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December 28, 2010

Cocoa Nib Shortbread: A Classic Redefined

Oh, all the signs that winter has arrived and with it the joyous season of Christmas...freshly fallen snow, ice skaters on a frozen pond, wood smoke spiraling from chimneys, candles in windows....

Unless, that is, you're like me and you live in an apartment building at a busy intersection on a palm-tree lined street in a city. Then those classic signs of holiday cheer are nowhere to be found. You're more likely to see packs of drunk Santas on a pub crawl roaming your streets than rosy-cheeked children caroling door to door.

But that's not to say there aren't any signs of Christmas here. It's just that they're not all the stuff of a Norman Rockwell painting. They're different. And they do inspire.

For example, there's the transformation that takes place in a vacant corner lot in the Mission district of San Francisco every year, just before Thanksgiving. This little patch of land that sits diagonally across the street from me--the one my apartment overlooks--becomes a Christmas tree lot, practically overnight, and goes from quiet, dead, and empty to busy and bright. Lights are strung above the tall fence enclosing the lot--and the front gate, normally locked shut year-round, opens to rows of fragrant trees and a staff busy trimming branches and helping customers.

It was a particularly inspiring scene a few years ago when, just before Thanksgiving, someone broke into the fenced-in space and painted the iconic red, tan, and blue Shepard Fairey portrait of Barack Obama and the word "Hope" on the side of the building that abuts the lot. I loved the way Barack Obama was watching over the tree lot. It gave me a sense of hope for the season and the future; it made me feel happy and secure (especially since it reassured me daily that the end of George Bush's term was near).

The portrait is now painted over and gone. But the sight of the lot filled with trees each year continues to tell me it's time to embrace the season, prepare for winter, and look to the new year with hope.

This cocoa nib shortbread cookie reminds me of my urban Christmas experience. This is not the cookie your grandmother made: it doesn't contain nuts or preserves, it's not covered in red and green sugar sprinkles, and it's not the cookie you left on a plate for Santa when you were a child. It's a classic redefined: A buttery, crumbly shortbread cookie studded with crunchy cocoa nibs that cause you to pause and consider their unique flavor. You expect chocolate, but what you taste is something a little different: complex like a red wine, intensely dark, bittersweet, toasty, nutty, and fruity, with the texture of a coffee bean.

Tradition with an edge. Make it a new addition to your holiday cookie plate.

Cocoa Nib Shortbread
From Martha Stewart Holiday Cookies (a special holiday issue)

It may take a little bit of hunting around to find cocoa nibs, depending on where you live and what's available to you. I first checked the main chain grocery store in my neighborhood for them and was surprised they were not on the shelves. I found them at a small gourmet grocery store a few blocks away in the chocolate section (as opposed to the baking section, where I assumed they would be). 

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup confectioners sugar, sifted
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cocoa nibs

Beat butter with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until fluffy. Gradually add confectioners sugar and salt and beat until pale and fluffy (scrape down sides of bowl as necessary to ensure all sugar and butter is mixed together). Add the flour all at once; mix on low speed until just combined. Add cocoa nibs; mix to combine.

Divide the dough in half and shape into two flat, round discs; wrap each in plastic. Refrigerate for at least one hour, until thoroughly chilled.

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Working with one piece of dough at a time, roll out dough on a lightly floured surface to 1/4-inch thickness. Using a 1 1/2-inch round cutter, cut dough; place 1 inch apart on parchment-lined cookie sheets. Chill in refrigerator 30 minutes. Bake until golden, 20-25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

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