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Kim-Joy’s adorable shortbread cookie animals are a joy to make

Shortbread Cookie Animals

(Photos by Scott Suchman for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

You need only three key ingredients for these cookies, and you can choose between three cute (yet simple and effective) animal designs: pandas, cats or frogs. Or make them all.

You might think that you won’t be able to eat such adorable animal faces on cookies, but the temptation of these buttery, delicious and melt-in-your-mouth cookies will win you over. The recipe has been rigorously tested to ensure the flour, butter and sugar is in the ideal ratio so that the cookies taste like you’ve gone to shortbread heaven. (The recipe also works well with one-for-one gluten-free flour blends and vegan butter.) The only problem is that once you make these, you might never eat store-bought shortbread again.

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Plus, you’ll love that these cookies can be customized as much as you like, and ideas might come to you whilst you’re in the midst of the decorating process. Want to give that frog some cute chocolate chip warts? Do it! Want to have a smart panda with a bow tie? Go for it! Want festive animals for the holidays? It’s your world!

You could even take it one step further, as the pandas, cats and frogs shown here are just a few possibilities. You could make dogs, ducks, pigs, even red pandas! Try using the cocoa powder-colored dough for little cookie pugs. The options are just about endless.

Kids in particular will love helping to make and shape these cookies. They’re fully immersed in their imaginations, so you can give them some dough and they’ll love creating their own animals or imaginary creatures. The dough is kid-friendly, as it’s soft and easy to mold. You can also double the batch, if you’re baking with a bunch of kids or for lots of people.

Overall, don’t be worried about doing too much to these cookies. The base design is simple and effective, so it’s easy to keep these to a “less is more” look, if you like. And don’t worry about getting these cookies perfect or symmetrical. It adds charm and fun when your decorating is “imperfect.” That wonky eye or asymmetrically piped smile attaches a personality to each cookie animal. These quirks make them really come alive. So embrace these “mistakes” and just go for it!

You can customize any of the shapes! They don’t all have to be the same size — so make cute mini versions and bake them for a little less time.

(Video: Scott Suchman for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

You can also remove a little of the plain dough and use food dyes to color this however you like, then shape accessories such as hats and bow ties for the animals to wear. For Christmas, try making a little red Santa hat with white trim. There are lots of different options (including for many other occasions and holidays), so get creative and see what you come up with!

One tip about the food dye: Using a good quality gel food coloring is essential so the consistency of the dough isn’t affected. But also keep in mind that not all gel food coloring is made equal. Some brands’ colors aren’t concentrated or will look muted after baking. The brands I Iike to use include AmeriColor, Colour Mill, Wilton and Rainbow Dust ProGel.

Shortbread Cookie Animals

Makes 18 cookies

Active time: 1 hour 10 minutes

Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes

The quantities for each animal assume you’re splitting the dough into thirds and making all three designs. This would give you 6 medium cookies per design. If making just one animal design, then multiply the coloring/flavoring ingredients by three. If you want more cookies, you can make 8 or 9 mini cookies with the dough amounts for each type of animal and bake for 12 to 15 minutes.

It’s important to read this whole recipe before beginning, because you are dividing the dough into three batches, and coloring and shaping them separately.

Make Ahead: The unbaked cookies can be frozen for up to 1 month. After you have shaped the animals, transfer them on a baking sheet to the freezer. Once they’re solid, pack into an airtight container or bag and freeze until ready to use. Bake straight from the freezer, adding 1 to 3 minutes of bake time.

Storage: Store the finished cookies in a single layer in an airtight container — ideally in a cool, dark place — for up to 1 week.

Where to Buy: Gel food coloring can be found at well-stocked supermarkets, cake decorating stores and online.

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Ingredients

For the dough

  • 14 tablespoons (1 3/4 sticks/200 grams) salted butter, cubed and at room temperature (may substitute a plant-based butter, such as Miyoko’s brand, ideally around 80 percent fat)
  • 7 tablespoons (90 grams) granulated sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract (optional)
  • 2 1/4 cups (280 grams) all-purpose flour (may substitute one-for-one gluten-free flour blend, such as Cup4Cup or Bob’s Red Mill)
  • 1/4 teaspoon cocoa powder (for the pandas)
  • Black gel food coloring (for the pandas)
  • Finely grated zest of 1/2 orange (about 1/2 teaspoon, for the cats)
  • Orange gel food coloring (for the cats)
  • 3/4 teaspoon matcha (for the frogs), plus more as needed

For the icing and decorations

  • 5 teaspoons confectioners' sugar, plus more as needed
  • 3/4 teaspoon water, or as needed
  • Black and pink gel food coloring (or any colors you like for mouths, eyes, hats, bow ties, etc.)
  • Sprinkles in the shapes and colors of your choice, such as hearts, snowflakes and circles
  • Candy eyes (for the frogs, optional)
  • Chopped chocolate, raisins or dried cranberries (for the frogs, optional)

Step 1

Make the dough: Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325 degrees. Line two large, rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats.


Step 2

In a large bowl, combine the butter, sugar and vanilla, if using, and mix together with a spoon or spatula until smooth and spreadable. Add the flour and mix until just combined. The dough should be slightly sticky, but remain soft and easy to handle. (The dough can also be made using a stand or hand mixer on low speed, but take care to mix the ingredients only until just combined. Overmixing will make the cookies tough, and they will lose their melt-in-your-mouth quality.)


Step 3

Separate the dough into three (190-gram) portions, each in individual bowls.

Step 4

Make the pandas: Pinch off about 1 tablespoon (18 grams) of dough from one bowl and knead the cocoa powder into it, followed by a drop of the black food coloring. Set aside.


Step 5

Divide the remainder of that portion of plain dough into 6 pieces and roll each into a ball. As you work, transfer to the prepared baking sheets (no more than 12 total cookies per sheet), then gently press down with your palm until flattened and slightly more than 1/3-inch (1 centimeter) thick, leaving at least 1/2 inch between the cookies after pressing.


Step 6

Go back to the ball of black dough, from which you’ll be making 30 small pieces. Shape 12 little balls of black dough for the ears, then attach 2 of them to the top edge of each round of plain dough. Then, shape 12 teardrop-like shapes for the pandas’ eyes and secure them to the faces. Add a small piece of black dough for each nose.


Step 7

Make the cats: Pull off a third of the dough (about 63 grams) from another bowl, and knead in the orange zest, followed by a drop of the orange food coloring. You can also use cocoa powder or another food coloring to create different colored cats.


Step 8

Pinch about 1 tablespoon (18 grams) of dough from the remaining plain dough, and set aside.


Step 9

Divide the remaining plain dough from the second ball into 6 pieces. Roll each portion into a ball, adding a little orange dough to one quadrant to form a spot. Transfer to the prepared baking sheets (no more than 12 total cookies per sheet), then gently press down with your palm until flattened and slightly more than 1/3-inch (1 centimeter) thick, leaving at least 1/2 inch between the cookies after pressing. Shape 12 triangles using the remaining plain dough and some of the orange dough (mix and match as you like), and form ears by pressing them onto the top edge of the rounds. You can also roll small dots of plain dough to add eyes to the face.


Step 10

Make the frogs: Knead the matcha powder into the dough in the remaining bowl. If the dough is not green enough for you, add a little more matcha.

Step 11

Pinch off 1 tablespoon (18 grams) of the dough and set aside.


Step 12

Divide the remaining dough into 6 pieces. Roll each portion into a ball, transfer to the baking sheets (no more than 12 total cookies per sheet), then gently press down with your palm until flattened and slightly more than 1/3-inch (1-centimeter) thick, leaving at least 1/2 inch between the cookies after pressing. Use the remaining dough to create 12 eyes and attach 2 of them to the top edge of each round.

You can also add cute frog warts, using chopped chocolate (dark, milk and/or white), chopped raisins and/or chopped cranberries. Press these into the surface of the cookies before baking.


Step 13

Before baking any cookies, chill them on the baking sheets in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or in the freezer for 10 minutes.


Step 14

Bake, one sheet at a time, for 18 to 20 minutes. They should have an ever-so-slight hint of color at the edges but not be visibly brown. Let cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes, then carefully transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.


Step 15

Decorate the cookies: Once the cookies are cool, it’s time to decorate with icing (this is optional for the pandas) and sprinkles.


Step 16

Add the confectioners’ sugar to a small bowl and gradually add the water bit by bit, whisking as you do. You want to add enough water so the icing, when drizzled on top of itself, holds a trail on the surface for 10 to 15 seconds. Too much water will make it runny and difficult to pipe. If it’s too loose, add more confectioners’ sugar to thicken, going back and forth with water until the consistency is just right.


Step 17

Divide the icing between enough small bowls for as many colors as you want (you only need a tiny amount of each color). You may wish to reserve some plain white icing, as well. Stir a drop of your desired food coloring into each portion until fully incorporated. Then transfer to small piping or zip-top bags, cut off a corner to form a very small tip and use it to pipe various faces. You can also use a little icing to stick sprinkles on. Use the instructions below for the different animal designs to help, but you can customize these in tons of different ways, so feel free to create your own versions!


Step 18

For the pandas, you can add white icing to the eyes on top of the black spots.

For the cats, use pink to form a nose and black for the mouth and whiskers. Or use icing to adhere sprinkles as whiskers.

For the frogs, use white and then black icing to pipe on eyes to the dough you added to the top of the cookie. Just let the white icing semi-set before piping on the black. Or adhere candy eyes with a bit of icing. Pink specks are cute on the face.


Nutrition Information

Per cookie, based on undecorated pandas

Calories: 156; Total Fat: 6 g; Saturated Fat: 6 g; Cholesterol: 24 mg; Sodium: 80 mg; Carbohydrates: 17 g; Dietary Fiber: 1 g; Sugar: 5 g; Protein: 2 g

This analysis is an estimate based on available ingredients and this preparation. It should not substitute for a dietitian’s or nutritionist’s advice.


From baker and food writer Kim-Joy, author of “Celebrate With Kim-Joy” (Quadrille Publishing, 2021).

Tested by Becky Krystal; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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