A Study in Shortbread
Shortbread is one of my very favorite cookies, vying with chocolate chip for the top spot. The best shortbread have an inviting pale golden exterior promising a fine, sandy texture that crumbles into rich, buttery happiness in your mouth. I've tried many a shortbread over the years in the quest to find the perfect one, and have found disappointments ranging the gamut from glorified butter cookies to dry and crumbly hunks of dough. I turned to the kitchen, testing the myriad of recipes and variations out there. Having worked through mounds of butter, flour, and sugar in search of good shortbread, I've concluded there is no one perfect recipe, but there are several things that will help attain that combination of tender crumb and meltingly rich taste.
Using the right ingredients is of paramount importance, since there are so few: butter, sugar, and flour. Make sure your butter is fresh and of the best quality you can find, as that's what you'll be tasting. You may want to experiment with the different butters available to see which suits your taste! Using superfine (castor) sugar instead of regular sugar also gives the shortbread that coveted fine texture - if I don't have any in the house I often just put some regular sugar in the food processor for about 45 seconds. There are several recipes that call for confectioner's sugar instead; I've found the results from these quite pleasing as well, with a more softer mouthfeel. Finally, sifting the all-purpose flour will also improve the texture of the finished product just like using superfine sugar. I also like using a bit of rice flour in the recipe, since it does not form gluten like regular flour and thus helps make the shortbread more tender.
When making the dough, it's important to keep from overworking it, as this will make the shortbread tough. That's why many recipes call for using chilled butter and either cutting it into the flour or making minimal use of the mixer. I found that using room temperature butter to make a soft dough, and then chilling and rolling it out gives good results too, as long as you are again careful to avoid overmixing or overrolling the dough. Also, I try not to roll thinner than 1/4", as this could make the shortbread bake too thin and crisp; one of the pleasures of shortbread, I think, is its thickness: knowing that you can bite into it and have that drawn-out second of your teeth sinking through its sandy fineness.
Traditional Scottish shortbread usually comes in the form of a circle cut into wedges called "petticoat tails", and there are many beautiful molds with intricate designs you can find for this purpose. In a pinch, I also roll out the dough and use a cake ring to cut out a circle, and score it into wedges myself. Shortbread is also often seen in individual rounds or fingers; really, with some rolled-up dough and cookie cutters you could make whatever your imagination comes up with, but as shortbread is a simple cookie I like to keep the shapes simple as well, to emphasize the quality and texture of the product.
Here are a trio of the various shortbread recipes I've tested, just to show some of the many ways you can enjoy this luscious classic.
Lemon Poppyseed Shortbread
This is adapted from Claudia Fleming's The Last Course, and uses confectioner's sugar, which gives it a very soft, refined texture - definitely shortbread, even with the added flavors of lemon and poppyseed. A perfect bite for teatime.
Chocolate Shortbread Nuggets
Adapted from Carole Walter's Great Cookies, this is the sweetest and richest of the trio. I don't think I would make these if I wanted a pure shortbread hit, but they are very buttery and chocolatey and just melt in your mouth. The chocolate dipped end is just a bit of gilding the lily that pushes this recipe into dessert territory.
This is one of my favorite ones, for its simplicity and how well it turns out. Wonderfully fragrant from the lavender, perfectly sweet and tender to the bite. You can substitute other herbs or spices for the lavender as well. This, to me, is bliss on a sunny afternoon, with a pot of tea, a book, and a couch to curl up on.
Lemon Poppyseed Shortbread
Adapted from Claudia Fleming's The Last Course
1 cup (8 ounces) butter, softened
3/4 cup (3 ounces) confectioner's sugar
1 1/2 tsp lemon juice
1 1/2 tsp lemon zest
2 cups (10 ounces) flour
1 1/2 tablespoons poppyseeds
1/2 teaspoon salt
Beat butter and sugar in a mixer until creamy. Add the lemon juice and zest and beat well. Sift the flour, and mix in the poppy seeds and salt. Add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and combine until it comes together. Form the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill for 3 hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Roll out the dough out to 1/4 inch thickness. Cut into desired shapes and prick each piece with fork. If you are making wedges, cut into an approximately 9" diameter circle and score lightly into 8 pieces. If the dough becomes too soft while you are working with it, return to the refrigerator and chill for several minutes.
Place pieces on parchment-lined baking sheets and bake until pale golden and the edges are just starting to turn brown, about 23 minutes (depending on size). Cool on wire racks. If you have made the wedges, cut along the scored lines to separate the pieces.
Chocolate Shortbread Nuggets
adapted from Carole Walter's Great Cookies
1 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup rice flour
1/2 cup Dutch processed cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
2/3 cup superfine sugar
4 oz semisweet chocolate
1 tsp vegetable oil
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Line the bottom and sides of a 9 in square baking pan with a sheet of foil .
Strain the flours and cocoa together three times.
Beat the butter in a mixer until creamy. Add the sugar and beat until combined. Take the bowl off the mixer and use a wooden spoon to beat in the flour mixture until the dough just comes together.
Press the dough evenly into the pan, using the bottom of a glass or a tamper to smooth down the top. Bake for about 50 minutes or until it looks set on top. Let rest for 5 minutes on a wire rack, then take a dough scraper and cut into 8 1-in strips on one side and 4 2-in strips on the other. Return the pan to the oven and bake for 10 more minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes on a wire rack, then lift the shortbread out of the pan using the foil, and finish cutting and separating the pieces. Put the pieces on a parchment lined baking sheet and return to the oven and bake for a final 10 minutes, then cool on a wire rack.
For the glaze, stir together the melted chocolate and oil. While cookies are still slightly warm, dip one end into chocolate and place on wire rack until set.
adapted from Tante Marie's Cooking School
1 cup (2 sticks)butter, softened
2 cups flour
1/2 cup superfine sugar
1 tablespoon dried lavender
Sift the flour. Beat the butter and sugar in a mixer until creamy. Add the flour and beat until combined. Add the lavender and beat just to distribute through the dough.
Form the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic and chill until firm, at least an hour.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Roll out the dough to about 1/4" thickness and cut desired shapes. Place on parchment lined baking sheets and bake until just golden, about 18 minutes.