It may just be my opinion, but I feel that shortbread truly is the quintessential holiday cookie. If you’re not one for making those standard sugar cookies, cut out and baked and then smeared with an overly-rich confectioners’ sugar icing, shortbread may be the solution for you. Simple, buttery, and rich without feeling like ‘too much’ – and might I say, utterly addictive – shortbread, with one taste, fairly screams holiday.
I immediately had a lot of faith and trust in this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings recipe, the Classic Shortbread with Fleur de Sel, from Baked Explorations, because it’s Matt Lewis’s paternal grandmother’s recipe. It’s nearly 80 years old and it’s pure Scottish, through and through.
Not surprisingly, the recipe starts with the prerequisite pound of butter (yep, that’s a hearty 4 whole sticks, y’all), at a nice cool, but not cold, temperature. Now, I admit, I have the annoying and super-bad tendency to jump right in, full-throttle, on any given recipe without reading it thoroughly first. I totally unwrapped my beautiful sticks of butter, tossed them into my mixer and whipped them up, neglecting to read Matt’s Baked Note in the cookbook that you MUST cut the butter up into individual cubes for the optimal results with your shortbread, or ‘shortbread nirvana’ as he affectionately calls it. Given that you just end up blending it all up anyway in the mixer, I have to confess that I scratched my head (with a butter-smeared hand, no doubt) at this piece of advice, but if Matt swears by it, give it a try when you tackle your shortbread. I, however, soldered on, as it was too late for me to salvage my creamed butter.
I opted to use confectioners’ sugar for the sugar rather than the superfine sugar first listed and recommended, but that is only because I didn’t have a box of baker’s sugar (ie., superfine) in my cupboard. I didn’t regret the decision, as I found that the confectioners’ sugar only gave the shortbread an even more melt-in-your-mouth quality.
The perhaps most interesting and curious ingredient, listed after the 3-1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour, was rice flour. It’s only a 1/2 cup, but I found myself pondering why rice flour, and not an extra cup of all-purpose flour, was used. My closest guess would be that rice flour provides a nice tenderness to the shortbread and develops less gluten than all-purpose flour, keeping the shortbread from becoming too tough. You certainly don’t want your shortbread to be a tough cookie, so I would suggest you don’t substitute all-purpose flour for the rice flour. I found rice flour in bulk at my local organic foods store (Outpost Natural Foods here in Milwaukee), and it was relatively inexpensive.
Toss in some salt and 2 egg yolks, and you are on your way to making a fabulous shortbread cookie. The dough mixes up pretty quickly in your mixer, but try not to overbeat it, as you will soon be turning the whole lot out onto a well-floured board to gently knead it together. I gently worked the dough into a cylindrical log, then cut it into 8 as-equal-as-possible dough disks, which I wrapped and chilled until I was ready to bake off the shortbread.
Roll the disks out individually to about a little less than 1/2-inch thickness, then cut them into wedges as you would a pizza. I briefly pondered cutting out shortbread ‘coins’ or ‘buttons’ when rolling out the dough, and perhaps I shall the next time I make these, but I do feel, overall, that the wedge-shape cut is a terrific idea. Not only is it pleasantly rustic in appearance, you also don’t want to keep re-rolling scraps of this dough, therefore making the dough more tough and overworked. The less the dough is rolled/handled, the better.
Prick each wedge lightly with a fork, and finally – Matt Lewis’s extra flourish to his grandmother’s recipe, which I personally feel is a stroke of genius – sprinkle a bit of fleur de sel, or sea salt, on each shortbread wedge. Line up the wedges on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, and bake just until you start to see the tips of the shortbread turning a light golden-brown. I would hesitate to take them much further, as you will be cooling them for about 10 minutes more on the cookie sheet, before transferring them to a rack to cool completely. They will bake a little more from the residual heat of the cookie sheet. Handle your shortbread carefully when transferring the wedges to the rack, as the warm shortbread tends to be very delicate.
As Matt suggests (and much to his grandmother’s possible abhorrence, he admits), you can gussy up your shortbread in many different ways, if you prefer not to keep it plain. The ends of the shortbread may be dipped in dark chocolate. Add lemon or orange zest to the batter for a citrusy slant, or add visual appeal by speckling your shortbread with vanilla bean with the addition of vanilla bean paste (and omission of the fleur de sel). I opted to keep my shortbread plain with the fleur de del, as I currently have some personal dietary concerns to address (among them being that I need to remove chocolate, coffee, and citrus from my diet…OH, the torture and unfairness of it all!).
Matt hinted that his grandmother’s shortbread had a ‘crisp’ quality to it – my shortbread was not crispy, and perhaps I didn’t roll my dough out thin enough for this effect. Regardless, I was not disappointed and found this shortbread immensely pleasing to the palate. At first bite, the shortbread was soft and delicate, and shattered wonderfully on my tongue. It had a perfect melt-in-your-mouth quality. The immediate taste notes were of butter – as they should be – beautifully countered by the sharp bits of salt from the fleur de sel. While the shortbread would still be equally tasty without the fleur de sel, I do believe its inclusion really amps it up a marvelous degree.
The holidays may be over – with the exception of New Years just around the corner – and you may, in fact, be completely baked out… the good news, however, is that shortbread like this is welcome year-round, and doesn’t require a ton of fancy ingredients to make (well, okay, you may have to make a dash out for the rice flour and/or the fleur de del). It also makes a welcome gift – I don’t know too many folks who would pass up homemade shortbread. Give the Classic Shortbread with Fleur de Sel a try in your own kitchen… and by following this link, check out how my fellow BSM bakers fared on Sunday morning via the “Post Your Links” for the shortbread recipe.
Happy New Year to all of you! May 2013 bring you and your loved ones the very best of blessings… and even more importantly, lots of fabulous baked goods and treats! (yeah, if you keep reading my blog, you better break that resolution to lose weight/eat better NOW… just sayin’!)*
*A final note: I want to thank you for all of your kind thoughts, comments, and suggestions since my post regarding my health earlier this week. In the short time since that post, I’ve been floored by the outpouring of support and encouragement – via Facebook, phone calls, texts, blog comments – which I have received from many of you, first and foremost expressing concern for my health (please do not worry, it’s manageable and nothing deadly), but also telling me to please ‘stay with it’ and to keep blogging. I am, sincerely, very humbled. I’ve thought it over some, and never fear, (somewhat) contrary to that blog, I will continue to share my baking adventures with you and will certainly do my best to stay a part of Baked Sunday Mornings group. Baking – and the wonderful friendships I have gained through BSM – brings me far too much joy to completely eliminate it from my life. I just need to share the fruits of my baking labor more, rather than devouring every morsel myself (how I wish I could make shipments to all of you every week!), watch how much I eat, and be careful with my intake of certain foods (ie., chocolate, coffee, citrus, anything too spicy). I am challenging myself to seek out healthier recipes from time to time, and to perhaps even come up with alternative ingredients which might work just as well or even better than the original ingredients. And while it would be easy to simply delete that blog post, I am going to keep it as a gentle reminder to hold onto, rather than give up on, those things in my life which bring me joy. They’re important! In the meantime, thank you, again, for your support. I really do appreciate it… and it is because of all of you that I’m going to hang in here and continue to provide you with (what I hope is) a fun and engaging baking blog you can look forward to! Cheers!