As people living in a multicultural society, I believe that we are always in a cycle of re-affirming, searching for, or rejecting our identities. Whether we are conscious of it or not, food is often a conduit in this process.
A friend of mine immigrated from Italy to the US at the age of 14. She quickly learned English and wanted to eat “American” food at her school lunch to fit in. She was from southern Italy which had its own unique regional dishes and that’s what she ate at home. For a period, she made “Tuscan” food (Northern italy) because that’s what people in the US thought of as “Italian.” Then, she navigated back to her Southern Italian roots. Wanting to pass unwritten recipes down to her children, she documented her region’s recipes; began teaching cooking classes; and now is well-known for two cookbooks featuring her region’s food.
A colleague is a first-generation Lebanese immigrant. She grew up eating Lebanese food and her extended family traditions were carried on. With her own family and children, she is an accomplished home cook, passing down her culture (including weekly Arabic language lessons) to her next generation.
My father was third-generation, but spoke only Finnish until grade school where he had to learn English along with his regular classwork — and with no support back at home. He and his family were poor, and they had to hunt and fish for their food. Keeping Finnish traditions was a luxury. My dad introduced us kids to pickled herring, but that was the extent of our cultural heritage and he never longed to connect with the old ways.
Being half Finnish and half Polish, I didn’t grow up enjoying either culture’s food unless I visited my Polish grandmother. Mine is a case of being a food explorer. I’ve got a curiosity for my own heritage, but also of others. The world is an international food court and it becomes easier all the time to get special ingredients. But today, let’s start small. It’s the holidays and that means time to bake. How about some simple Finnish cardamom shortbread cookies? That’s what I call connecting with my cultural heritage, one cookie at a time!
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Finnish Cardamom Shortbread Cookies
- 2 1/4 cups (281 g) all purpose flour
- 1 cup (2 sticks, or 1/2 pound) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
- 1 large egg white*
- 1/2 cup powdered (confectioners) sugar, plus extra for dusting the cookies once baked
- 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, lightly packed
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom (scale up or down depending on your love of cardamom)
- Zest of one medium orange (optional, but goes well with cardamom)
- Pre-heat oven to 350F (177C)
- In a stand- or hand-held mixer, cream together the sugars and room temperature butter for 1 minute on medium-speed
- Add egg white and orange zest (if using) and mix until well incorporated
- In a separate bowl, sift or whisk together the flour, salt and cardamom, then slowly add them into the creamed mixture on low-speed until just combined
- Choices! (A) Roll the cookie dough into a 2-inch (5 cm) log in plastic wrap and slice into 1/2 inch (1.25 cm) thick medallions. Chill for 60 minutes before slicing, (B) Roll into 1-inch balls and flatten to 1/2 inch (1.25 cm) with the bottom of an oiled or floured glass, (C) Shape into a large rectangle or disc , wrap in plastic and chill for 60 minutes. Roll to 1/2 inch (1.25 cm) on a lightly floured surface and use cookie cutters of your choice , (D) evenly press into a foil or parchment-lined 8″ X 8″ (20 cm X 20 cm) square or 8 inch (20 cm) circle and mark lines for cutting
- If making individual (not bar) cookies, line a cookie sheet with parchment and place cookies approximately 2 inches (5 cm) apart
- Bake individual cookies for 18-20 minutes. Bake bars in 8 X 8 pan for 34-36 minutes. the cookies should be very pale golden brown all over
- While still slightly warm, cut into bars or wedges
- Cool completely on wire rack
- Dust lightly with powdered sugar
- Store in an air tight container at room temperature for up to 5 days
*Eggs are not traditional in shortbread. I’ve added an egg white here to help keep their shape when baking and cutting.
Shortbread is very versatile. Try these variations:
- Add 1 teaspoon of orange blossom or rosewater to original recipe, above
- Replace the cardamom with 1 1/2 teaspoons of finely minced fresh rosemary
- Replace the cardamom and orange zest with 1/2 teaspoon of chopped fresh thyme and zest of one lemon
- Replace the cardamom with 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and zest of one lime