Almond Shortbread Cookies

Preheat the oven to 350 ° F. Cream together the butter and the sugar, until the mixture is light and fluffy. Add the almond extract and the salt, beating to incorporate.  Gradually beat in the flours until the mixture forms a dough.  Roll out the dough on a floured surface until it is about 1/4 – 1/2 of an inch thick.  Use a cookie cutter to cut diamond shapes out of the dough, placing them on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until golden.  Cool on wire racks, and dip in melted chocolate, if desired.

Cutting butter is the second technique that is essential for holiday baking.  Cutting butter refers to incorporating butter into flour (as opposed to sugar, when creaming) to create a crumb-like mixture, with small beads or pieces of butter left intact.  The bits of butter are the key to flaky pie crusts and biscuits. Instead of softening the butter first, butter should be cold (even frozen) when it is cut into the flour.  A pastry blender works well for cutting butter, but it can also be done by using your fingertips to gently press the butter and flour together.

One of the most common applications of cutting butter is in pastry crusts.  A basic pie crust can be made by using a ratio of three parts flour, two parts butter, and one part water.  Adding a bit of sugar will yield a beautiful crust for a sweet pie, and a pinch of salt is all that is needed for savory tarts or quiches.  I used this particular recipe to make a broccoli and cheese quiche.  The recipe yields enough dough to fill one 9-inch tart pan.  It can easily be doubled to make enough for a two-crust pie.

Basic Pie Crust

Measure the flour into a mixing bowl.  Add a pinch of salt.  Cut the butter into chunks and add to the flour.  Using a pastry blender or your finger tips, quickly cut the butter into the flour, forming a crumb-like texture with small bits of butter left intact.  Gradually add the water, mixing with your fingers just until the dough comes together.  Form the dough into a disk, cover, and refrigerate until ready to roll out. The cooking time will depend on the ingredients that are added.  To pre-bake or "blind bake" the crust (for quiches or custards), bake for 15 minutes at 375 ° F, weighted down with parchment paper and pie weights or beans.  Remove the weights and bake for an additional 10 – 15 minutes, until golden.