1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees F. In a medium bowl stir together 1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour and 3 tablespoons granulated sugar. Using a pastry blender, cut 1/2 cup butter into flour until mixture looks like coarse crumbs and just begins to stick together.
2. Using your hands, shape the mixture into a ball. Gently knead the dough until smooth by squeezing it and pressing it against the sides of the bowl. Don't overwork the dough. For the most tender shortbread do the least amount of kneading necessary.
3. On a lightly floured surface, roll dough until 1/2 inch thick. To roll dough to a perfect thickness, lay two clean 1/2-inch-thick strips of wood on either side of dough. Rest the rolling pin on wood strips and roll dough.
4. Using a 1-1/2-inch cookie cutter, cut dough into circles. To get the most cookies out of each portion of dough, cut cookies as close together as possible, rerolling scraps as necessary. When you press dough scraps together, try not to toughen the dough by overhandling it. Continue cutting until all dough is used. Place circles 1 inch apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.
5. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until bottoms just start to brown. Transfer to wire rack and let cool. Makes 16 cookies.
On a lightly floured surface, roll dough into a 6x4-inch rectangle about 1/2 inch thick.
Use a utility knife to cut the rectangle in half lengthwise, then crosswise into 16 pieces. Bake as directed for cookies.
These five variations offer a twist to the classic shortbread recipe.
Spiced Shortbread: Prepare as directed, except substitute brown sugar for the granulated sugar and stir 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, and 1/8 teaspoon ground cloves into the flour mixture.
Cherry-Orange Shortbread: Prepare as directed, except add 2 teaspoons finely shredded orange peel with the butter and stir in 1/3 cup snipped dried cherries after cutting in the butter.
Butter-Pecan Shortbread: Prepare as directed, except substitute brown sugar for the granulated sugar. After cutting in butter stir in 2 tablespoons finely chopped pecans. Sprinkle mixture with 1/2 teaspoon vanilla before kneading.
Lemon-Poppy Seed Shortbread: Prepare as directed, except stir 1 tablespoon poppy seeds into flour mixture and add 1 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel with the butter.
Cranberry Shortbread: Prepare as directed, except after cutting in butter, stir in 1/3 cup snipped dried cranberries.