I never paid much attention to the church calendar growing up. Epiphany and Pentecost were lost on me, as was All Saints’ Day. But there was one annual event in which I was deeply invested: The Red Bird Bake Sale.
I’d like to say it was because I cared about the work of Red Bird Mission: to provide educational programming, housing, and medical clinics for folks in the Appalachian Mountains of southeast Kentucky. But I faithfully showed up to the bake sale year after year with less altruistic motivations: Mrs. Iona’s shortbread cookies.
Mrs. Iona Sanders sells her paper doll-shaped shortbread in tiny Ziploc snack bags, with no ribbon or fuss. Her cookies don’t need any showboat packaging. They sell themselves, buttery and sweet and just the right density … and they’ve been known to bring in a pretty penny, as my mom reminded me.
“Twenty dollars?!” My own recollections hadn’t included the steep price tag. I’d always left the courtyard money-changing to my dad, while my sisters and I ran off with the loot.
“Well, there’s no price,” my mom clarified. “But if you give $20 to the Red Bird Bake Sale, you will not get change.”
The women of Bethel United Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina, know how to inspire generosity.
Now that I live more than 400 miles from home, I’ve missed as many Red Bird Bake Sales as I once attended. But the taste of Mrs. Iona’s shortbread cookies is as clear in my memory as if I’d eaten them in the church parking lot yesterday, wiping buttery crumbs on my smocked dress.
This week, I decided to try making Mrs. Iona’s shortbread cookies myself. Prior to attempting them, I called Mrs. Iona, as she’ll tell you that the recipe she uses now is not the one she shared with the church cookbook some thirty years ago.
“Mother was from Scotland and she did them, so I began experimenting with them,” Mrs. Iona told me. “I didn’t have her recipe; she just told me. I started doing it because of her, but for some reason, I like mine better. I make mine a little sweeter.”
The recipe she shared on the phone makes 180 small shortbread cookies, which she calls her “little men.”
“You can cut the whole recipe down in half, but after you go to that much trouble and cooking for two hours, it’s easier to go on and do more I think,” she said. And you don’t have to eat them all at once, she noted: “They will freeze, and if they’re kept tight in a bag, they’ll last for weeks.”
She also gave these words of advice.
- “You need to work it with your hands to get a feel for the dough.” Even if you use an electric mixer initially, switch to your hands before you roll out the dough. If the dough feels sticky, add flour. If the dough feels dry, add more butter.
- Once you’ve baked the cookies, “You want them as dry as you can get them. If they’re soft, they’re not good.” A pro tip: Poke holes in the cookie with a fork to ensure that they’re dry; on Mrs. Iona’s “little men,” they look like buttons.
- Check the color. “You don’t want them to brown. They’ll brown a little on the bottom, but if they start browning on top, you’ve cooked them too much.”
Armed with a newly acquired rolling pin (thank you, Target) and Mrs. Iona’s words echoing in my head, I set out to make her shortbread cookies.
I decided immediately that I would cut her recipe way, way down and make only a quarter of the dough (I’m sorry, Mrs. Iona!!!). But I just moved into a house with a galley kitchen and our oven is not standard size, so sacrificing output was key to maintaining my sanity.
I couldn’t find the beaters for my electric mixer (again, just moved), so I combined the butter and sugar with my hands—very Little House on the Prairie, also very greasy. I then worked in the flour. I didn’t know exactly what “feel” I was looking for, but it seemed a little dry, so per Mrs. Iona’s recommendation, I added more softened butter until it felt like a good consistency.
My biggest error came in rolling out the dough. I underestimated how thick 1/8 inch is, so my cookies were way too thin. This was kind of a blessing in disguise though, as I completely forgot to poke holes in my little shortbread angels before popping them in the oven. Oops.
Overall, the flavor of the cookies turned out well, even if they’re too delicate to achieve the satisfying snap-then-melt texture of Mrs. Iona’s shortbread cookies (recipe here). Not bad for a gal who generally breaks and bakes.
“You want me to send you some?” she’d asked before we hung up the phone. Next time, I’ll take her up on it.
WATCH: Basic Butter Cookie Dough
As with many of our recipes, this one came to us from a North Carolina reader in 1995. Her cookie dough recipe may be basic, but its simplicity also means it can easily be dressed up with a variety of flavorings and garnishes, making it a holiday or bake sale winner for the ages.