What’s Cooking? Karen Barker’s Cornmeal Vanilla Bean Shortbreads!

Elaine Maisner is a senior editor at UNC Press. Over a recent winter break, she asked her daughter, Zina—a wonderful baker—to make Cornmeal Vanilla Bean Shortbreads, from Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts. Here’s their step-by-step guide to making these delicious cookies.–ellen

I thought it would be fun to take pictures of Zina making these cookies, especially to show people who want to bake–and aren’t sure they know how–that it really is easy. All the basic moves are here in this recipe: getting that sugar and butter together, using a real vanilla bean, adding the flour, rolling, baking. Just take your butter out an hour or two before you start–you’ll want it to be at room temperature for this recipe–and then you’ll see the easy magic that you and a wooden spoon can make. (You really don’t need an electric mixer.) These shortbreads are always welcome, munched with hot coffee or cold milk, or propped alongside a ball of ice cream. Karen gives some great serving tips at the end of the recipe, below. The cornmeal gives the shortbread a little southern touch. And remember: the more butter in a cookie, the shorter it is. Thanks, Zina and Karen.

Cornmeal Vanilla Bean Shortbreads

from Sweet Stuff: Karen Barker’s American Desserts

Makes 32 2-inch cutouts or 16 wedges

Every baker has a favorite recipe for shortbread cookies, and here is mine. The addition of fresh vanilla bean and the slight crunch of cornmeal make these buttery treats irresistible. You can customize their shape, depending upon your mood and the occasion. Try cutout stars for Christmas or the Fourth of July, hearts for Valentine’s Day, or Scottish-style wedges for tea.


16 tablespoons (8 ounces) butter, at room temperature

seeds of 1 vanilla bean

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

½ cup + 1 tablespoon sugar

1 ½ cups flour

¼ cup cornstarch

½ cup stoneground yellow cornmeal

Here’s how to get those vanilla bean seeds:


1. Using a mixer with a paddle, cream the butter with the vanilla bean seeds, salt, and sugar, scraping the sides of the bowl once or twice.

2. Combine the flour,


and cornmeal

and add to the creamed butter in 3 additions.

Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl to make sure the dough is evenly mixed.

Gather the dough together, divide in half, flatten into rounds, and wrap in plastic.

Chill for one hour or up to 2 days. This dough can be frozen. Defrost overnight on the refrigerator before using.

3.  Preheat oven to 350°.

4. A. For shortbread cutouts: On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out ¼ inch thick.

Cut the cookies into desired shapes and place them on a parchment paper–lined baking sheet. Gather the scraps and reroll one time.

B. For shortbread wedges: On a lightly floured surface, roll each piece of dough into a circle 8 inches in diameter and ¼ to ½ inch thick. Use a plate or a cake pan as a guide. Place on a parchment paper–lined baking sheet. Score each round into 8 wedges, being careful not to cut all the way through the dough. Decoratively prick the shortbread with the tines of a fork if desired.

5. Bake at 350° for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the edges just start to brown. Reduce oven to 325° and bake an additional 10 to 20 minutes. Wedges will need a longer baking time than cutouts. Rotate the baking sheet midway through the baking process–you want the shortbreads to remain fairly light in color, but you do want to make sure they’re baked through. You can always break a cookie open to test for doneness. No traces of raw dough should exist in the center. The texture of the cookies will crisp up once they are cool. You’ll want to recut the scored shortbread wedges once the cookies are baked.

Baker’s Note: You can keep an airtight box of rolled shortbreads on hand in your freezer and bake them as needed.

Serving Suggestions: These are great all on their own or as a side cookie to a scoop of purple plum rum sorbet (page 282) or bourbon molasses ice cream (page 264). I have also fashioned a stacked shortcake-like dessert by layering 2 shortbread cookie wedges with fresh strawberries or bourbon poached peaches (page 149) and whipped cream.