I thought long and hard about the list of sweets I wanted to bake for Valentine’s Day. In fact, I spent a good portion of Saturday considering Cupid. The one problem I ran into was that the list began and ended with chocolates. Chocolates oozing and gooey with cream and caramel centers. Chocolates tucked into the teeny tiny squares of red, satiny, heart boxes. Molten chocolate lava cakes, dark chocolate truffles, triple chocolate fudge, mocha cheesecake…
But there are other things to love about the holiday, too. Things like…the stuff that gets covered in chocolate. Or even…umm…well surely…no, but really there must…
It’s not that I’m against giving chocolate all my love on Valentine’s Day, it’s just that everyone’s giving chocolate all their love on Valentine’s Day. And well, when it comes to holiday baking, I like to think outside the chocolate box sometimes. Side note: I’m excellent with puns. End side note.
I ate a brownie as I brainstormed.
I called my mother for advice. Forty five minutes later and the list had expanded to include chocolates and white chocolates. Something about the apple not falling far from the tree came to mind as I hung up the phone. I should note we both also believe a box of chocolates to imply a single serving.
And then, just as I had resigned myself to a chocolate covered holiday, I remembered having seen cookies squared and decorated like Scrabble letters. Letters that could be piped and puzzled into “I Love You.” Bake at 350 is one of the most talented bakers and decorators I’ve come across. This idea is not only brilliant, but her cookies are positively beautiful.
I decided to use shortbread. Pure, lovely shortbread, who never gets her due love and affection.
Even though I am admittedly a chewy cookie person, a “Can we add a layer of chocolate, then caramel, and oh! oh! oh! what about cream filling?” person, I do love the buttery crunch of simple shortbread.
This recipe, adapted from Alice Medrich’s unbeatable twice-baked version, is tender, flaky, and unforgettable in buttery sweet flavor. I’d liken it to a thicker, crisper slab of pie dough. It’s flaky and rich. The sweetness is delicate and subtle. It’s the kind of mouthful you chew and savor and crave more of. Rounded, nutty notes of vanilla and butter sit on your tongue long after you’ve swallowed your last bite. Shortbread, with its honest taste, is among the absolute best of cookie varieties.
To make them festive for Valentine’s day, I glazed them with a simple royal icing and then thinly piped letters on top. I chose to spell “I love you,” but this Scrabble idea is certainly cute for any day, special occasion or no.
You can absolutely substitute any cookie bar recipe you love here. I chose shortbread, but I image sugar cookies work well too!
Here is how you can make them yourself:
Melt 10 tablespoons of unsalted butter and pour it, still warm, into a large bowl.
Stir in 1/3 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract
Stir in 1 1/2 cups of all purpose flour until just combined.
Now, press the dough into a foil lined and greased 8” square baking dish. Wrap it tightly in plastic, followed by aluminum foil, and refrigerate it for at least 2 hours and up to 24. Letting the dough rest is important for a tender cookie texture, so you must must must follow this step.
I went with 24 hours, mostly because I moved on to making homemade Twinkies twenty minutes later and forgot about it. This is your brain on Twinkies.
When you’re ready to bake the shortbread, preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Pull the pan from the fridge, unwrap it, and place it in the oven for 45 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven, sprinkle lightly with granulated sugar, and let cool for 10 minutes.
Remove shortbread from pan. Use an ultra thin, sharp knife to cut the pan into small squares. Place them, spaced 1” apart, on a parchment lined cookie sheet.
Baked for an additional 15 minutes. This second bake produces a crisper texture and a nuttier flavor. If you choose not to bake them twice, I suggest increasing your original 45 minute baking time to 50 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack. Note: Shortbread will keep for several weeks in airtight containers.
Now, make the white icing that will cover the surface of the cookies. I use royal icing, because it’s thin enough to spread, and it dries to a smooth hard finish.
Royal icing traditionally uses egg whites, and you can certainly use those (so long as they’re pasteurized because they are never cooked in this recipe), but meringue powder is essentially dried egg white powder and it’s a world easier to use. Find it in the baking aisle of most supermarkets. It keeps for a very long time, and is perfect for decorating cookies and cakes.
Combine powdered sugar and meringue powder and whisk to combine. (If using egg whites, see recipe below)
Add a small amount of water and beat the mixture for about 7 minutes until it’s well combined, glossy, and stiff enough to stream like a ribbon in the bowl when you lift the beater.
Add more water by the teaspoon full to achieve the right consistency. You want it to be smooth, yet thin enough to spread.
Use a small spatula or butter knife to carefully spread the icing on the cooled shortbread squares. Let the icing harden for at least an hour before using black cookie decorator icing to pipe thin letters on top. I used this pouch of Betty Crocker decorator icing, squeezed some into a pastry bag (but feel free to use a plastic bag with the tip snipped), and fitted it with the smallest Wilton tip I had: #1 or #2. Click here for a link to the Scrabble letter scores.
Let the cookies dry completely overnight.
Arrange as a puzzle before serving.
Twice Baked Shortbread
(adapted from Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich)
10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 ½ cups all purpose flour
[Royal icing, for frosting, see recipe below]
[Black cookie icing fitted with a , recommended: Betty Crocker]
Stir the melted butter, sugar, salt, and vanilla extract together in a large bowl. Stir in the flour until just combined.
Press the dough into a foil lined and greased 8” square baking dish. Wrap it tightly in plastic, followed by aluminum foil, and refrigerate it for at least 2 hours and up to 24.
When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Pull the pan from the fridge, unwrap it, and place it in the oven for 45 minutes.
Let cool for 10 minutes.
Remove shortbread from pan. Cut into small squares and place them, spaced 1” apart on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Baked for 15 minutes. Cool completely on a wire rack. The shortbread keeps for several weeks in airtight containers.
Royal Icing with Meringue Powder
(adapted from Joy of Baking)
3 tablespoons meringue powder
4 cups powdered sugar
6 tablespoons warm water
Beat the egg whites and lemon juice until frothy. Add the powdered sugar and beat on low until combined and smooth.
Royal Icing with Egg Whites
(adapted from Joy of Baking)
2 large egg whites
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
3 cups powdered sugar, sifted
Combine the powdered sugar and meringue powder. Add the water and beat on medium-high speed until glossy and stiff peaks form, about 7 minutes. Add a few teaspoons of water or additional powdered sugar gradually if you need to adjust the consistency. If you want to smooth the icing evenly over the entire surface of a cookie, the icing should fall like a ribbon off of the beater as you lift it, and it should form a mound before it dissolves back into the rest of the icing in the bowl.
**The icing needs to be used immediately or transferred to an airtight container as royal icing hardens when exposed to air. Cover with plastic wrap when not in use.
To make the cookies:
Immediately after making the royal icing, spread it carefully on the tops of each shortbread square using a butter knife or small spatula. Let the icing harden for at least an hour.
Fit a pastry bag with a Wilton #1 or #2 tip, fill the bag with black decorator cookie icing (recommended: Betty Crocker), and pipe letters and Scrabble scores on each of the squares.