Cornmeal Shortbread and Brown Butter

Photo by Heather Thacker

Photo by Heather Thacker

Shortbread is comforting to have in the freezer, to slice and bake a few at a time for sweet cravings or a log for last minute guests. The basic dough has a great texture of a slightly sandy crunch with a chewy background and enough crumble to be a hint delicate. Lemon zest adds a hint of acidity, and the cornstarch is key to the texture and pliability of the dough. Add a herbal element based on what's abundant and easily accessible. Rosemary, sage, and basil sweeten beautifully when creamed with the butter and sugar. Lavender, thyme, or chocolate mint would make great bright notes complimentary to the subtle corn flavor as well.

For irresistible cookies, use brown butter. This recipe is my favorite corn cookie, largely based on a Dorie Greenspan recipe. The batch size is one log, 20-40 cookies depending on thickness.

Dry ingredients:
7.5 oz (1 1/2 cup) All-purpose flour (organic King Arthur preferably)
1.3 oz (1/4 cup) Cornstarch 
0.5 teaspoon Salt
2.5 oz (2/3 cup) Riverview Mills cornmeal

Cream ingredients:
4.8 oz (2/3 cup) sugar
Zest of one lemon
2-4 Tablespoon finely chopped herb
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional, interchangeable)
8 oz (1 cup or 2 sticks) butter, slightly softened

Browning butter evaporates about 20% of the water weight. The concentrated oil takes on a deep nutty flavor as the butter separates and the fat particles brown. The trick to practice with brown butter is to take it slow towards the end. Capture the flavor right before it starts to burn for an intense richness great for many baking and sauce recipes. I like making large batches and chilling the excess. Have a strainer (or cheesecloth) and container ready for a cleaner end product. Here's my thoughts, and there are many great tutorials online, like on thekitchn and Joy the Baker.

On medium high, heat (12 oz for this recipe) butter in a sauce pan large enough for at least twice the volume of butter. It will melt, foam, sizzle, spit, and bubble in the first 15 minutes (larger batches take longer). Be patient as to keep the butter from getting angry and overflowing or popping onto you. The hot butter will separate, the particles will fall to the bottom and begin to brown. If this is your first rodeo, turn down the heat to medium low and observe. I usually don't stir the butter, only frequently checking on the process in the 10-30 minutes this takes to finish. 

Once the smell is intensely nutty and alluring, turn the heat off. At this point, leave it to cool on the stove if the brownness seems like a safe distance from blackening. If the butter is teetering on the burnt threshold, immediately and carefully strain the mixture into a cool metal or glass container. Let this cool to room temperature or in the freezer if in a pinch. Straining is optional. I usually don't remove the particles and include it in doughs. Immediately soak the butter pan, the bottom layer will take some soap and scrubbing.

To make the cookies, whisk or sift together dry ingredients. Rub the sugar, lemon zest, and chopped herbs together. Add the vanilla extract and butter. Cream until the sugar is dissolved and mixture is evenly fluffy and lightened in color. Add the dry ingredients and mix until fully incorporated. Have a 2 ft sheet of parchment (or foil) ready. Scoop all the dough out and pat into a log with clean hands. Use a dough scraper and wrapper to form the log into a circle, oval, triangle, or rectangle by rolling and flipping the log, pulling on the wrapper, and pushing with the scraper. When the log is smooth and tight, fold the ends of the wrapper around the log and freeze on a flat surface for a few hours, preferably overnight. The dough will keep for at least few months, depending on freezer temperature and cleanliness of the ice box atmosphere. 

When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 300 degrees and allow the log to sit at room temperature for 5-15 minutes to keep from shattering as you slice. A thinner cookie is great for sandwiching or spreading jam or lemon curd onto. A thicker cookie has complexity and shines alone. Cut with a sharp knife at 1/8-1/2 inch slices. Place onto a baking sheet, a few inches apart to allow some spreading and browned edges. Sprinkle with sugar (infused with vanilla or herbs for an extra touch) and bake for 25 minutes. Check on the cookies mid-bake to rotate and gauge the doneness. I like a golden cookie, ever so slightly underdone in the middle and browned around the edges. These keep in a container for at least 3 days.