Decorating Shortbread Cookies

Decorated shortbread cookies create a buzz in retail bakeries. They work well for almost every occasion and even for no occasion at all. Everyone loves decorated cookies. This universality makes them a must-have staple at every bakery and many bakeries should even up the production and effort put into a decorated cookie category. At Mary’s Cakes & Pastries in Northport, AL, there are five main reasons that decorated shortbread cookies are a main attraction.

#1: Visual Interest

Decorated cookies make the case look great and draw customers to other items. If the saying “you eat first with your eyes” is true, there’s nothing like a mouth-watering pop of color to brighten things up and make everything in the case look even better. We have hundreds of cutters and our selection of cookies changes from week to week, depending on the season. From Valentine’s Day to Christmas -- and every holiday or season in-between -- we’re covered. Parents buy them for their kids to take to school or day care. Sales reps buy them for customers. They are perfect for weddings, birthdays and showers. Plus, we’re a college town. Fall Saturdays mean football, and we sell thousands of decorated cookies for home games.

A case of pretty cookies not only draws customers in, it also markets the bakery. In the slower winter months, we take that marketing a step further and host a “Cookie Throwdown” every Saturday. We put out piping bags full of buttercream and cups of sprinkles and invite the public to show us what they can do with a single cookie, a little icing, and a lot of imagination. We give out prizes and everyone has a great time. It’s a reasonably low cost event to host. We build a tremendous amount of goodwill, and get everyone craving our cookies.

#2: Low Ingredient Cost

Our ingredient cost is less than ten cents per cookie, including packaging and net losses (we break a few, and give free cookies to kids – most choose a decorated shortbread). The recipe is simple, with just three ingredients: flour, butter or margarine, and sugar.

The majority of the cost of a decorated cookie is in the labor. If you’re able to control the labor costs, decorated shortbread cookies can be a high profit item. Controlling labor costs is one reason we use the glaze-and-decorate method, instead of the flood-with-royal-icing method of decorating. We emphasize cute but simple designs, and charge extra for elaborate custom cookies.

#3: Long Shelf Life

The shelf life of a dense shortbread cookie is longer than a sugar or short paste cookie. And it’s also longer than a cupcake, pastry, chocolate chip cookie, lemon bar, or most of our other drop or bar cookies and pastries.

The cookie will eventually absorb moisture and soften, but shortbread typically retains flavor and texture for 5-7 days. It can also be frozen, either before or after it is glazed and decorated. Most of our shortbread cookies are cut out and baked at night, then frozen if they cannot be decorated immediately. This allows us to stock up for major holidays and optimizes our baking schedule.

#4 Customizable

While we always have a large selection of decorated shortbread cookies in our cases, we also make custom cookies for a variety of occasions. Cookies are sometimes the best dessert choice for certain events, especially outdoor parties. They also make great favors for birthdays, showers and weddings. Or, to say “thank you” to a special teacher, neighbor, or health care provider.

We collect cookie cutters in many shapes and sizes, but our most popular custom cookie is a simple glazed medallion with a short saying, monogram or name piped on top in colors to match the event.

We are careful not to infringe on licensed, trademarked or copyrighted content without the direct written permission of the owners. This includes practically all logos and characters from television, sports, academia, and the corporate world. We do have permission to reproduce the indicia of the University of Alabama, and often get permission to reproduce the logos of local companies to make gifts for their clients.

#5 Adaptability

Shortbread dough makes a great base for a variety of other bakery items. We make thumbprints from our shortbread dough. We also use it for the base of several layered bar cookies such as lemon squares, cheesecake squares, dream bars, and caramel nut bars. The dough can also be colored or flavored, adding even more options.

It is also our go-to recipe for customers with food sensitivities. Shortbread dough does not contain eggs. Earth Balance margarine can be substituted for regular margarine, to make it acceptable for those with milk allergies. And, since the gluten is not essential, gluten free flour can be substituted for the wheat flour as well. About the only item we have never substituted is the refined sugar, which is usually not acceptable to vegans, or those on a Paleo diet.

We’ve been making shortbread cookies since we opened in 2006. They have been a great part of our offerings and we recommend them to other bakeries. Here’s the formula we use for a 60 quart mixer:

15 lbs. cold margarine

7 lbs. 8 oz. granulated sugar

45 lbs. all-purpose flour

Using paddle attachment, cream margarine and sugar together. Add flour all at once and mix at lowest speed until flour is incorporated. Raise speed to medium (2 on a 4-speed mixer) and continue mixing until dough comes together and forms a ball. Do NOT over-mix or dough will become too soft to hold its shape as you roll and cut cookies.

Roll out on dough sheeter to 6 cm, covering top of dough with plastic film to prevent dough from sticking to rollers. Cut shapes and bake at 325°F about 20 minutes or until edges are slightly browned and dough is cooked. Cool, ice, dry, and decorate.

We paint the cookies with a glaze using confectioner’s sugar, corn syrup and water, but Brill’s White & Glossy also works. Decorate with royal icing. Makes about 50 dozen 3x4 in cookies.

THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN SHORTBREAD, SUGAR, AND SHORT PASTE COOKIES

We make shortbread cookies. When asked about sugar or short paste cookies, I sometimes launch into a detailed explanation, causing eye rolls or a glazed expression on the customer's face. But the distinction is important, since there is a difference in taste, texture, and cost. And, for those who prefer the taste or texture of a sugar or short paste cookie, shortbread could be disappointing.

Sugar cookies have many ingredients, including butter, flour, eggs, flavoring, salt and a leavening agent such as baking powder or baking soda. Sugar cookies are typically sweeter than shortbread cookies, and have a lighter, crisper texture. Like shortbread, they are often elaborately decorated.

Shortbread cookies are traditionally made from one part sugar, two parts butter or margarine, and three parts flour. This 1-2-3 formula makes the recipe very easy to remember. They usually do not contain salt or vanilla. Some bakers -- who prefer the texture of a shortbread cookie, but the taste of a sugar cookie -- add salt and/or vanilla to their shortbread dough. The use of salted butter versus unsalted butter can also alter the taste of the cookie.

Shortbread cookies are baked at a low temperature to avoid browning; when cooked they should be very pale, and only barely browned on the edges. Because they do not contain a leavening agent, shortbread cookies tend to be harder or denser -- compared with the softer, crisper sugar cookie.

At Mary's Cakes & Pastries, we coat our cookies with a sugar glaze, which adds sweetness, and dries hard, but is faster and less costly than flooding with royal icing. Then we decorate, usually with piped royal icing. We sometimes dip the cookies in chocolate, or decorate them with a stiffer sugar, especially when we want to avoid the egg-white based royal icing for customers with egg allergies.

Traditional short paste is made with two thirds plain flour and one third fat, with a small amount of water to bring it all together. Short paste is the preferred dough for pie and pastry crusts, and quiches, but (with added sugar) can also be made into cookies. There are many options -- just butter, half butter-half lard, with / without egg, with / without sugar -- all of which depend on the intended use of the "paste" and/or the personal preference of the baker. When made into a cookie, short paste is cooked only until slightly firm, but still soft and pasty. Because of its delicate texture, it is usually not iced, or it is topped with a soft buttercream.