Simple Shortbread Cookies Better Than Any in a Tin

“Patricia, there’s a mouse in my bed.” I had been asleep when my friend Eileen gently shook me awake with these very calm words in her very sweet voice one night many years ago when she came to visit us in Vermont. A mouse? How could there be a mouse?

I am not disturbed by mice, but one early experience – it’s vague, but it includes my mother up on a chair all in a flutter because of a mouse somewhere in her room – taught me that some people don’t like them. I followed Eileen downstairs to where she had been asleep and then awakened by said mouse. Sure enough, a small rodent was nestled among her sheets.

“This is not a mouse, Eileen,” I said, somehow thinking this would improve the situation. “This is a hamster. How on earth did it get out of its cage?” I never did learn the answer to that question, but perhaps should have expected such things to happen. After all, I’m the one who allowed the kids to have hamsters as pets. The first one died when Bradley decided to give it a bath in the bathroom sink (surprise, surprise). I was never sure exactly what aspect of that experience sealed the furry little thing’s fate, but I allowed another and another until I even allowed a rat they called Templeton, for which I always thought I should get extra credit as a mom. Thankfully these things do not live forever, bath or no bath.

Eileen didn’t hold the hamster incident against us – though now that I think of it, perhaps this is why she hasn’t come to visit since…

Ironically, Eileen lives in New Jersey with her dear cat. She will forever be associated in my mind not only with the small-rodent-in-the-bed experience, but also with the shortbread cookies I make for my cottage guests. She gave me the recipe years ago. I can’t look at its determined handwriting and explicit instructions without recalling the intelligent woman who wrote such succinct instructions as “must be butter” and “Cut in fancy shapes” and left it at that.

This is Eileen’s recipe.

recipe2 (2)

These are tasty, easy and simple. You don’t have to wonder if someone likes nuts or raisins or chocolate (though I know only one person on the face of the earth who doesn’t like chocolate!). If you like a simple, buttery, crisp, non-foo-foo cookie, you’ll like these. My son Drew tells me that when I send them to him, they last only a few hours and then are gone. (Last night, in a moment of supreme delight, I handed him a little sleeve of them face to face here in San Francisco!)

I know you will appreciate how exact Eileen is about the measurements. All that is good. And you are welcome to follow her instructions on the rolling out and cutting out of the cookies as well. But I have a much quicker way once the dough is together.

Three ingredients: butter, sugar, flour. Mix together, form into logs, wrap and refrigerate, and then, when you are ready, slice and bake. Bake as many as you want that day or the next week. The reason this works well for cottage guests is that I can make the dough, keep it chilled, and bake fresh as many as I need just before they arrive.

Start with a pound of butter, that wonderful dairy product that makes so many foods so much better. (When Tracy came for dinner on Wednesday I put a few pats into drained, boiled potatoes along with some chopped, fresh parsley – oh yum! Oh, did I get distracted there? Back to cookies!)

Take the butter out hours before you want to make the cookies so that it is as soft as it can get at room temperature. If you are in a hurry and want to soften the butter in the microwave, that’s fine, but watch it carefully. You want it soft, not melted.

Add the 1 ¼ cups of sugar and stir up until creamy. This should not take long if your butter is properly soft. Then add the five cups of flour. Eileen’s recipe says be sure to sift before measuring. You can do this, but pre-sifted flour has worked fine for me. Your call.

The mixed-up butter-sugar-flour will look like this in the bowl.

dough loose in bowl

Now use your hands to smoosh that dough together, like this.

dough together in bowl

I don’t mind the hands-in-dough aspect of this process, in fact it is a pleasure like none other, but you will get a better result if, for the next part, you enlist the help of waxed paper.

This is where Eileen and I part ways. I was right there with her with “Mix thoroughly w/hands.” But the rolling out and cutting into fancy shapes I do only when my granddaughters are around or it’s a holiday and we want to make hearts or stars or dogbone shapes. Normally I cut four pieces of waxed paper about 18” long. Divide the dough roughly in quarters, form a rough “log” on each sheet and elongate it by hand, like this.

elongated by hand

Then use the paper to help you form a smoother log. Be gentle with the paper or it will tear. Your logs will look like this.

rolling with paper

This amount of dough, when rolled into logs about 1 1/4” in diameter, makes about 52 linear inches total. Mine looked like this, wrapped up and ready for the refrigerator.


I put the logs in a plastic bag closed up tight and leave them there at least an hour, sometimes days or even a couple weeks, and slice them for baking when I am ready. Of course, you can slice off and bake only as many as you need. I seldom make this many at once, but I was going to be traveling and taking some with me.


Place them on the pans about this distance apart.

on pans unbaked

The shapes are not perfect as you can see. To me this is part of their beauty, their individuality, their authenticity. Make them perfect if you prefer 😊 The dough is easy to work with.

Bake them to about this color. Eileen’s recipe says 300 degrees for 20-25 minutes. I always found that with such a slow oven, they took much longer than that. No harm ever came in my kitchen from upping the temp to 350 and just keeping a close eye on them. In my experience, 350 degrees for 20-25 minutes is more like it.

on pan baked2

To serve to guests, pick a pretty plate or shallow bowl and make it nice.

in bowl to serve

Or put them in plastic sleeves (the kind you can get at a craft store like AC Moore or Michael’s). They travel well this way. Cut the recipe in half if you want fewer cookies, but why would you do that? These make great gifts!

in sleeves (2)

4 thoughts on “Simple Shortbread Cookies Better Than Any in a Tin

  1. I admire all your recipes and hope to make some of your specialties this winter as the weather cools. But more than the recipes, I look forward to your blogs. I always smile deep within.


  2. shortcuts are wonderful. I love the idea of keeping them in the fridge. Never thought of keeping the dough for longer than a day or two. My concern is not that cookies won’t be eaten… it is more that they will be polished off in no time. So keeping dough in the fridge might make the recipe last longer 😉


  3. Pingback: Exotic Irish Soda Bread | An Unboring Path

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