  Add in the egg yolks one at a time, and then the vanilla.  Mix the bicarbonate of soda with the brandy (if using) and stir into the mixture.
  2. Add the flour and salt and mix to a firm dough. Using your hands, knead lightly, add the almonds, and knead again.
  3. Preheat the oven to 180 C / 350F  Cover half the dough with clear film (plastic wrap), and set aside.
  4. Roll out the remaining dough on a lightly floured surface to 2.5cm/1in thick.  Press out shapes, using pastry cutters. Repeat with remaining dough.
  5. Place on lightly greased baking sheets and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until pale golden.
  6. Meanwhile, sift a quarter of the icing sugar onto a plate. As soon as the cookies come out of the oven, dust them generously with  icing sugar. Let them cool for a few minutes on a wire rack.  Place them on the sugar coated plate.
  7. Sift the remaining icing sugar over them. The aim is to give them a generous coating, until they are pure white.

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Homemade Vanilla Extract 

Make your own vanilla…  it’s so simple, and so handy to have in the pantry, and in the end much cheaper than the store bought.

1 cup vodka or 1 cup bourbon
3 fresh vanilla beans
1 bottle or jar

Split the vanilla beans lengthwise down the middle from about ¼ inch from the top.  Place the three beans into your bottle or container.  Add the vodka or bourbon.  Close the container tightly, and place in a cool dark spot for about 2 months.  Give the jar / bottle a shake about once a week.   You can add more vodka or bourbon to the used vanilla beans a second time, once you’ve used up your vanilla.

I recommend making two bottles at a time, so that you have a second bottle waiting in the wings for when you’ve gone through the first bottle twice, so that you don’t have to wait a full 8 weeks for it to steep.   Once it’s emptied, make another batch of vanilla, so that it can steep while you’re using up your other bottle.

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51 thoughts on “January Calendar Fun: Butter and Almond Shortbread and Homemade Vanilla Extract

  1. Looks like perfect shortbread cookies. I fail when it comes to shortbread. I have never considered making vanilla! This is one of those perfect blog posts. One of greatness. 🙂 I’ll be making vanilla extract now for sure.

    • Thank you Seana! I tried shortbread once or twice before, and I’d always end up with a crumbly mess. I think if you go by that 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, 3 parts flour rule, you won’t have any problems at all! Most definitely make the vanilla. I can’t tell you how many times in my lifetime, I’d go to the spice cupboard just to realize that I was out of vanilla. It’s funny how a baked good truly relies on vanilla… it makes the world of difference. And now…I always have it. (As long as I stay stocked up on vanilla beans!!) 🙂

      • Yes! and vanilla beans can be quite spendy! I just saw yesterday that Trader Joe’s now carries vanilla beans! I was so happy you can buy 2 at a time. I’ll give it another try because we really do love shortbread cookies. Thank you for the tip! 🙂

      • Let me know how it works out for you Seana.. I’ll have to make a quick trip to Trader Joe’s… they sell this little bag of dried coconut flakes that my daughters and I just love. I’ll check out the vanilla beans while I’m there!

  2. I’ve always thought about making my own vanilla extract – especially because it’s so expensive. I think I need to finally just do it! Thanks for the final bit of inspiration that I needed. Looking forward to reading more from you 🙂

    • I hope you do make some! I think I might have gotten caught up in the hype of spending so much money on “high quality” vanilla…when I finally realized that all it’s really made of is some sort of alcohol and vanilla beans. I thought to myself “why not give it a try?” and I’m glad I did. It has a great flavor, and I love the little specs of vanilla that come with the homemade. It’s like an added bonus! Thank you so much for stopping by, I’m so glad you did… 🙂

      • Me too! I can’t believe how really simple it is. It’s on my to-do list for tonight. Time to get excited for the 8-week countdown! 🙂

  3. I just pulled these cookies out of the oven! Delicious! I snuck a warm one right out if the oven… After tj was dipped in powdered sugar if course. I plan to save 2 for my morning coffee and sadly give the rest to my husband to take to work… Boo diets! Lol thanks for the recipe 🙂

      • Yes worked good for us.. They were so good I actually skipped supper to have a few! I have the rest to my husband to take to work and they were a big hit he said they were gone by lunch time! Thanks so much for the recipe will be making these often! 🙂

    • I’m really pleased with how they turned out! I’m loving this calendar…wait until you see what February’s recipe is!! I’ve never heard of it, so it will be fun to give it a try!! I just hope I have the patience to wait until the end of the month! Thanks so much for stopping by!! 🙂

  4. I learned so many new facts about shortbread cookies from this post. I’ve never actually made them so didn’t know what went into them or their origin. These cookies look great!

  5. Pingback: February Calendar Fun: Bakewell Tart |

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