Shortbread with Preserved Cherry Blossoms
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Light, buttery, airy sakura shortbread cookies made with a beautiful Japanese twist. This recipes uses preserved sakura (cherry blossoms) for both decoration and flavour - they've got a delicate, tangy, salty almond flavour that's emphasized in the cookies with a bit of added almond extract. Instructions for preserving your own sakura are included, but storebought cherry blossoms can be used as well.
I'm continuing a little tradition here on Diversivore - and departing from it at the same time.
I adore shortbread. It's sort of the perfect cookie in my mind - simple to make, buttery and soft, yet light. It's not overly sweet, and it lends itself to enormous variation. Variations like this one. Or this one. Or this one. As you can see, the 'tradition' I'm speaking of is sharing my shortbread recipes with you all. The departure, however, has to do with timing. All of my other cookie recipes have been published around Christmas, and I fully intend to keep right on rolling with that trend later this year. But I was struck by inspiration when the ornamental cherry trees in front of my home started blooming, and I wanted to do something decidedly more spring-oriented. I hope you enjoy it.
While this is recipe is my own invention, I'm not exactly breaking new ground by making a shortbread cookie with Japanese leanings. Shortbread and similar butter-based cookies are already very popular in Japan - so much so that there are specific-to-Japan varieties like dove-shaped hato sabure. Sabure, pronounced sah-bu-ray, is the Japanese transliteration of the French word sablé (sah-blay). Japan's history with sugar and Western baking is a surprisingly rich and fascinating one. Despite the very limited contact that the nation had with Western traders during the 214 year period of isolation known as sakoku, a handful of of foreign recipes and cuisines managed to pique the curiosity of the Japanese people. Japanese castella cake, whose roots lie in a simple Portuguese bread, is one particularly prominent example. This period also happened to coincide with a boom in the sugar industry (also connected to the geographically isolated trading posts open to Western traders), which led to a boom in Japanese sweets and dessert culture. But it was after Japan was opened to the West in 1854 that European-influenced desserts really rose to prominence. Crepes, mont-blancs, langue-de-chat cookies, and baumkuchen were all greeted with enthusiasm during the 19th and 20th centuries, and each has since risen to a position of prominence in Japanese food culture. But shortbread? Well, that's a bit of a tricky one. The aforementioned hato sabure has a fairly long history in Japan, but butter was an expensive luxury item in the country for a very long time, and even a simple shortbread would have been quite a treat. That being said, similar cookies have existed in nearby Okinawa and China1 for a long time, and it may simply be that shortbread cookies were easy to understand, easy to adapt to Japanese tastes, and easy to love. In fact, the simplicity and relative familiarity of shortbread and other butter cookies may be part of the reason that individual variations like hato sabure and matcha shortbread2 have become popular additions to the Japanese culinary world instead of shortbread as a whole. It is worth noting that famous Scottish shortbread maker Walkers is very popular in Japan, and boxed sets of the cookies are popular, easy-to-find gifts.
1. Chinsuko (金楚糕) and Taosu (桃酥) respectively.
2. While matcha shortbread certainly is made by bakers and home cooks in Japan, I suspect it may actually be more popular outside of Japan.
Cherry blossoms have an enormous culinary significance in Japan - both as an ingredient and an inspiration. Every spring, millions of people in Japan - and now, around the world - head out to enjoy the blooming of cherry trees in the early spring. This activity of cherry blossom viewing, known as hanami, is generally accompanied by friends, family, and plenty of good food and drink. A number of traditional Japanese desserts (known as wagashi) are made with cherry blossoms or pickled cherry leaves, while others are delicately crafted to resemble the blossoms themselves. These cherry blossom shortbread cookies are by no means a traditional hanami treat, but they are one that I think would go over quite nicely with any flower aficionados. But there's no need to limit your baking to cherry blossom season - thanks to the preserved cherry blossoms you can make them at any time of the year.
I want to give credit where it's due, so I should say that I'm certainly not the first person to make shortbread with cherry blossoms in it. Two excellent recipes from wonderful bloggers can be found at Just One Cookbook and Chopstick Chronicles. But I wanted to share my recipe because it takes a somewhat different approach, and because it gives you the opportunity to make your own preserved cherry blossoms. The beautiful blossoms are used in the cookie dough itself, and to decorate the surface, while a touch of sakura vinegar (more on this below) and a bit of almond extract add a lovely almond flavour to the recipe. This recipe also favours a flakier Scottish style of shortbread (with a little more flour) over the crumblier French sablé version (which tends to use less flour and more butter). If you can't make your own preserved sakura, no worries - I've given some instructions below in the Recipe Notes on finding and using storebought ones.
While I generally try to keep my recipes self-contained, I'm going to refer you this post all about making preserved sakura to avoid redundancy (and an over-long Recipe Notes section). The basic cookie recipe below gives you a basic-but-functional overview of the process, but I do recommend checking out the main article if you're going to make preserved sakura for the first time.
Can't make your own preserved sakura? No worries - I've got some tips for finding them and using them, both in this recipe and in general.
The cookies themselves are quite easy to make, and I've included a couple of tips that should help make the process pretty foolproof.
Preserving Cherry Blossoms
The recipe below contains brief but detailed instructions for preserving your own cherry blossoms, and this post goes into considerably more detail. Sakura (ornamental cherry) blooms in early spring in temperate parts of the world, generally between March and May in the Northern Hemisphere, though the actual timing can vary depending on weather, climate, and even the variety of cherry tree. If you do choose to make your own preserved cherry blossoms, make sure you're certain about your identification skills, and that you're confident that you're picking from clean, unsprayed trees.
The actual preserving process is very simple, though it does take several days. The final drying steps are made easier if you have a dehydrator, but instructions for other methods (including air-drying and oven drying) are included below and in the more detailed guide as well.
If cherry blossoms aren't in season, or you're not looking to get into a combined urban foraging/preserving project, you can buy preserved cherry blossoms as well. These are addressed in the next section.
Purchasing & Using Preserved Cherry Blossoms
Preserved cherry blossoms are something of a niche ingredient and are most likely going to be difficult to find even at Asian and Japanese grocery stores. That being said, they're very popular with bakers and wagashi makers in and outside of Japan, and they can be found with relative ease online. These cherry blossoms from Anything From Japan seem to be a popular choice, and they're priced quite reasonably (note: I haven't tried these specific cherry blossoms myself and I can't comment on their quality specifically!).
It is worth noting that you may need to make a few adjustments to this recipe if you're going to use storebought cherry blossoms. The method I used to make my cherry blossoms involves quite a bit less salt than the typical traditional methods, which rely on the use of umezu (plum vinegar, which is heavily salted), and extra added salt. As such, I would recommend tasting a flower on its own to judge the salt level. If they're terribly salty, try rinsing the flowers you intend to use, or (for very salty blossoms), soaking them in fresh, cold water 20 minutes. The blossoms can then be laid out to dry, or baked in a very low oven for 10-15 minutes (be sure to keep a close eye on them). Keep in mind that you still want the finished flowers to have a salty flavour - you just don't want a big punch of salt hitting you when you take a bite of your shortbread.
Sakura Vinegar & Substitutes
The beautiful, bright pink, almond-scented vinegar that you get as a by-product of making your own preserved sakura is a wonderful treat, and something that I've incorporated into my recipe here. Vinegar in shortbread might sound a bit odd, but you're using just a little of it, and it serves an important purpose. Vinegar (an acid) will react with the baking soda (a base) to produce carbon dioxide, which adds volume to the cookies, creating a soft, airy texture that you don't often get from a comparatively dense and buttery cookie.
If you're not making your own preserved sakura, however, you won't have sakura vinegar. No problem - the substitute is a simple one. Replace the sakura vinegar with an equal volume of rice vinegar, a pinch of salt, and a few extra drops of almond extract. The vinegar won't be pink, but this doesn't make a difference in the finished recipe anyway, so don't worry about it.
If you don't have rice vinegar, I suspect you could use white vinegar instead, though I haven't personally tested this yet. The chemistry will be the same, but white vinegar can taste a bit harsher. Still, given the volume you're using, I don't suspect you'd impact the finished cookies negatively. I'd love to hear from you if you do give it a try!
Ideally, you want your butter to be a little warm, but not too warm (i.e. warmer than the fridge, cooler than room temperature). This makes it easy to work and combine with the other ingredients, but firm enough to hold its shape and keep the dough together. Overly cold butter is tricky to combine thoroughly, while overly warm butter makes for sticky dough and cookies that 'ooze' butter out too much in the oven. I like to take cold butter out of the fridge for about an hour, or put warm (room temperature) butter into the fridge for about an hour.
Note: Nutritional Information is given for a X (1/X portion of the total recipe).
Sakura Sabure - Cherry Blossom Shortbread Cookies
Preserved Cherry Blossoms
- 25 g cherry blossoms (sakura) (about 2.5 cups, loosely packed)
- 5 g sea salt (about 1 tsp)
- 1/2 cup rice vinegar
- 2 tsp preserved cherry blossoms divided (see note)
- 2 cups all purpose flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 cup unsalted butter (see note on temperature)
- 1/2 tsp almond extract
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tbsp sakura vinegar (leftover from preserving cherry blossoms - see substitution note)
Preserved Cherry Blossoms (see note below)
- Pick unsprayed cherry blossoms from an ornamental cherry tree. The best flowers to use are the ones that are just starting to open, so try to time your picking with the early blossoming stages.
- Very gently wash the flowers by soaking them in clean water and stirring lightly with your hands. Lay the flowers out to dry, or give them a quick and gentle spin with a salad spinner.
- Gently sprinkle layers of flowers with sea salt in a small jar. Refrigerate for 3 days.
- Cover the flowers with vinegar and refrigerate for an additional 3 days.
- Drain and reserve vinegar. Spread the flowers out to dry. They can be air-dried, or dried in a very low oven or dehydrator (see note).
- Preheat and over to 350° F (175° C).
- Crumble approximately 1.5 teaspoons of the flowers between your fingers or with a mortar and pestle (reserve the rest, and preferably the nicest looking ones for decorating the cookie tops). You can remove the thin stems if you have trouble crumbling them up, but they're perfectly edible.
- Combine the flour, crushed flowers, and baking powder. Stir/sift together and set aside.
- Using a hand or stand mixer, combine the butter and sugar until they're well mixed.
- Add the vinegar and almond extract to the butter and sugar, and mix well.
- Add the flour mixture a little at a time, and continue to mix until well-combined.
- Form the dough into small circles and flatten into patties by hand or, for a more uniform appearance, by pressing them into circular cookie cutters.
- Gently press a preserved cherry blossom into the center of each cookie. try to make sure that they're completely pressed into the dough and not sticking out at the edges, or they may burn.
- Space the cookies out by about 5-7 cm (2-3 inches) on a cookie-sheet. Bake for 10-15 minutes, or until the bottoms are a very light brown. Baking time can vary depending on your oven and the colour/material of your baking sheet, so keep a close eye on the cookies.
- Set the finished cookies aside to cool on the tray. They'll be fairly soft right out of the oven, so make sure not to disturb them until they've cooled off completely.