When it comes to writing about food, I want to make it a learning experience. Food is so integral to culture, so I like to think of each new culinary endeavor as a reason to go on a little informational quest. This could be delving into the history of a particular ingredient, or a little background information on a particular tradition or event associated with a recipe. As I begin with these charming heart-shaped shortbread cookies, I thought I would do a little research on the background of some of our Valentine’s Day traditions.
A brief timeline of Valentine’s Day celebrations:
- While feasts on St. Valentine's Day date back to ancient times, the custom of choosing a sweetheart on Feb. 14 began in the royal courts of France and England during the 14th century.
- During this period, poets first began to refer to a lover as a “Valentine.”
- Exchanging Valentines was likely limited to elites until the late-18th or 19th century.
- By the 1860s Valentine’s Day became the commercially profitable venture we recognize today — Victorian Britain made the exchange of ornate and expensive Valentines especially popular.
- And — among my favorite pieces of Valentine’s Day trivia — the Sweethearts Conversation Hearts were first devised by the New England Confectionary Company in 1866. That’s right, your great, great, (maybe even great) grandparents were probably buying the same “Be Mine” candies you can buy today. Although they couldn't buy the Spanish variation — Sweethearts En Espanol. Today, NECCO produces about a billion candy hearts a year, making it the best selling Valentine's Day candy.
Now to the cookies. I used a fairly standard shortbread recipe for these cookies. My favorite part was using my new cookie press! The press is an excellent baking tool — the perfect accessory for making the kind of dainty cookies you would happily give as a gift. I also got to put my Silpat baking mat baking to work for these, which made for even baking and easy clean-up.
Another important caveat, I have Celiac Disease, which I will discuss further in future posts. That means that I cannot digest gluten (the protein in wheat, rye, and barley) and that it is not included in my recipes. That said, there are a number of gluten-free flour mixes that can generally be adapted to recipes using normal wheat flour, and I based my flour mix on the "Mock Better Batter" flour that Nicole Hunn at Gluten-Free on a Shoestring adapted.
Cookie-Press Shortbread Cookies (gluten-free)
- 1 cup butter or margarine — let butter soften for about 30 min., but you don’t want it room temperature.
- 1 1/2 cups all-purpose gluten-free flour
- 1/2 cup confectioners sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- Preheat oven to 350ºF (175ºC)
- In a medium bowl, cream together the butter and confectioners sugar and vanilla until smooth.
- Stir in the flour and cornstarch
- Load the dough into the cookie press, and start punching them out onto an un-greased cookie sheet (in my case, I put them directly onto the Silpat)
- Bake for 8-10 minutes, or until peaks are slightly golden (I baked mine for a full 10 min.)
These are not an especially sweet cookie, so if you’re looking to satisfy your sweet tooth, add a touch of frosting or decorative sugar. I felt that the buttery flavor of the cookies was well paired with a simple cream cheese frosting.
For a colorful cookie add some food coloring to your dough. About halfway through pressing my cookies, I decided to experiment with making a pink cookie by adding a touch of red food coloring.
On the cookie press: You have to get a feel for how much pressure to put on the top of the press, but once you get into a rhythm, this makes creating near-perfectly shaped cookies incredibly easy. Since gluten-free dough can tend to be stickier than glutenous doughs, I found pairing it with the Silpat’s slightly tacky texture was especially helpful in grabbing those cookies off the press.
Information from my Valentine’s Day timeline is drawn from Robert W. Brower’s “Valentine’s Day,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America (1 ed.); “Valentine’s Day,” in A Dictionary of English Folklore; and "History of Sweethearts," at http://www.necco.com/Candy/Sweethearts/History.aspx.