Buttery shortbread cookies flavoured with mastiha and mahlepi
Our relationship with leftovers is complicated. Well, not complicated exactly…just different. One of us has a tendency to treat leftovers like a scourge occupying every limited fridge space, while the other one of us experiences physical pangs of guilt if every last bit of food isn’t used up, somehow. This duality makes for some pretty interesting cooking moments. For instance, any recipe which only uses egg yolks means that one of us is pouring egg whites into the compost, while the other decides that it’s egg white omelets for breakfast the next morning. A bit of dough remaining after all of the tyropites have been made means dough being tossed in the bin for one, and fried dough sprinkled with cinnamon sugar for the other. You get the picture.
Two of the things that we both find ourselves having leftover after Pascha are mastiha and mahlepi. Despite making our tsourekia, and ensuring that we have made several to give away and also to make our tsoureki grilled cheese with feta, tsoureki bread pudding and tsoureki French toast we still usually have these two key ingredients in surplus. Hating to toss them, and unsure of how well they will keep for the next year (we typically only make tsourekia at Easter time), we’ve decided to use them up and make tsoureki inspired shortbread cookies. This recipe has succeeded in making both of us leftover lovers.
Mahlepi (also called mahleb…although we’ve never heard it called mahleb) is the aromatic spice found in the seeds of the St. Lucie cherry. The cherry stone is broken open to reveal a small seed inside. This seed is then ground up and used in baked goods, like tsoureki. We would really like to know who discovered this little seed, and we hope that his or her name was Mahlepi…they deserve to be recognized for this bizarre and wonderful discovery. If you can, purchase the mahlepi seeds whole and grind them up yourself in a spice grinder or using a mortar and pestle. This will ensure a fresher taste.
Mastiha (or mastic), the other key ingredient in these cookies, is also available in whole pieces which you can then grind up using the same spice grinder or mortar and pestle. The pieces themselves are slightly translucent, resembling bits of broken glass but when crushed, the powder is a snowy white. Pretty cool. Mastiha is the resin of the Mastic tree which is found only on the island of Chios in Greece; it has a Protected Designation of Origin in the European Union. It forms the base to chewing gum and in fact, if you pop one of the mastiha pieces into your mouth and chew, you make gum!
Baking times will vary with ovens, but 10 minutes in the middle rack of your oven, at 350 degrees Fahrenheit is a good place to start. Keep in mind that you are not looking for browned cookies; they will brown on the bottom but the surface of the cookie will only take on a slightly golden hue.
Pssst. Wanna know a secret? If you don’t have mastiha and mahlepi, you can actually make these shortbread cookies without them. You wouldn’t be making tsoureki inspired shortbread, but you would be making an amazing shortbread cookie anyways. We’ve worked hard to create a shortbread which is buttery, light, flaky, perfectly sweet, and delicious.
Tsoureki inspired shortbread
- 1 2/3 cup all purpose flour
- 2 tbsp cornstarch
- 1/4 tsp ground mastiha
- 1/4 tsp ground mahlepi
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 3/4 cup icing sugar
- 3/4 cup unsalted butter room temperature
- 2 tbsp vegetable shortening
- slivered almonds optional
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the flour, cornstarch, mahlepi, mastiha and salt. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer beat together the icing sugar, butter and shortening until well combined and fluffy, approximately 5 minutes.
- Add 1/2 of the flour mixture to the butter and sugar mix, and beat until well combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and then add the remaining flour. Beat well until combined.
- Shape your cookies by taking about a tablespoon of dough and shaping into a ball with your hands. Once you have a ball, flatten it slightly in the palm of your hand so that you end up with a cookie which is about 1/2 inch thick.
- If you like, decorate each cookie by pressing some slivered almonds onto the surface.
- Place your cookies on a parchment lined cookie sheet and bake in the middle of your oven for 8 - 10 minutes. Your cookies will brown on the bottom but will not really change colour otherwise (that is, the surface of your cookie will not brown).
- Once your cookies are baked, allow them to cool on the baking tray for approximately 5 minutes before transferring them with a spatula to a cooling rack for them to cool completely.
- Cookies can be stored in a air tight container for several days, at room temperature.