Thursday, December 24, 2015

Checkerboard Shortbread Cookies

Before Christmas is past I wanted to squeeze in at least one new recipe for cookies.  If you follow me on Facebook, you know that over the past week or so I have been running a parade of all of the Christmas cookies I have posted in previous years...but I wanted to share a new one too.  I love Christmas cookies. 

Classically Checkerboard cookies are made with French Sablé dough.  (When I learned to make them in cooking school, we called them Sablé Hollandais.)  Sablé dough is a basic short dough made with flour, butter, sugar and egg yolk.  It produces a tender, simple cookie that is very similar to American sugar cookie cut outs.  It is also used as a short crust pastry...and often called a "sugar cookie crust".  Many of the sweet tarts I have posted feature sablé dough.  Because it doesn't spread when baked, it makes beautiful Checkerboard cookies.

Several years ago I ran across a couple of recipes for Checkerboard cookies that used shortbread dough instead of sablé.  Shortbread—basically the British cousin of sablé—contains no egg.  I actually like the resulting cookie better than the sablé version.   The shortbread cookies seem to spread even less than the sablé cookies.  Furthermore, shortbread produces a crisper cookie than the sablé dough...which I like.  Also, the resulting cookie seems to have better keeping qualities, which makes them an even better choice for the Christmas cookie tin...if you are going to take the time to make these cookies, it's nice to know they will keep well for a while.

When you roll out the dough for these cookies, don't forget that they really are all about precision.  Use a ruler to measure not only the thickness of the dough, but also the width of the strips that will be used to build the "cookie logs".  All the dough must be rolled out to exactly the same thickness, and all the strips of dough must be cut to the exact same width.  If you take the time to insure these things, you will have beautiful and uniform cookies.  The process is not difficult...just detailed.  Once the logs of dough (you will be making two) are formed, the cookies are then very fast and easy to slice and bake.   

Checkerboard cookies are unfortunately not particularly conducive to last minute baking (although they would make a fun activity for next week while everyone is still on vacation....)  As I mentioned, they require a bit of patience and definite attention to detail.  But frankly, that's probably one of the reasons I like them so much.  Looking at their neat lines and uniform design all laid out in rows on the baking sheets....and then stacked in the cookie tin...just makes me happy.  If you too happen to have that particular gene that finds beauty and tranquility in uniformity and precision, these cookies will have the same effect on you.  Spending part of an afternoon making them just might go a long way towards creating some pleasing order in your world in the midst of what is sometimes a bit of a chaotic season. 

Merry Christmas.

Checkerboard Shortbread Cookies

Vanilla Dough:
170 g. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but cool
75 g. (6 T) sugar
3/8 t. pure almond extract
3/8  t. salt
210 g. (1 3/4 c.) all-purpose flour

Chocolate Dough:
170 g. (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened but cool
75 g. (6 T) sugar
1 1/2 t. pure vanilla extract
3/8  t. salt
210 g. (1 3/4 c.) all-purpose flour
24 g. (4 1/2 T.) Dutch-process cocoa powder

Finishing ingredients: 
1 large egg, beaten and strained (to make sure the stray bits of the chalazae are removed and that the egg wash is perfectly smooth)
sugar for sprinkling (optional)

In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, briefly cream the butter and sugar (just to combine).  Beat in the almond extract, and salt. Add the flour and mix on low speed until the dough forms clumps.  Scrape the clumps of dough onto a piece of plastic wrap

 and using the plastic wrap, press the dough into a flat square.  Chill until firm.

Using the same mixing bowl (no need to wash it), make the chocolate dough exactly as the vanilla dough, adding the cocoa with the flour.  Form into a square.  

If necessary, wrap and chill until firm, but still malleable.  If the dough has been chilled until hard, allow it to soften briefly before rolling out.

To form the cookie logs you must roll each color of dough out into a neat square that is of as uniform a thickness as possible.  The dough is easily rolled out between sheets of plastic wrap or on a lightly floured surface.  After rolling the squares, you must then cut them into strips of uniform width.  Precision is essential. Use a ruler, mark both ends of each strip before cutting, and use a sharp knife.  If at any point the dough becomes too soft to work with neatly, place it in the refrigerator until it firms up.

Roll each color of dough into a 7- by 9-inch rectangle (at the least) that is a uniform thickness of 3/8 inch. 

 (I usually chill it briefly at this point.)  Using a sharp knife and a ruler, slice each rectangle into nine 3/4-inch by about 9-inch strips. (It is unlikely that the strips will be exactly 9 inches long, but it is not necessary to trim the strips to exactly 9-inches as you can trim the cookie logs when you slice the cookies.)  
Mark both ends of each square at 3/4-inch intervals before slicing.
Cover the work surface with plastic wrap. Lay one strip of dough down on the plastic wrap and brush one long side lightly with egg wash.  Take a strip of dough of the opposite color and lay it so that it is touching the egg washed surface of the first strip.  Repeat with one more strip always alternating the color of the dough for each consecutive strip. 

Brush the top of the three strips with a light film of egg wash and build the second layer on top of the first, repeating the process that was used to make the first layer—this time starting with the opposite color (placing dark over light and light over dark).  Repeat to form a third layer.

As you work, be very careful to place the strips precisely—they are difficult to move once placed.

Wrap the finished log in plastic wrap and chill until firm enough to slice—at least a half hour.  The dough may also be refrigerated for several days or frozen for several weeks.

Preheat oven to 325°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Unwrap the logs and using a thin, sharp knife, slice each log into 1/4-inch-thick slices;

place the cookies about an inch apart on the baking sheet.  (If the logs are too hard to slice easily, let sit at room temperature until soft enough to slice cleanly.) 

Bake until the cookies are set and the light colored portion is just beginning to turn a very pale golden on the edges—about 15 minutes. 

Remove baking sheet from oven, and let cookies cool 2 minutes. Transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely.  Makes 6 dozen checkerboard cookies.

(Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart and Hallmark Magazine December/January 2009)

Marble slice and bake cookies:  Take the scraps of trimmed dough and press them together, kneading and twisting once or twice to create a marbled dark and light dough (the less you knead/twist, the more pronounced the marbling will be).  Form the dough into a cylinder that is about 1 1/2-inches in diameter.  Wrap in plastic wrap and chill.  When ready to bake, slice 1/4-inch thick and bake as for checkerboards.

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