Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The allure of shortbread

What is the perfect cookie? Simple, yes, but not dull. Adaptable. Something you would reach for again and again. A treat, in the truest sense of the word.

There we are, me and Mary, Queen of Scots. Well, I haven't been accused of plots to assassinate Elizabeth I (I'm pretty sure), and I haven't spent any time in exile recently but we totally could bond over cookies. Specifically the delicate, buttery, infinitely versatile shortbread.  Probably the easiest and most useful cookie dough on the planet. It's 3 am and I need a cookie? I'm making shortbread. I need a crust for a cream tart or cheesecake? Ground shortbread. Something different to top my cobbler? Bring on the shortbread dough. Just a little something crunchy to go with my scoop of sorbet? Something I can smear with ganache, or jam, or peanut butter, flavor with nuts or cocoa, or dip in whiskey? How about a recipe that is easily adaptable to things like adding oatmeal powder or rice flour? Endless variation from a simple ratio?

Shortbread. You know that's right.

That's the thing about recipes that stand the test of time - they tend to be easy, with ingredients that are often just lying around, and they also tend to be good. If shortbread sucked, we would have stopped making them in the 12th century. Mary would have to have had something else sprinkled with caraway seeds (which, as it happens, I haven't tried yet but will have by the end of today) and I would be one of those people constantly searching for something but having no idea what that thing was.

The basic ratio for shortbread is simple: 3 parts of flours, 2 parts butter, 1 part sugar. I say flours because I like to use all purpose with a bit of cornstarch for crunch, but I have worked with rice flour, buckwheat, and my grandmother loved to make oatmeal shortbread. The butter is your key flavor so for the love of Sweet Potato, use good stuff. Some folks like to use salted butter, but I like to control the salt more, and go unsalted and add to my taste. If you want to play with sugars, try brown sugar (my favorite) or vanilla sugar. Add spice if you like, vanilla if you like.

As far as baking goes, I like to get good color on my shortbread, so I slice my cookies a little thinner, and let them bake a little longer, but once the edges are golden, pull them whenever they look good to you. Just make it the cookie you want exactly at that moment. And if you just want a recipe, here's my 3 am batch:

I Just Need a Cookie Shortbread:

125 g flour
10 g cornstarch
4 g salt
90 g cool unsalted butter, cut in small chunks
45 g brown sugar
white or raw sugar

Cram all the ingredients together with your hands in a bowl. It's three am, you really want to wash anything extra? Roll into a log, and press the white or raw sugar on the outside of the log. Slice into as many cookies as you need right now, plus two, just because. Place on a parchment lined baking sheet, and bake at 350 at least until the edges are golden brown. Wrap any remaining dough in plastic and freeze for the next cookie emergency. Try not to eat all the cookies until they have cooled a bit. Will store for a week in an airtight container if you aren't me.