WHEN it comes to improvising in the kitchen, pastry chefs are adamant. Winging it may be fine when making savory dishes, but for baking, they insist: follow the recipe exactly and do not stray. Substituting honey for granulated sugar could make your meringues weep and your gingerbread houses come crashing down.
They've got a point in the world of professional pastry making, but in my home kitchen, I beg to differ. Since I can't bear to follow a recipe straight through, but refuse to give up the bowl-licking allure of baking, I've found a compromise. After mastering the technique for one ridiculously easy confection, I can now blithely change it with abandon.
Thus, my chameleon recipe for shortbread cookies: two batches are never exactly alike, but all of them share the same buttery, crumbly tenderness, braced by a little salt, that makes shortbread cookies irresistible.
The key to cookie freedom is memorizing the essential proportions: one stick of butter to one cup of flour, multiplied as desired. With that in the food processor, anything else goes. Sugar? Use confectioners', brown, granulated, maple, turbinado or date sugar, and add it to taste, taking care not to overdo it. A third to a half cup is about right, depending on the caprice of your sweet tooth. Salt is also variable. Use less if you want the sweet-salty contrast to be mitigated, more if you like it as pronounced as a chocolate-covered pretzel.
Finally, there are the flavorings, if any. Plain and unadorned, using the best, freshest butter and not much else, shortbread is compelling and pure. But the temptation for gilding runs hot and deep.
While I'm whirling the ingredients in the food processor, any number of things can fall in. Chopped halvah, sesame seeds and a dash of toasted sesame oil for a Middle-Eastern-inspired rendition. Spice, nuts, minced dried fruit, citrus zest, herbs, tea leaves (Earl Grey and green tea leaves are nice; grind them finely) or espresso powder (just add it with the flour). Nubby cornmeal or oatmeal. Chopped-up chocolate bonbons from last Valentine's Day (tasty but unpresentable). Cocoa powder, almonds, cinnamon and cayenne for a Mexican hot chocolate flavor.
The reason for so much variation is that now that I can make basic shortbread without thinking or fuss, I have turned it into my all-occasion, go-to gift. A friend's birthday? A box of shortbread cookies wrapped in colored tissue. A colleague's dinner party? A hostess gift of a vintage tin filled with shortbreads. The holidays? Many, many bright-hued bags filled with shortbread and tied with ribbons.
And the best part? No two gifts are ever the same. How many cookie recipes can boast that?
Toasted Walnut Cookies
Adapted from ''Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone'' by Deborah Madison (Broadway, 1997)
Time: 45 minutes
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
2 tablespoons roasted or plain walnut oil (optional)
1 1/2 cups light brown sugar (or a mixture of white and dark brown)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 1/2 cups flour
2 cups finely chopped walnuts
Powdered sugar for dusting.
1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. If using walnut oil, subtract 2 tablespoons butter. In a mixer, cream butter, walnut oil if using and sugar until smooth and light. Add eggs, and mix, then add vanilla and salt. With mixer running at low speed, stir in flour, then nuts.
2. Roll dough into walnut-size balls and place on ungreased cookie sheets about 2 inches apart. (Or, roll into 2 logs about 1 1/2 inches in diameter, wrap in parchment paper and freeze for up to 2 months. Slice 1/4-inch thick before baking.)
3. Bake until lightly browned on top, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to wire rack and let cool, then dust with powdered sugar.
Yield: About 6 dozen small cookies.
Rosemary Shortbread With Variations
Time: 45 minutes, plus cooling
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon plus 1 pinch kosher salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted cold butter, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 to 2 teaspoons rosemary, chestnut or other dark, full-flavored honey (optional).
1. Heat oven to 325 degrees. In a food processor, pulse together flour, sugar, rosemary and salt. Add butter, and honey if desired, and pulse to fine crumbs. Pulse a few more times until some crumbs start to come together, but don't overprocess. Dough should not be smooth.
2. Press dough into an ungreased 8- or 9-inch-square baking pan or 9-inch pie pan. Prick dough all over with a fork. Bake until golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes for 9-inch pan, 45 to 50 minutes for 8-inch. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Cut into squares, bars or wedges while still warm.
Yield: One 8- or 9-inch shortbread.
Plain Shortbread: Use this as the base for the variations. Omit rosemary and honey.
Vanilla Bean Shortbread: Split a vanilla bean in half lengthwise and use back of a knife to scrape out pulp. Pulse pulp into flour-sugar mixture before adding butter. In addition, you could also add up to 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract with the butter.
Citrus Shortbread: Add 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated lemon, lime or orange zest with the flour. Add up to 1 teaspoon orange blossom water with butter if desired. These are classic with poppy seeds.
Nut Shortbread: Grind 1/2 cup toasted nuts in food processor with flour before adding remaining ingredients. Flavor with spices, citrus or rosemary if desired.
Spice or Seed Shortbread: Add up to 1 teaspoon spices such as ground cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg or cardamom, or seeds such as caraway or anise (or up to 3 tablespoons poppy or sesame seeds). Or, add up to 1/4 teaspoon allspice or mace, with or without a pinch of ground cloves. You can use a spice by itself, or in any combination you like, but don't use them all at once.
Brown or Maple Sugar Shortbread: Substitute 1/3 cup dark brown sugar or maple sugar for granulated sugar. This is especially good if you also use nuts. Add spices, seeds, citrus flavorings or rosemary if desired.
Cornmeal or Whole Wheat Shortbread: Substitute up to 1/2 cup cornmeal or whole wheat flour for 1/2 cup all-purpose flour. Add spices, seeds, citrus flavorings or rosemary if desired.