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Willa’s Shortbreads: A Southern Tradition, Baked in Tennessee

The very mention of shortbread sets the mouth to watering. That rich buttery flavor, smooth melt-in-the-mouth texture tastes just about better than anything. close up cookies

Willa’s family bakery, from its humble beginnings in the highlands of North Carolina, has brought its closely guarded secret recipe to Middle Tennessee, carrying on the tradition begun in Willa Allen’s home kitchen many moons ago.

Adapting her mother’s shortbread and cheese straw recipes, Willa created the Classic Shortbread Cookie and the Cheese Biscuit, which both soon became legendary across the South.

Over 30 years later, Eric Rion and his wife, Teresa, have added an exciting new dimension to the family business of Willa’s Shortbread, experimenting with multiple flavors to create an evolving taste sensation with every bite.

classic tins for TT

On my recent trip to Willa’s bakery, Eric handed me a cookie to sample. “This is a special batch we’ve made up for the Charleston Tea Plantation,” he explained. “The green flecks are tea leaves that we added to the dough mix. This is the only tea plantation in the United States.”

It adds an appealing snap to the flavor and I reach for another – just to be sure.

custom labelsAdorning one wall in the small cookie-making factory tucked away in Madison, on the north side of Nashville, is a colorful collection of labels. “Those are all customers,” Eric explained. “We create personalized labels for a lot of customers, and we’re exploring new flavors all the time.”

He glanced at the clock. “We’ve got to get this next batch in the oven pretty soon.” He emptied dough from the mixing bowl into the cookie-cutting machine and began cranking the handle while sliding a tray underneath. Neat rows of cookie dough dollops dropped out like soldiers on the tray as he cranked.

“This is a real art,” he said. “You have to make little tweaks for every flavor to make sure the cookie dough drops just right.” cookies on rack

When the trays are stacked on a rolling rack, they’re wheeled into a huge walk-in oven for baking and then cooled overnight.

All Willa’s cookies are made by hand in small batches to ensure freshness and quality, using only natural ingredients with no preservatives or artificial flavorings. Eric with baked cookies2

It’s definitely a local thing. “We’re Traditionally Southern and try to use Tennessee companies in the process wherever possible,” Eric noted as he spread out a series of collector tins with vintage Tennessee labels. “We use a local artist and Anderson Design Group in Nashville to create our labels. Many customers provide their own labels. Our personal style is the handcrafted vintage look.”

The Spirit series celebrates America’s history and charm with a classic postcard design. Inside each collector tin are three postcards and, of course, a healthy sampling of the delicious all-natural shortbread bites. Spirit Series for TT

The cookies have been sold by mail order all over the country for the past 30 years, but now the Rions are developing new varieties using ingredients and flavors from the South, such as locally-produced honey, tea leaves and chopped pecans.

Regular customers range from little tea shops in Alaska to northern Minnesota, the Mount Vernon Estate (VA), Williamsburg, Asheville, the Country Music Hall of Fame, Loveless Café, hotels, bed & breakfasts, golf tournaments, luxury vacation rentals, welcome centers and dozens of places in between. Many are private label customers. small cookie boxes

Eric stops me before I leave: “You must try this special flavor… Tupelo Honey shortbread.” He’s been experimenting with a variety of honey flavors and I’m keen to offer my services as a taste tester. Wow, it is smooth and delicious. You’ll have to take my word for it, or contact Willa’s Shortbread today to special order your own!

Have you sampled Willa’s Shortbreads? Let us know your favorite flavor in the comments! 

Hi! I’m Dayle Fergusson. As a transplanted Aussie living in Middle Tennessee since 1986, I have been a freelance travel...Read on

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