Cookies are a sometime food, and with the holidays around the corner, that sometime is now.
Here at NPR, the holiday baking season is never complete without a story from the always-charming Brass Sisters, Marilynn and Sheila.
They’ve been collecting recipes for more than 50 years. When it comes to holiday cookies, they immediately turn to Dorothy Sullivan’s shortbread. The cookies were a treat they enjoyed when they were girls, just 10 and 15 years old, growing up in Winthrop, Mass.
“Every Christmas, this nice Jewish family, the Brasses, would go over to the Sullivans’,” says Marilynn. They’d enjoy each other’s company and share baked goods, which included Mrs. Brass’ fruited tea bread and Mrs. Sullivan’s cookies.
“Going into her kitchen was like going into a winter wonderland of Christmas cookies,” says Marilynn. “There were wonderful snowman cookies with powdered sugar and Tom Thumb cookies that have a thumbprint, with jam in the middle.”
But the cookies they really loved were the shortbread.
“We ate every piece of shortbread,” remembers older sister Sheila. “We ate every crumb; we almost licked the plate!”
Mrs. Sullivan did share her recipe with the Brass Sisters, but they misplaced it. “We had to live on the memory and the taste memory of that shortbread for almost 60 years,” says Marilynn.
But that came to an end in the early 2000s, when they were researching their first cookbook, Heirloom Baking. They were trying to recall Mrs. Sullivan’s shortbread when friends of theirs chimed in with a story about their great aunt, Liz O’Neill. She’d emigrated as a teenager from Scotland, and she also made shortbread. The Brass Sisters got that recipe and immediately tried it out.
“When it cooled, we cut it up into crisp, crumbly delicious fingers, and we each took one,” says Sheila, “Our eyes went up to heaven, and we just looked at each other and said, ‘That’s it!’ “
Liz O’Neill’s shortbread is an amalgam of butter and sugar. And for the perfect shortbread, Sheila has this rule: “Always use butter — don’t use shortening, don’t use margarine. It has to be butter.”
But, being the Brass Sisters, they decided to put their own touch on Liz O’Neill’s recipe.
“We made it as an orange shortbread, because there’s nothing like a little bit of citrus in the middle of cold New England weather,” says Maryilnn.
The Brass Sisters’ Favorite Holiday Shortbread
Makes 32 1-inch by 2-inch pieces
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
1/2 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 cups flour
Grated zest of 1 orange
1 teaspoon orange extract or 1/2 teaspoon orange oil
Set oven rack in the middle position. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Line the bottom and sides of a 9-inch by 9-inch by 2-inch pan with foil. Grease the foil with butter or coat with vegetable spray.
Add flour and salt to a mixing bowl, whisk to combine, and set aside.
Cream butter and sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Add orange zest. Add orange extract or orange oil and combine. Add dry ingredients, 1/2 cup at a time, beating until completely absorbed and dough comes together. Do not overbeat or shortbread will be tough.
Gently pat dough into prepared pan. (Press down the edges with tines of fork.) Prick top of dough evenly about 20 to 25 times.
Bake shortbread 35 minutes. Cool on rack for about 20-25 minutes, or until slightly warm. Score shortbread with a knife into 1-inch by 2-inch pieces, but do not cut through entirely. When completely cool, cut into pieces along scored lines. The texture should be sandy and crumbly. Store orange shortbread in a covered tin between sheets of wax paper, at room temperature.
Shortbread will firm up as it cools. Placing shortbread in the refrigerator will help it firm up. If the shortbread is pale, continue baking another 5 minutes, watching carefully to be sure it is not browning too quickly.