We may not be able to travel this year, but thanks to all the various Christmas shortbread cookies out there, we can safely let our taste buds do the travelling for us. Join us as we explore a number of exotic shortbread options from around the globe. Hopefully they will give you some inspiration for possible holiday gifts that are not only delicious, but lightweight and Canada-Post-friendly!
We begin at home in Canada where shortbread cookies are most popular in Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia. This is understandable when we consider the European ancestry who came from places like Scotland, the birthplace of the original shortbread cookie, to join the indigenous Beothuk people in the early days. The Scots brought with them an appetite for buttery shortbreads, which first evolved from a medieval biscuit. Look for the nearest Scottish bakery near you.
Today’s basic ingredients include sugar, butter, and flour. We call it shortbread because of the incredibly crumbly texture, or “shortness” afforded by butter’s high-fat content. While it continues to prove just as popular for commonwealth nations and ex-British colonies, we’re lucky to find exotic versions of the shortbread from different parts of the globe, too.
We’ll start with the Greeks and Italians, who have quite similar versions of the popular holiday shortbread cookies. In Greece, they make their kourabiedes with the usual ingredients. Though popular any time of the year, they do seem to multiply at Christmas time. They sometimes add almonds or brandy for extra flavour. Another neat thing about these cookies is that when they’re still warm and fresh from the oven, the Greeks will lightly spray them with fragrant orange blossom or rosewater. After this, bakers will roll the kourabiedes in powdered sugar – very dangerous if you like to wear dark colours! You can recognize the kourabiedes by their crescent or ball shapes. So, where can you find a Greek bakery?
Their Mediterranean neighbours in Italy have their own version called canestrelli. This refers to the little baskets where, in earlier times, Italians placed them to cool in. These cookies are unique in that the Italians include hard-boiled eggs in their creation. Pushed through a mesh sieve, they then combine the egg with other ingredients before they shape them into flowers. Once they finish baking to a light golden colour and cool down, the canestrelli are then dusted with powdered sugar. Fresh lemon zest and vanilla give them a delicate fragrance. Here are a few Italian bakeries near you.
In Germany, the traditional Christmas shortbread cookies are the heidesand. Originating in Lüneburger Heide, a heather-filled woodland with sandy terrain left over from when the glaciers used to exist there, the name literally translates to “heath sand” or “heather sand”… The Germans make heidesand with brown butter that gives them a nutty, caramelised flavour. They can sometimes include candied ginger, orange, and rosemary. Generally, they do not coated in powdered sugar. In the mood for a German bakery?
The Mexican version of the shortbread has an equally interesting name, hojarascas, which refers to the crunchy sounds autumn leaves make when you step on them! But a person doesn’t have to wait until autumn or Christmas to enjoy the buttery biscuit crumbling away in your mouth. Hojarascas, also called pan de polvo, are used to celebrate Mexican weddings too. Traditionally made with lard, which has a higher fat content, more recent versions see a combination of lard and shortening. One constant is the cinnamon. This adds flavour to the cookies themselves, and is mixed with sugar and used to decorate the top of the hojarascas. Now, where is the nearest Mexican bakery?
The North African countries’ version is nuttier with the ghoriba or ghurayba, which commonly feature both sesame seeds and almonds. Much like their Greek counterparts, these cookies can also include orange blossom, in addition to other ingredients like peanuts, walnuts, pistachios, and coconut. Don’t be surprised to even find chocolate buttons sitting atop the ghoriba or ghurayba. We must note one difference when comparing these shortbreads to the others we’ve already covered, though. Here, in places like Morocco, for example, cookies that exhibit lighter colours are seen as underbaked. So you can expect a darker shortbread than normal. In places like Tunisia, you can find bakers using flour alternatives like chickpea flour and sorghum flour in their ghraïba.
Travelling across Middle East bakeries, we find the ghorabieh, also qurabiya. They class this treat as a shortbread-type cookie that they typically make with ground almonds. We’re not sure why these particular versions are classed as shortbreads, though. They’re not only soft and chewy, but they include no butter or butter equivalents. It is worth asking at the counter to see if they’re the chewy or crumbly type because you can sometimes find versions that do use butter or ghee. This gives them the typical sandy texture we’ve been referring to in all of the other examples.
Commonalities between any ghorabieh and qurabiya include the use of fragrant orange blossom and rosewater. Bakers will often place nuts on top for crunch.These can be either blanched almonds or bright green pistachios. Often appearing for Ramadan and Eid al-Adha, we also see the ghorabieh and qurabiya at Easter and Christmas.
Next we have India and Pakistan’s nankhatai, which sees the union of naan and khatai, meaning “bread” and “biscuit” respectively. They use ghee, vegetable oil, and clarified butter to get the delicate texture. But the shortbreads really stand out with exotic ingredients like cardamom seeds, powdered cloves, grated nutmeg, plus yoghurt, chai, and milk. Of course they can include other ingredients previously mentioned, like almonds, cinnamon, walnuts, and chocolate. Don’t be surprised, though, to find the addition of cashew and pecans. Saffron even sometimes makes an appearance in the spicy nankhatai! Hmmm … Any Indian bakeries around here?
Spain shows us the montécaos and polvorones versions of the shortbread. Derived from the Spanish word manteca, which means “lard”, and polvo, which means “powder” we see lemon zest, almonds, cinnamon, and even cocoa powder included in these. You can use oils in place of butter, giving the montécaos a crumby yet silky texture. We’ve also seen versions that are sprinkled with cute little sesame seeds. We know what Spanish Bakeries can do to a fresh bread roll. So imagine what they can do to this Spanish take on the shortbread! These cookies differ from all other shortbreads in that the Spanish will wrap them individually in paper. This is done similar to the way hard candy is wrapped up with two fish tails on either side.
For the final version of the classic shortbread, we will visit their French neighbours who specialize in sablés. A name that translates to “sandy”, they also refer to these as French butter cookies, Breton biscuits/cookies, and sablés Breton. Brittany is celebrated for its salty butter – an essential ingredient in these crisp cookies. Generally made plain, they can also contain flavours of citrus zest or almonds. We can also sometimes see them squished together with jam, Nutella, and dulce de leche. Are you ready to visit your nearby French bakery?
After this global rundown, which Christmas shortbread cookies will you be taste-testing and sending to your loved ones these holidays? Being lightweight with a long shelf life (generally 2-4 weeks), any choice is going to be Canada-Post friendly. We hope this list can somehow help you to sift through all the exotic cookie variations.