Monday, February 14, 2011

A Tale of Buttery Shortbread

I really don't know why I don't make shortbread more often. It's definitely one of my favorite cookies. It's so humble looking - no flashy chocolate chips or frosting - and yet, when you first bite into it, you can't help but smile. It's buttery and crisp giving way to meltingly soft. In other words - it's delicious.

While I'm always tempted to play around with spices, I managed to hold myself back with this batch. I wanted to just taste the complex buttery flavor and subtle sweetness that comes from a simple ingredient list. No frills.

Of course, I'm not sure I'll be able to refrain from baking these again adding in freshly ground cardamom, or perhaps orange zest and black pepper. However good these variations might be, I have a feeling the simplicity of the original recipe will be my favorite.

To start, you'll need 4 cups of all-purpose flour.

The secret ingredient: 1 cup of cornstarch. Speaking of cornstarch, why is it always so static-y?

The 3rd and final dry ingredient: 1 cup granulated sugar.

Now mix all those dry ingredients together in a large bowl. The key word is large. The bowl you see pictured worked just fine, but next time I might use an even larger bowl to make the mixing process easier. Cornstarch is so light and airy that it likes to jump out of the bowl. That's my excuse for being covered in flour after baking these and I'm sticking to it.

Now, you'll need a little butter. Er...that means 1 lb of butter (2 cups = 4 sticks). For this recipe you really need to use real butter. It's the main flavoring and there's a lot of it so margarine might make it taste...well a bit dull. If you're afraid of butter, this probably isn't the recipe for you. See: Cabbage Recipe.

I used salted butter which meant I didn't need to add any salt to the mix. If you use unsalted it is important that you add 1/4 teaspoon to the dry ingredients. Otherwise, your shortbread won't taste like much. It's amazing how salt really allows you to taste other flavors.

Cut the butter into smaller pieces to make the mixing process easier. Then, start mixing away with your hands. I started out with a pastry cutter and soon realized that hands are really the best tool. Have fun with it!

Keep mixing until you stop finding any unmixed pats of butter. How neurotic you want to be about this depends on how much you want your cookies to resemble something Martha Stewart would make. I went for rustic. You'll see what I mean in the last few pictures.

Now poor the crumbly dough into a cookie sheet (with high sides) lined with parchment paper. If you don't have any parchment paper, this should still work - it only serves to make cookie extraction easier.

Begin patting down the dough with your fingers. Once again, depending on your perfectionist tendencies, you can try and smooth out the top of the dough.

Now, the secret to making these truly delicious: Sprinkle the top with 2 tbsp sugar and a heaping 1/4 teaspoon coarse salt. Yum!

Bake the cookies at 325 F for 45 minutes or until they start to get a hint of golden brown around the edges.

Let the cookies rest for 5 minutes after taking them out of the oven, then slice. Slicing them while they're still warm is definitely the easiest way to go.

You'll notice that some of my cookies have little holes in them. This is because I'm not much of a perfectionist and I didn't spend forever mixing the dough together. The little pea sized dots of unmixed butter effectively melted away and left a little impression. I will say that the cookies were eaten by my fellow coworkers so quickly that nobody had the time to notice any minor imperfections.

Don't forget to enjoy one (or two...) for yourself.

Buttery Shortbread
(yields 40 small bar cookies)

4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup cornstarch
1 cup sugar
1 lb salted butter (if unsalted, add 1/4 tsp salt to dry ingredients)

2 tbsp sugar
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt

Preheat oven to 325 F. Mix together flour, cornstarch, and sugar (1 cup) in a large bowl. Cut butter into small cubes and add to dry ingredients. Mix with hands until well mixed (with no apparent pieces of unmixed butter). Pour into baking sheet covered with parchment paper and pat down. Sprinkle with 2 tbsp sugar and coarse salt. Bake at 325 F for 45 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes then cut into squares.


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