Today, I begin my new 2013 monthly series on my food blog. Once a month, I will be posting a recipe and photographs of a favourite cookie.
To start, I will share my recipe for shortbread. There are so many recipes and versions of shortbread. This perfectly plain, delicate cookie attributes its origin to Scotland so it is fitting that I should choose this cookie for my inaugural “Cookie of the Month” series given that today is Robert Burns Day. Robbie Burns is often referred to as Scotland’s national poet and many of Scottish ancestry, including those on PEI, celebrate his birthday on January 25th. It’s a time to bring out the tartan apparel and, at least on PEI, there are Scottish concerts and dinners in honour of the poet.
Sometimes called Scotch cookies, these sweets have always been a Christmas tradition in my family. Cut into petite squares or decorative dainty shapes and finished with a small dob of icing and a smidgeon of a red cherry or a silver dragée, Scotch cookies have been found on many a sweet tray over the holidays for years. I think they may have traditionally been associated with Christmas because they were considered a luxury treat with their butter and sugar content. Today, I make them various times throughout the year in different shapes and sizes. In fact, they are almost always a staple on hand in my freezer.
Shortbread is relatively easy to make and does not take a lot of ingredients or ones not likely to be found in most kitchens. Recipe ingredients do vary, however. You will find that, in addition to some kind of fat, sugar, and flour, some shortbread recipes call for the addition of cornstarch, confectioner’s or brown sugar, salt, egg yolk, and/or vanilla. Other recipes call for a 50/50 mix of butter and shortening. I have even seen some recipes list cream of tartar and/or baking soda as ingredients. Shortbread purists, however, are likely to argue that, technically, there are only supposed to be three ingredients in traditional shortbread – 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, and 3 parts flour and no leavening agent or other flavourings.
My recipe does follow the 1-2-3 parts rule for sugar, butter, and flour. For example, start with ½ cup of sugar, double it to determine how much butter is needed (1 cup) and double the amount of butter to arrive at how much flour is required (2 cups) and you essentially have a recipe for shortbread. Everything about quality shortbread focuses on high quality ingredients so that you get that melt-in-your-mouth sensation with just one bite into a shortbread cookie. I use pure creamery butter and, today, my featured Island product is Wiltshire butter produced in North Wiltshire, PEI. For shortbread, I find it is important that the butter be at room temperature so it will cream easily. Do not soften the butter in the microwave as it breaks it down too quickly and it becomes liquefied which may alter the texture of the dough. My recipe calls for brown sugar so the cookies made from this recipe will be a little darker in color than if white sugar or confectioner’s sugar is used. I do add an egg yolk because I find it helps to bind the ingredients together and gives the shortbread a nice texture. I also add a pinch of salt and sometimes – but not always — some vanilla. If using vanilla, make sure it is pure and not artificially flavoured.
What determines the quality of a good shortbread is how “short” it is. When you bite into a shortbread, the cookie should crumble easily and you should be able to taste the butter flavour as the cookie slowly melts in your mouth. You won’t get that if you use a mixture of butter and shortening or all margarine, for example.
I like the dough in this recipe – it holds together well, does not take a lot of kneading to incorporate all the ingredients and prepare it for rolling, rolls out without cracking or breaking apart, and almost has a satin-like feel to it. Shortbread dough should only be minimally kneaded – just enough for it to stick together and allow it to be rolled out for cutting. Some recipes indicate the dough should be chilled before rolling and the cookies, once cut into their shapes, should be put in the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes to set before baking so that they won’t spread out of shape during the baking process. With the dough in my recipe, I don’t find chilling either the dough or the unbaked cookies is necessary because, with no leavening agent, they will not spread out of shape. That factor makes shortbread the ideal choice when maintaining a consistent and uniform shape of cookies is important. If, however, for some reason you find the dough is too soft to work with then, by all means, chill it for several minutes as this will not harm the product.
I don’t like super-thick shortbread so I roll the dough to a scant ¼” thickness. Of course, I always use parchment paper for cookie baking and the cookies should be baked in a slow (300F) oven so they don’t burn. With the high butter content, baking them in a hot oven will run the risk of them burning or turning too dark in color. Today, I have divided the dough, making part of the recipe into shortbread fingers using a traditional rectangular-shaped shortbread cookie cutter 1” wide by 3” long. For the remainder of the dough, I rolled it into about a 7” circle and, using the tip of a sharp knife, scored the dough into 8 wedges. Don’t cut all the way through; just score it lightly on the cookie top. You can use the tines of a fork to press lightly the outside edge of the circle and also to prick the surface of the dough into a decorative pattern. Once the shortbread is removed from the oven, immediately cut all the way through the score marks and separate the wedges which are often called “petticoat tails”.
My Island Bistro Kitchen’s Favourite Shortbread
1 cup butter (no substitutes)
½ cup brown sugar
1 egg yolk
1 tsp vanilla (optional)
2 cups flour
Pinch salt (optional)
Preheat oven to 300F.
In bowl of stand mixer, beat the butter on high speed until light and fluffy (2-3 minutes). Add the sugar and beat until smooth, scraping the bowl as necessary. Add the egg yolk and vanilla. Beat until incorporated. With mixer on slow speed, stir in the flour and salt just until mixed.
Turn dough onto lightly-floured surface. Gently knead dough just until it holds together. Do not over-knead. Shape dough into a round mound. Roll to approximately ¼” thickness. Cut into desired shapes.
Place cookies about 1” apart on parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake 20 minutes. Remove from oven and let cookies rest on baking sheet for 2-3 minutes then transfer to wire rack to cool. Makes approximately 30 cookies (1” x 3” rectangles)
If desired, dough may be rolled into small 6” or 7” circles and scored with the tip of a sharp knife into wedges. When cookies are removed from the oven, immediately cut through scored lines to separate the wedges.
These cookies will keep for about a week in an airtight container at room temperature. They also freeze well.