Black Pepper and Cardamom Shortbread Cookies

  • Galetes de cardamom i pebre negre
  • 03/04/2017

My grandmother used to make cookies all the time. She had a true sweet tooth and was forever baking up cookies for family, friends, and church events. Her cookies were popular enough to find their way into the church cookbook of collected recipes. I’ll never forget her personal collection of recipes, cut out from newspapers and popular women’s magazines, carefully annotated in her neat cursive hand to her liking. I have some of these recipes still, that were passed down from my mother to me. I remember puzzling over them when I was young, wondering why she changed certain ingredients, added others, or eliminated some altogether. Sometimes she would add careful notes marking the reasons (too much garlic; better with grapefruit), but most often it was left a mystery, to me at least. I’m sure she cooked all kinds of dishes, but the only thing she ever made us was pot roast, because we requested it every visit, and her homemade cookies for dessert.

When she didn’t have time to make us cookies, she would buy us the round, blue tins of Danish cookies, which you can find in the cookie aisle of any Florida Publix. I didn’t love them but ate them dutifully since she thought we loved them and went to the trouble of buying two tins for us before each visit. I did, however, like looking at all the different shapes, and selecting my favorites. I turned my nose up at the “pretzels” with their coarse sugar crust, selecting instead the thin crisp tuiles that met my cookie to pleasure ratio (i.e.low dough: high crunch). I particularly enjoyed pulling the last of each kind from their stiff little paper cups and feeding them to my little sister.

My grandmother’s taste for sweets must have skipped a generation or two, because neither my sister nor I are big fans of dessert. We don’t keep sweets at home, aren’t drawn in by freshly baked pies in bakery windows, and almost never order dessert out. My mother was an incredible cook, but I don’t remember if she ever made us dessert. (We did, however, have a familial weakness for Haagen-Daaz ice cream, which we got from my grandfather.)

My very favorite cookies that she made–indeed the only ones I really remember–were the melt-in-your-mouth soft Mexican wedding cookies that she would coat with powdered sugar. If she had them, she would add finely chopped walnuts to the mix, my favorite version. They were the complete opposite of my usual cookie preferences, but there was something so magical about how they would pop when you bit into them with a delicate crunch before dissolving into a creamy, buttery dream. I ate them until I made myself sick.

I loved making cookies with my grandmother. I think it’s why I still love making desserts, even though I almost never eat them. Any baker knows there’s something mesmerizing about working with dough, the runner’s high you get from losing yourself in the repetitive movements of kneading, shaping, rolling and, if you subscribe to that school, sifting flour. The magic of how such few ingredients–flour, sugar, butter, salt–can transform themselves in so many different ways with a slightly different touch still boggles my mind.

My grandmother was an insistent sifter. She sifted her flour one or two times religiously, no matter the recipe. It was one of my favorite parts of the baking process. I would stand on my special stool that she always brought out for me (My sister being almost 7 years younger than me missed out on these lessons), and squeeze the sifter for what felt like hours, watching the flour transform from flat and lifeless into a beautiful pyramid of airy powder. Just when I thought we were done, she would scoop up all my hard work and pour it back into the sifter, telling me to start again. When I begged a sore arm, she would take the sifter from my aching fingers and finish the job for me. I’m not sure if that’s why her Mexican shortbread cookies were so magical, but I can imagine the sifting helped.

A sifter is the one tool I’ve always had in my kitchen since I was in college. I didn’t know when I’d use it, but I felt I had to have it. I still almost never use it, but it’s essential for pancake batter. I’ve tried using it to make the Mexican shortbread cookies she used to make, but I’ve never been able to replicate her perfectly round balls or their delicate texture. Last Christmas my sister gave me a weird unlabeled white bag of flour mix for Danish butter cookies that I’m sure was a regift (Between us, we have a terrible re-gifting disease). I think I tried to look grateful, flew it home, and promptly packed it into the back of my kitchen cabinet, where all the things I’ll probably never use go. I mean, aside from the occasional Scottish shortbread, when do I ever crave cookies? The other day, in the process of trying to Marie Kondo our kitchen, I decided I was going to make these damn cookies, even though the baking powder had probably gone off and who knows what was in them. Since I can’t stand a plain cookie–much less a boring butter cookie–I decided I would spice them up, Persian style, since I’ve been recently pouring rose water into everything I make.

What happened was a small miracle. I followed the instructions on the bag, then added cardamom because I’m addicted to it. Then I decided a tad of rose water would probably make them even better. Then, I looked in my cabinet and saw the fifteen different kinds of pepper–last year I made a vow to start using pepper in all my foods–and decided that it wouldn’t hurt to add some of the expensive pink pepper I forced my dad to buy me at Whole Foods last visit home, and while I was at it why not some of the Indonesian Lampong peppercorns I bought from Verstegen Foods and fell in love with? I ground them up in my mortar and threw them in.

I grumbled when the dough didn’t really come together and then fully panicked when I was trying to shape them into balls. If I put a tablespoon in my hand half would squeeze out the end and when I opened my hand the rough lump would burst. I changed to a teaspoon. I packed them tightly and, before they could explode, laid them carefully on the silpat covered baking sheet. They were deformed little lumps. I sighed. ‘Whatever,’ I thought. ‘As long as they’re edible.’ I was grateful to discover that as they baked, they sank a bit, making them slightly less ugly. They came out of the oven, and I tried to move one to a plate to make room for round two, and it exploded. I burned my mouth as I popped one of the pieces into my mouth. But I was so bowled over by the beautifully fragrant, delicately spiced floral hint of cookie I tasted that I hardly noticed. And the texture was just like the Mexican wedding balls I’d been trying all these years to make. I couldn’t believe it. I ate the rest of that one, and then another. And another. We could hardly keep our hands off them. Then, sadly, I realized I’d have to figure out how to remake them from scratch to replace the mix I’d used since I had no idea where it came from. But I also figured it wouldn’t be so bad if I had to eat several unhappy accidents along the way. When I figure out how to replicate those classic Mexican wedding balls, I’ll send them your way. In the meantime, munch on these awkward beauties. I think you’ll thank me.

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I added pink peppercorns to this recipe because I like the floral scent they impart, but the black peppercorns shine through (as they do) in a beautiful way here, adding an extra fruity note to the light citrus nose of the cardamom. It’s best to use a fresh, good quality peppercorn for this recipe. The rose water adds just the tiniest hint of flowers, perfectly balancing the other spices, but can be left out if you don’t have it. 

1 cup (150g) plain flour
½ cup (125g) butter, cut into ½ inch cubes
¼ cup (60g) sugar
1 teaspoon black peppercorns, finely crushed
1 teaspoon pink peppercorns, finely crushed
Seeds from 10 green cardamom pods, finely crushed (or 1 teaspoon ground)
1 teaspoon rosewater (optional)
½ teaspoon sea salt

 

Line a baking tray with parchment or a silicone mat and set aside.

Preheat the oven to 340 degrees (170c).

Beat the butter, sugar, and rose water in a food processor or by hand until light and fluffy. 

Mix the flour, spices and salt together. Then add it to the butter mixture, blending well with a fork until it’s fully incorporated.

Shaping Option 1:

There are two ways to make these cookies. The shorthand way–the way I did it–is to scoop out a teaspoon size chunk of dough, place it in one hand and squeeze it quickly into a rough ball, before laying it on the cookie sheet. (You can see the grooves of my fingers in the finished cookies, but I’m too lazy for option 2).

Shaping Option 2:

The more formal way–the way to make them look like proper cookies–is to bring the dough together and shape it into a long sausage, which you can then wrap in saran wrap and freeze for fifteen minutes. Then cut into 1 centimeter thick rounds and place on the cookie sheet.

Bake for 10-12 minutes until pale golden. Allow to cool on the tray for a couple minutes until they firm up enough to move them to a plate or, preferably, a wire rack.

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