Holiday Baking

Shortbreads are a great way to taste fresh whole grain flours. As Nan Kohler of Grist & Toll says, the flavors seem to amplify each other – the butter gets butterier, the salt tastes saltier, and good flour tastes fantastic in a shortbread.


Purple Egyptian barley shortbreads make a house I want to live inside.
Purple Egyptian barley shortbreads make a house I want to live inside.

Holiday baking makes me want to go fancy, and get festive with the ingredients & shapes. But shortbreads do best as themselves. Salt, butter, flour – maybe some sugar, maybe not. There is no need to dress these up, or make pretty shapes. Just cut a bunch of tiny squares and bake and you have done your best by the flour.

My favorite shortbreads I’ve made this year are from purple Egyptian barley grown on the Palouse Colony Farm. I could not get over the taste – this barley has a lot of flavor. It is not commonly found, so it may seem I’m teasing you by mentioning it. Sorry about that: I’m just in love with it.

I am also in love with spelt shortbreads, or rye-spelt, or 100% whole wheats. Sonora and other white wheats are great on their own, and oat flour is a great addition. When I used the purple Egyptian, I only used half barley because I didn’t have much of it. I also thought the cookie could be too crumbly if it were all barley – rye, oats and barley I think will do best combined with some wheat.


Bear in mind that if you use heritage flours, they are thirstier than flours you get on the supermarket shelf. What this means for cookies is that you might need less flour to get the dough you want. Start with 10 ounces and see how close to a pie crust style dough you get. If the dough isn’t stiff enough, add more. I’d start with 11 ounces for supermarket flours and modern varieties of wheat that are stone ground.



10-14 ounces whole grain flour

¼ cup sugar

1 teaspoon salt

8 ounces butter, softened (but not melted)


Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Mix flour, sugar and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer. Cut butter into ½ inch squares, and using the paddle, mix into the dry ingredients. Start with 10 ounces and see what you’ve got. The dough should be pretty stiff, but come together in a ball. Think pastry crust, more than cookie dough.

You will likely need to add more flour to get to the right consistency. If you add too much flour — meaning that ball you made crumbles, just add a tablespoon of water or rose water, and add another if the dough is still crumbly. 

Put on a floured surface, and pat into a rectangle about an inch thick. Roll about ¼ inch thick, cut into 1 inch squares, and bake about 12-15 minutes on unbuttered cookie sheets. You might want to roll and cut on parchment to make the transfer simpler. I use a ruler and a knife to cut the cookie dough.


Tip: don’t try to make a shortbread into something else. Sugar cookie and gingerbread doughs are sturdier than this one, and the big, cookie cutter shapes you can make with gingerbread or sugar cookie dough will break with this one. Trust me.