February can be a hard month for morale; the year ahead is no longer a virtuous, blank page for us to draft with ideals and aspirations. Though the days are steadily lengthening, the cold and the damp remain. It’s not unusual to suffer the winter blues when the sky is heavy and the trees are still jagged and bare, but I believe there are merits to even the bleakest of seasons. I have always relished the quietness of February. Thick blankets of frost muffle the landscape and grace us with glittering views in the early light. There are few simpler pleasures in life than crunching through a still, winter’s scene or watching the steam from a hot cup curl and vanish into the cold air. Even the wildlife seems quieter; birds huddle in the bare trees and hedgerow creatures nestle in their earthen dens. The hush of wintertime can allow for peace and the pursuit of gentler pleasures.
In the kitchen I have turned to my store-cupboard for inspiration. For a quiet month I seek quiet comfort and flavours as delicate as the frostbitten landscape outside. My focus this February is on Vanilla, the powerhouse spice of the home-baker. Sadly, the ‘vanilla option’ is often considered the blandest of sweet treats, overlooked for the assertive, earthen tones of chocolate or the crisp tang of citrus. Vanilla is, in my opinion, an under-appreciated yet overrepresented ingredient. I can’t help but think that our disenchanted attitude towards this spice is actually a result of its steady, dependable presence in our baking. I encounter very few sweet baking recipes that don’t call for the obligatory teaspoon of vanilla extract. It lurks in the background with all of the reassurance of a reliable parent and we take it’s subtle, velvety aroma for granted.
I devised these delicate, buttery biscuits as an homage to the humble vanilla spice. A simple shortbread makes the perfect vehicle for the sweet, speckled perfume of no less than three different forms of vanilla. The texture is melting and crisp, perfect to sit alongside a steaming teacup on a wintery afternoon. Bake them thick to fill the biscuit tin or cut them into thin, dainty shapes to accompany after-dinner coffee.
Triple Vanilla Shortbread Cookies
250g plain flour
30g icing sugar
115g butter (softened)
1 vanilla pod
½ tsp vanilla extract
2 tbsp. vanilla sugar
- Preheat oven to 350°F/180°C/160°Fan and line two baking trays.
- Weigh the butter into a large bowl and sift in the icing sugar.
- Measure out the vanilla extract and add to the bowl.
- Cut the vanilla pod lengthways and scrape out the seeds using the edge of a knife. Add the seeds to the butter and icing sugar (discard the pod or keep it for adding to homemade vanilla sugar).
- Cream the butter, sugar and both types of vanilla together until light and fluffy.
- Sift in the flour and mix until combine. Work lightly with your hands to create ‘breadcrumbs’ or, if available, use a food processor. It may take some for the mixture to form into a dough but do not be tempted to add water, it will come together eventually.
- Sift a little icing sugar onto a kitchen surface and roll out the dough to approximately 1cm thick.
- Cut out using your cookie cutter of choice and arrange on the baking trays with at least a 5cm gap between each cookie.
- Bake for 10-15 minutes. Do not allow the shortbread to become too ‘golden’, they should remain crisp yet pale.
- Leave to cool for several minutes on the baking sheet before transferring to a cooling rack.
- Once cool, dredge each cookie in a little vanilla sugar, tapping to remove the excess.