Tender, buttery shortbread cookies filled with a dollop of tangy mango jam and a sprinkle of hibiscus-cayenne sugar.
Inspired by the mangos-on-a-stick you often see served in tropical resorts, carved into delicate flower shapes and sprinkled with lime juice, salt and cayenne pepper. It’s an unexpected combination, sure, but the sweet-meets-spicy elevates the intense flavor of the fruit to an entirely different level. So if you don’t have a tropical beach vacation on the horizon, these cookies are quite possibly the next best thing.
This recipe is a variation on similar shortbread thumbprint cookie recipes I’ve made before, proving once and again that shortbread is perhaps the most versatile vehicle for just about any flavor you can imagine.
Really, you could fill these with just about anything that would compliment the buttery sweetness of the shortbread cookie.
When testing this recipe I tried two different fillings: a creamy, tangy mango curd, and a quick mango jam. I brought the results to my Wednesday night ceramics class (finally I have a place to take my excess baked goods!) and the jam was the near-unanimous winner.
Which is awesome because the jam is much easier to prepare. No eggs or tempering or potential separating/curdling involved.
Personally as much as I want to like curd, I don’t know if my tastebuds are super sensitive or what but it always has a slightly metallic undertone to me. There’s a reason curd recipes always specify non-reactive cookware, so put away that aluminum and cooper because it will definitely react with the lemon juice and produce an obviously metallic flavor.
However when testing the lemon curd for the book I even went so far as to never let a speck of metal (reactive or otherwise) touch the curd, from the pan to the whisk to the sieve I strained it through. I couldn’t figure it out. Eventually I just assumed it was the nature of the curd itself that irritated my super tastebuds (go figure). Some lemons seemed more intensely metallic than others, which is why I ultimately ended up using Meyer lemons in that recipe: they were the least offensive to me.
While this version here is mostly mango puree with added lime juice (see, no lemons at all!) I still couldn’t get over the metallic tang. Even Taylor admitted he tasted it, albiet subtly.
Still, if you’re a curd fiend and don’t experience the same weird aftertastes that I do normally, you can certainly use a mango curd recipe here (and there are plenty of them out there). And I’ll admit, the curd ones really are prettier (the curd settles into a perfectly rounded blob in the middle of the cookie; the jam needs a bit more coaxing since it’s not quite as viscous, as you can see above).
But since my favorite, taste-wise, Taylor’s favorite, and the general consensus of my clay-wielding classmates was the jam version, that’s the recipe I’ve included here.
Or if you happen to have a jar of this delightful mango passionfruit jam (cue heart eyes!) that would work lovely here as well!
But let’s talk about the cherry on top: the spicy hibiscus sugar. It’s both decorative (there’s no denying that little sprinkle of coarse, pink texture makes these look less like egg yolk cookies and more like, well, somthing you’d want to eat) – it’s also a flavor amplifier, to say the least.
The cayenne chili powder is subtle. There’s such a small amount on each cookie that you’re not going to taste a strong spice with every bite. It’ll surprise you here and there with a bit of a tingle, more of a tickle than a downright burn. But, if you’re into that sort of thing, feel free to up the quantity of cayenne (just please warn the faint of heart before the unknowingly dive in).
The hibsicus is subtle as well, more for color than anything here. I ground up some dried hibiscus leaves in a mortar and pestle for a nice rustic appearance, but you could also pulse it briefly in a small food processor or handheld coffee grinder. There’s also a little bit of salt in there, because sweet and salty is where it’s at.
When making thumbprint cookies, my biggest advice is to not actually use your thumb. If you look at your thumb, it’s not exactly round, isn’t it?
Well, if you want perfect(ish) looking thumbprint cookies, grab a round teaspoon (or half a teaspoon is usually a better size) and use that to make your imprint. Dip it lightly in flour so it doesn’t stick. Something like a melon baller, or heck, even a big marble would work here too. Anything really that you can press into the cookie to give it a nice round imprint. Whatever you use, press it down very gently to prevent the dough from cracking (you do not need to press it all the way down, about 3/8-inch deep or so is more than enough.
When the cookies bake they will puff up again. When you remove them from the oven (they should be just puffed but not yet starting to brown since they still get a few minutes more baking time), use the same round apparatus you used before to gently press into the cookie to reform the perfect indent.
Then, add your filling. I find the most time-efficient way to do this is with a piping back fitted with a round tip (1/4 or 3/8-inch size is just about right). Then you can pipe perfect dollops into your cookies quickly, and get them back in the oven before they’ve cooled too much.
This final bake helps set up the filling, settling it down into the depression and giving it a nice smooth surface.
You can technically sprinkle the sugar on before or after this final bake, that’s up to you. Doing so before will melt the sugar a bit more into the filling, doing it after will leave it a bit more sparkly and raw.
Tart. Fruity. Butter. Tangy with a hint of spice.
I mean, it’s really everything you could ever want in a cookie (except chocolate, but even I’ll admit that not all cookies need to have chocolate).
For Mango Jam:
- 2 ripe Ataulfo or champagne mangos*
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 1/4 teaspoon Pomona’s Universal Pectin (*see note to substitute Sure-Jell low sugar pectin)
- 1/4 teaspoon calcium water (only if using Pomona’s pectin)
- 3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice (from 2-3 limes)
- pinch salt
For Hibiscus Sugar:
- 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoon finely ground dried hibiscus flowers (grind in a mortar and pestle or by pulsing in a spice or coffee grinder)
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (or to taste)
- 1/2 teaspoon fleur de sel or other finishing salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2/3 cup granulated sugar
- 1 large egg yolk
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 1/2 cups (10.75 ounces) all-purpose flour
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- For mango jam, remove skin from mangos, then cut off flesh around the pit. Coarsely chop and then place in a food processor. Squeeze mango pit, wringing off as much juice and pulp as you can. Process until smooth, 20 to 30 seconds, scraping down bowl as needed. Strain purée through a fine mesh sieve. Measure out 1 cup purée.
- Whisk sugar, cornstarch, Pomona’s pectin, and salt in a bowl and set aside.
- In a medium saucepan, stir together 1 cup mango puree, lime juice, calcium water (if using Pomona’s pectin) and salt. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring constantly with heatproof rubber spatula, and bring to full boil. Add sugar-pectin mixture and stir vigorously until completely dissolved. Return to a boil, scraping bottom and sides of pan to prevent scorching, for 1 to 2 minutes to ensure that cornstarch is fully cooked; it will become very thick. Transfer to a small bowl and let cool to room temperature.
- For hibiscus sugar, whisk together sugar, hibiscus, cayenne, and salt in a small bowl until evenly incorporated and set aside.
- Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a light or medium-colored heavy-weight baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
- Beat together butter and sugar with an electric mixer on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 1 to 2 minutes. Beat in egg yolk and vanilla extract. Add flour and salt and mix until incorporated and dough comes together in a ball. If your dough is particularly sticky, you can refrigerate it for 30 minutes or so to make it easier to work with.
- Form dough into 1-inch balls and arrange on prepared baking sheet. Flatten balls slightly with the ball of your hand, then gently press your thumb or the back of a small spoon into the center of the cookie to leave a shallow indentation.
- Bake cookies for 8 to 10 minutes or until bottoms are just barely golden. Remove baking sheet from oven. Gently press the back of a spoon to re-define thumbprints, and then fill each with approximately 1/2 teaspoon jam (I find using a piping bag works particularly well here). Tap or spread out the filling just a bit to make the top smoother if necessary. Sprinkle with a pinch or two of hibiscus sugar. Return to oven and bake for an additional 3 minutes, or until filling levels out and bottoms of cookies are lightly golden. Transfer cookies to wire racks to cool.
- Cookies will keep in an airtight container (refrigerated if using curd) for 3 to 5 days.
*This variety of mango, characterized by it’s golden yellow skin and smaller size, are much creamier and less stringy than their larger, green-and-red counterparts. While the other will work (the riper the better), champagne mangos are far superior and definitely worth seeking out!
**To use Sure-Jell for low-sugar pectin (be sure you are using the low-sugar variety, regular Sure-Jell will NOT work here), whisk 1 1/2 teaspoons pectin with sugar and cornstarch and add to pan with mango puree and lime juice. Bring to a boil and simmer for 2 minutes to cook off all the cornstarch. You do not need the calcium water part if using this kind of pectin.