These Shortbread Cookies Will Always Be a Church Bake Sale Favorite

Mrs. Iona is happy to share her recipe, but yours probably won't taste quite like hers.

Mrs. Iona's Shortbread Cookies
Recipe: Mrs. Iona's Shortbread CookiesThe recipe for these miniature shortbread cookies hails from a church bake sale, and we can confirm: they're utterly divine. Photo: Photo: Zoe Denenberg; Styling: Rachel Mulcahy

Despite not paying much attention to the church calendar, I always cared about one annual event—The Red Bird Bake Sale.

I want to say it was because I cared about the work of Red Bird Mission, which is 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 fancy packaging. They sell themselves. They are buttery, sweet, and just the right density. Plus, they bring in a pretty penny, as my mom reminded me.

"Twenty dollars?!" My 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 off my smocked dress.

This week, I decided to try making Mrs. Iona's shortbread cookies myself. Before attempting them, I called Mrs. Iona, and 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.

  1. "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.
  2. 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 they're dry. On Mrs. Iona's "little men," they look like buttons.
  3. 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 and Mrs. Iona's words echoing in my head, I set out to make her shortbread cookies.

I immediately decided to cut her recipe 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 the 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 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 too thin. This mistake was a blessing in disguise, as I 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. But not bad for a girl 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.

As with many of our recipes, this one came 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 various flavorings and garnishes, making it a holiday or bake sale winner for the ages.

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