A Russian Christmas Offering: Rosemary & Toasted-Caraway Shortbread

It seems like yesterday that I excitedly turned the pages of my desk calendar to showcase the tipping point of what I deem as the very start of the Christmas holiday: December 1. That’s when my family breaks out the Advent calendars and I begin my pilgrimage to provide friends and family with a plethora of love, presents, and now that I’m competent enough in the kitchen — good eats.

Traditionally, I have been a strong proponent (and addict) of Christmas sugar cookies with obscene amounts of icing glazed atop them. There are numerous anecdotes from my own life that revolve around my consumption of iced sugar cookies in general, but I can recall one from college that sticks out. It was December of ’08 and my friend Tom had spent the majority of one of the last fall semester weekends slaving away over batches of iced holiday sugar cookies. He generously gave away about 150-200 cookies, festively decorated to reflect the impending holiday. I lived with four other guys at the time, but I’m quite sure that I downed upwards of 75-80% of the cookies he set aside for my apartment. These types of cookies (for me) are up there with potato chips and french onion dip in level of addictiveness and otherwise fleeting self-control. I’ve turned my attention to a different cookie recipe this year, as friends and family alike have bestowed said iced sugar cookies upon me already.

Bon Appétit once again delivered this month as they rolled out a feature on Christmas cookies, aptly named: “Cookies!”. “How to mix, roll, freeze, slice, decorate, and gift the season’s crispiest, crumbliest, most delicious treats before the holidays even begin”, follows immediately after the article’s title. And while all of that baking vernacular sounds nice, let’s be honest here: they had me at “Cookies!”.

After leafing and fawning through the pages of this cookie article several times, I became impressed immediately with both the variety and somewhat unconventional cookie choices they chose to showcase. They profile the usual suspects such as sugar cookies with royal icing (complete with a decorating powder called luster dust, which gives the baker the ability to “paint” different shades of icing onto the cookies in Picasso fashion). Recipes for roasted-almond thumbprint cookies, chocolate-pistachio sablés, and salted honey & chocolate bark follow the sugar cookie recipe, but what really caught my eye was the recipe for the rosemary & toasted-caraway shortbread cookies. Because I can seemingly never get enough herbs in any dish, cocktail, or dessert that I make, I decided this would be a perfect fit for me this holiday season. Rosemary also strikes me as possibly (along with thyme) the most festive of the herbs, so I felt it would be the right touch.

You start out by toasting caraway seeds over a skillet, before you even get to the dough. Shortbread cookie recipes are quite simple: inordinate amounts of butter and sugar are coupled with flour and whatever other ingredients one deems necessary. In this case: caraway seeds and rosemary are the only other additions to the recipe. You finish by glazing and brushing egg onto the tops of the dough in the baking dish. The final touch consists of a few pinches of sanding sugar thrown on top of the egg glaze. Proceed to bake immediately thereafter.

I really enjoyed these as this satisfies one’s yearning for a sweet/salty/savory dessert and I found that the rosemary baked into the shortbread truly adds a unique twist to an otherwise straightforward recipe. In truth, I didn’t notice the caraway seeds that much, but I have no doubt their presence contributes to the savory nature of this cookie. I baked these on two occasions and used it as an offering: once with some California transplants during their east coast visits and once for my very first Russian Christmas. In both settings, they proved to be a hit. This shortbread recipe will certainly be going into my own personal vault and even though I made these only a few days ago, I already have a hankering to change the calendar pages to that of December 1.

Happy New Year, all!

Rosemary & Toasted-Caraway Shortbread Cookies

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1 tsp. caraway seeds
1 cup (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2 ” pieces
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. finely chopped fresh rosemary, plus whole leaves
1 large egg, beaten to blend
Coarse sanding sugar (for sprinkling)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Toast caraway seeds in a small, dry skillet over medium-high heat, tossing occasionally, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Coarsely chop, set aside.

Using an electric mixer on medium-high speed, beat butter, granulated sugar, powdered sugar, and salt until very light and fluffy, 7-10 minutes (beating air into butter makes for tender shortbread). Reduce speed to low and add flour, caraway, and 2 tsp. chopped rosemary; mix just to combine. Dough will look shaggy and a little dry (it’s not!).

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A butter, sugar, and salt ‘Winter Wonderland’

Press dough into two 8″-diameter cake pans. Brush with egg, sprinkle with sanding sugar, and top with rosemary leaves.

Bake until shortbread is golden brown and sides pull away from pan, 20-25 minutes. Transfer pan to a wire rack; let cool in pan before turning out and cutting into wedges or bars.

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