Quick cook's secret formula

Mocha Shortbread Wedges from Martha Stewart combine espresso and Dutch-process powder.

It's got to be good for something, right?

That's the question I had about instant coffee. The answer: It might not be worth drinking, but instant coffee actually can be a quick cook's secret ingredient, effortlessly adding deep, rich layers of flavor to all manner of sweet and savory dishes.

And don't limit yourself to coffee. Instant espresso is widely available and packs even more flavor.

In many cases, you'll need to experiment to determine how much coffee suits your tastes. Start small and taste as you add it. Too much instant coffee will produce bitter, off flavors.

The good news is that if you do add too much, it usually is easy to correct. A little sugar, honey, maple syrup or other sweetener will usually mellow the bitterness.

Here are some winners worth buying a jar for:

--Caramel sauce: Add a teaspoon or two to caramel sauce (a simmer of butter, cream, sugar and water). Or heat store-bought caramel sauce and stir in instant coffee. Try this over pancakes or drizzled on ice cream.

-- Chili: Add a tablespoon or two during simmering. You won't taste the coffee in the finished product, but it deepens the savory flavors of the dish, adding a wonderful richness.

-- Chocolate cake: Mix a teaspoon or two of instant coffee into the milk for the batter for an exceptionally rich chocolate cake. It also can be added to chocolate frosting.

-- Pancakes: Mix a teaspoon of either instant coffee or espresso into your pancake batter for a delicious accompaniment to your morning coffee.

-- Butter: Soften a stick of butter in the microwave, then place it in a food processor. Add 1 teaspoon instant coffee and pulse until smooth. Transfer to a small bowl and refrigerate. Use on toasted bread or muffins.

-- Cream cheese: Use the same method as above, but substitute cream cheese for the butter. For an 8-ounce package of cream cheese, add about 1/2 teaspoon coffee, 3 to 4 tablespoons honey and 1 teaspoon cocoa powder. Smear this mocha cream cheese on a bagel and sprinkle it with a bit of sugar.

-- Seafood or meat rub: In a blender or food processor, combine 2 teaspoons of sugar, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon instant coffee. Process until well combined, then use to dust or rub broiled or grill meat or salmon.

-- Mocha shake: In a blender, combine 1 cup each of vanilla ice cream, chocolate ice cream and milk. Add 1 tablespoon of instant coffee and blend until smooth. Top with whipped cream and a cherry. Serves two.

This easy, espresso-spiked shortbread comes together quickly and goes well with coffee. Be sure to cut the shortbread while still warm, and be careful not to overbake.

Mocha Shortbread Wedges

Makes 8 wedges

1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 cup unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa powder

Pinch of salt

2 teaspoons instant espresso powder

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup powdered sugar, plus more for sprinkling

Start to finish: 35 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8-inch round cake or springform pan with parchment paper.

In small bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa powder and salt. Stir in the espresso powder. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, use an electric mixer to beat the butter on medium until pale and creamy. Add the powdered sugar and beat well. Add the flour mixture, then beat on low speed until well combined.

Pat the dough evenly into the prepared pan. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until puffed at the edges and dark all over the top. Remove from oven and let sit 5 minutes.

Cut into 8 wedges. Let cool completely on a rack. Sprinkle with powdered sugar just before serving.

Cookies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature up to 1 week.

— Recipe from Martha Stewart's "Cookies," Clarkson Potter, 2008, $24.95)