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.


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.


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…


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.


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.




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.




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.



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.

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.

Coconut Cream Cupcakes

Well, I’ve gone and done it again.
I made cupcakes.


I know, I know…I promised that I wouldn’t do it again so soon…But please let me explain.. it was my father’s birthday yesterday… and I really wanted to make him a birthday cake, a double layer coconut cream…but I haven’t had much luck making layer cakes stay together. Please see Exhibit A, which is basically a picture of the flopped cake that I made for Katie’s birthday this year. A pathetic attempt if ever there was… and it was perfect timing too…because as it was falling off the plate, Katie walked into the house just in time to help me try to catch the falling pieces. If anything, it was good for a really good giggle… The cake ended up in pieces on a cookie sheet, but the taste was still there!

If you’ve read my other posts, then you know that I have these grand visions of how perfectly things are going to go when I’m preparing a meal.. The cake stand in the picture was a part of Katie’s birthday gift.  I had this magnificent plan to have an absolutely beautiful cake sitting atop this cake stand, so when she walked in, she would be so surprised and happy…but as you can see… it turned out to be more of a horror story!

It’s not the gift, but the love behind it, right? Seriously though, we still laugh about it today…

exhibit a

Anyway… back to my father’s birthday….like I said, I really wanted to make him a cake, but…well, let’s just say I really stink at layer cakes.  Plus I was on a time constraint… So, cupcakes it had to be. Pa didn’t mind…as a matter of fact, he ate two of them right after dinner!

“Delicious..” he said.. which I believe put me right on the “Favorite Daughter” list. (I’m his only child… he has no choice!!).

We had a lovely time at my parent’s house, celebrating Roy’s 76th birthday. What do they say? 76 is the new 56.. or something like that. That statement couldn’t be more true. He doesn’t age, and is as handsome, intelligent, and funny as ever.

Happy Birthday Pa… I love you…


Coconut Cream Cupcakes
(Makes 16 cupcakes)

My father was my guinea pig last night. Truth be told, I don’t think he minds one bit. You know, when you throw some flour, sour cream, and a few eggs into a mixing bowl, you kind of pray for the best. You know it’s going to be a cake….You just don’t know how mushy; or how rock solid it’s going to be! I think I just might have hit it somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. They turned out to be moist enough, and not overly sweet. Not overly sweet is a good thing, because the cake was able to balance the sweet coconut custard filling, as well as the sweet coconut topped frosting.  I received thumbs up all around the table… and that makes me happy. Coconut happy.

The Coconut Custard
1 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup sugar
1 tbsp cornstarch
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp vanilla
1 tbsp butter
1 egg
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup flaked coconut

Heat the heavy cream in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Whisk the egg and yolks in a small bowl, add about a 1/4 cup of the heated heavy cream into the eggs, and whisk quickly…and then pour the egg/heavy cream mixture back into the pan. Add the sugar, cornstarch, butter, and vanilla. Whisk until the mixture comes to a boil, reduce the heat to low and boil until the custard thickens (about 2 minutes) whisking constantly. Remove from heat, pour into a large bowl, cover with a piece of plastic wrap, and cool completely in the refrigerator.  After the custard has cooled, stir in the coconut. Keep in the refrigerator until ready to use.




The Cupcake
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Line a 12 cupcake tin with cupcake liners.

1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 large egg
2 egg yolks
1 cup sour cream
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

In a large mixing bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. On low speed, add the sugar, egg and yolks, sour cream and vanilla until blended. Increase speed to medium, and mix for 2 minutes.  Batter will be thick.

Add 2 tbsp of batter to each cupcake liner.  Place in pre-heated oven, and bake for 16 minutes. Remove to a cooling rack, and repeat for the remaining 4 cupcakes. Let the cupcakes cool completely.


Now for the fun part… When the cupcakes are completely cooled, spoon the coconut custard into a 14″ pastry bag that has been loaded with a large tip.  I used an Ateco 824 for this.  Stick the tip right into the middle of the cupcake, and squeezing the pastry bag carefully, pipe a little bit of custard into each cupcake until a little of it puffs out of the top of the cupcake.


The Frosting
1 cup salted butter, softened
4 cups powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 cups flaked coconut in a shallow bowl
Silver dragees, optional

In the mixing bowl, and on low speed, combine the butter, vanilla, and salt.  Slowly add the powdered sugar, one cup at a time until it is completely blended. Add the heavy cream a little at a time until the frosting reaches spreadable consistency.  Increase the mixer’s speed to medium and mix for about 2 minutes longer.

Spread each filled cupcake generously with frosting. Dip each cupcake into the coconut until the frosting is completely covered.  Decorate with the silver dragees if you choose.



I really want to make layer cakes, so here is a question for you. I’m thinking that maybe I don’t wait long enough for the cakes to cool completely. Can I freeze the layers of cake, and then frost them while they’re frozen? Would they just fall apart after they thaw? The cakes are homemade, so while they’re on the moist side, they’re still pretty dense. I can’t imagine that they’re so overly moist that they can’t hold the frosting. Or maybe it’s the frosting…maybe I make it way too heavy. Any suggestions?