I’m not exactly sure when it was that Danish butter cookies became a feature of Christmas in our house, but feature they did for several years, with their round, swirled and pretzel shapes and their always-buttery taste.
It seems to me that it must have coincided with the family’s Danish phase (yes, we actually had one of those), which started when a few unsuspecting Danes attended a folk festival in Donegal and resulted (among other things) in one of my brothers living in Copenhagen for several years and in assorted other family members (myself included) spending time in that city. At Christmas and at other times when folks were visiting from Denmark, it often meant that we ended up, not with butter cookies, but with a jar of pickled herring in the fridge and a bottle of Gammel Dansk in the cupboard.
Still, I imagine that our various Danish connections were as good a selling point as any when Danish butter cookies started making an appearance in the local supermarket. A tin or two of same would appear over Christmas, and be consumed, inevitably, with gallons of tea and far more gusto than their pickled herring kin.
And even now, though the Danish phase may be long past, butter cookies will always speak to me of Christmas (pickled herrings, on the other hand, not so much). When asked recently by Kerrygold to come up with a buttery Christmas recipe, there was only ever one thing I was going to make.
Irish Butter Cookies
A basic butter cookie is a thing of beauty – a simple yet sublime combination of butter, flour, sugar and eggs, which can be flavoured or not as you fancy. For guidance on the art of the butter cookie, I consulted Shirley Corriher’s Bakewise, my bible on all things baking, and this recipe is adapted from the butter cookie recipes found there.
Of course, whatever about the recipe, it goes without saying that the better the butter, the better the butter cookie and, luckily, Ireland is blessed with some of the finest butter going. I almost always have some Kerrygold in the fridge and that’s what I used here.
As for flavouring, while the butter cookies of my youth probably contained nothing more than a splash of vanilla, I have added orange zest and cardamom to my version. You can happily replace both with some natural vanilla extract if you like (about half a teaspoon or so should do it), or with whatever else takes your fancy.
Regarding the cardamom, though you can buy it ready ground, I do recommend grinding it freshly if you can. To do this, you’ll need to cut open some green cardamom pods and remove the seeds inside. When you have enough seeds (about half a teaspoon’s worth for this recipe), pound them well with a mortar and pestle or grind using a spice grinder.
For the cookies:
- 225g butter, softened
- 100g granulated sugar
- 2 tblsp orange zest
- 2 egg yolks
- 275g plain flour (alternatively, for a slightly sandier texture, use 225g strong flour + 50g rice flour or cornflour)
- 0.5 tsp ground cardamom seeds
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1 tblsp demerara (or other coarse-grained sugar) for sprinkling
- A little icing sugar for dusting (optional)
You’ll also need:
- Clingfilm to wrap the dough, a couple of large baking trays (around 30cm x 40cm) and, ideally, some parchment paper to line the trays
- Beat together the butter, sugar and orange zest until light and creamy.
- Add the egg yolks and beat until just combined.
- Whisk together the plain flour (or bread flour and rice flour if using) and the ground cardamom and then incorporate into the butter mixture just until it forms a stiff dough.
- Divide the dough into 3 or 4 pieces and roll each into evenly-sized logs, around 4cm in diameter. Wrap in cling-film and chill for at least two hours or (even better) overnight.
- When you’re ready to bake, preheat your oven to 180C and line your baking sheets with parchment paper or grease them.
- Slice your logs evenly into discs, about 0.5cm thick, and lay on the baking trays, leaving about 2cm between each piece. Brush with beaten egg and sprinkle with demerara sugar.
- Bake the butter cookies for 12-15 minutes or until just starting to brown at the edges. Turn the trays around half-way through baking and, if you have trays on two different shelves, swap the shelves you’re using half-way through baking too.
- Allow the cookies to cool for about 2 minutes, then remove to a wire rack until such time as you can no longer resist eating them. For presentation, you can dust them with a little icing sugar if you should feel so inclined.
- You can omit the orange zest and cardamom and add 0.5 tsp vanilla extract or try another extract, such as almond, or perhaps try adding 2 tblsp lemon zest plus 1 tsp ground ginger or more to taste.
- Makes around 50 to 60 cookies