Shortbread cookies may be short, but they stand tall in the history of cookies. They are a classic cookie, nearly pure butter and sugar – the essence of what we're looking for (admit it) when we bite into a cookie.

A little shortbread will go a long way – and it also will go in many directions. It's flexible in timing and taste. You can make the dough ahead, and tweak it with pretty much any flavor variation your heart (and tastebuds) desire. It's perfect for a party.

Mix up the dough and freeze it in a ball to roll out later, or form it into a log to slice when you get the urge for a fresh baked cookie. Or roll out the dough and cut it into shapes to freeze. This would be a great holiday present for loved ones within personal delivery distance (sending in the mail would be a better idea if you're going to bake the cookies yourself, though shortbread is also short-lived enough not to be the best idea for long distance cookie love; biscotti fit that bill better).

From our most trusted cooking buddy, Mark Bittman, this recipe (from his column in the NY Times):


Shortbread Cookies 

1/2 pound unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon salt

1. Use an electric mixer on low speed to combine the butter and sugar, about 30 seconds. Keeping the speed on low, beat in the egg yolk, flour, cornstarch and salt, until the mixture barely holds together; don't overbeat.

2. If you want to make shapes, form the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic and freeze or refrigerate for at least 30 minutes, until firm. Roll it out on a lightly floured surface until ¼ inch thick. Cut into any shapes you like, then put the cookies on an ungreased baking sheet. Chill for at least 1 hour. Alternatively, shape the dough into a round, triangular or rectangular log and refrigerate or freeze until firm, at least 30 minutes. Slice ¼ inch thick and put on the baking sheet.

3. Heat the oven to 275. Bake the cookies until just firm but still quite tender and not at all brown, about 30 minutes. Cool for a minute on the sheets before using a spatula to transfer the cookies to a rack to finish cooling.

Variations:

Chocolatey
Expresso-chocolate: Melt 1 ounce bittersweet chocolate in a double boiler or microwave and cool to room temperature. Beat into the butter and sugar before adding the egg yolk. Add 1 tablespoon instant espresso powder with the dry ingredients.

Chocolate-dipped: Melt about 1 cup semisweet chocolate in a double broiler or microwave; stir until smooth. Dip the shortbread into the chocolate and put on waxed paper to dry and harden.

Additional options: Omit espresso or chocolate; and/or skip the chocolate dip.

Citrusy
Lemon poppy seed: Reduce the butter to 14 tablespoons. Add 2 tablespoons lemon juice and 1 tablespoon lemon zest with the egg yolk.  Add 1 tablespoon poppy seeds with the dry ingredients.

Orange: Add 2 tablespoons grated orange rind with the egg yolk.

Coconut-lime: Heat the oven to 325. Spread ½ shredded unsweetened cup coconut on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until toasted, about 3 minutes; cool slightly. Add 2 tablespoons lime zest with the egg yolk; add the toasted coconut with the dry ingredients.

Sugary
Cinnamon sugar: Reduce the sugar to ½ cup and add 1/4 cup brown sugar. Add 1 teaspoon cinnamon with the dry ingredients.

Variations: Add ½ cup chopped pecans, pistachios or almonds (with or without the cinnamon). Or, skip the cinnamon and add 1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract with the nuts.

Crystalized ginger: Reduce the sugar to ½ cup and add ½ cup finely chopped crystallized ginger.

Savory
Rosemary and olive oil: Reduce the butter to 12 tablespoons and add 1/4 cup olive oil. Add 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary with the dry ingredients.

Variations: Keep the butter and skip the olive oil; add ½ cup grated Parmesan. And/or, add ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper with the dry ingredients.