Subjective Shortbread


I must first apologise for my distinct absence (I feel like i’ve said this at the start of every post), this is as much for me as it is for you, to attempt to get some sort of routine embedded within my scatty brain. Let’s hope it works!

Gotta love my little heart cookie cutters.

Today, I made shortbread!

Although I barely have a tartan bone in my body (bar my great grandad), I still have a bit of a weakness for shortbread. Though it is sold in many, many places all around the world, its one recipe that is difficult to get quite right. Not having a particularly large collection of ingredients, butter, sugar and flour, it’s not that expensive, and though I have tried numerous recipes, I’ve never gotten it quite right. So I dedicate this post to the perfect shortbread. Whether you like yours crimped, covered in strawberries, or just in bars there is bound to be a combination here to suit your tastebuds!
I’ve had a bit of a tingle to learn something new since i’ve been home, and my mum brought some shortbread back from shopping, so I decided to learn about it, pretty simple really. I’ve learned a couple of new things about shortbread over the past few days which I had never even considered, which is pretty awesome, because I love learning new facts to bore my friends with. For instance, I had absolutely no idea that traditional shortbread didn’t have eggs in it, or that the sugar be put on after cooking, rather than before (sounds like a rookie mistake…it was).But first, I think a short history on today’s subject is necessary. Etymology wise, it’s a relatively simple combination of the word ‘short’, and the word ‘bread’; interestingly though,’short’ is used not because of the addition of shortening to the mixture (for the North Americans amongst us), but because of the texture of the biscuit, which is to ‘crumble’ or ‘snap’. This term has been used since my home (plus a few hundred square miles around it) was simply called ‘Mercia’ and Danish took our vowels.
There is no evidence to suggest that shortbread wasn’t around before the 12th Century, but it seems that it was popularised particularly around here. Move forward almost 400 years and Mary Queen of Scots did the rest for modern shortbread. She is often claimed to have refined the recipe; I somehow doubt she did this personally, however, what with her being locked up for most of her life and all, but it’s nice to use a figurehead for unity. The ‘bread’ section however is kind of interesting, when the taxes went up on cakes and biscuits, it did not on bread, and because of the dough-ey nature of this particular specimen, and the fact that is used to be made from the foamy fermented yeast from bread, the clever Scots managed to keep it alive by naming it as a bread instead.
          Shortbread is traditionally eaten on special occasions, Christmas Eve, Hogmanay and special Sunday lunches and such like, so you can get away with the excuse for consuming so much butter. Personally, as beautiful as they are, it would be difficult have one of these with my brew everyday.
A few tips to consider if you can’t quite get it right:-First of all, if you have trouble rolling out your shortbread, your butter could be too soft, so fridge it for a little bit to solidify again.
-Secondly, is that if you pat your shortbread biscuits into shape as opposed to rolling it, they will stay a slightly lighter texture, if you roll it out heavy handed, it’ll make them a little flatter, it won’t affect the taste, but it’ll affect the texture. The problem is similar to pastry however; if you have hot hands, like me, it’s difficult because the dough has to stay cold really. I did the whole ‘hands-in-ice-water’ and it was rather unpleasant. So just take it easy on the rolling and it shouldn’t be too bad.
-There is rightful controversy over whether or not to add vanilla to these sexy little bites, personally I prefer adding a quarter vanilla pod of seeds (or half a teaspoon of really good quality extract), because that’s just my preference, but traditionally they go without.
There are many things I love about cooking, and many things I hate (I add using ice water to cool my hands to this list…), but there is one thought that I have a particularly turbulent love-hate relationship with (I say turbulent, it’s more of a minor annoyance). The fact that no tastebuds are the same are both a blessing and curse when it comes to cooking. You could make the most amazing stew or baked good to you and another person may hate it, or vice versa. It reaks havoc with people like me, who get a little sad when her cooking doesn’t behave. I say this because it is entirely relevant to shortbread. Dependant upon how you were raised, where you’ve been and who you’ve been in contact with, you will have entirely different culinary semantic web to everyone else. For example today, when making my batch of shortbread, I was fully away that some loyal Scottish cooks insist that shortbread be browned a little more, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave them in the oven for two more minutes because 1. They looked so pretty, and 2. I was impatient.
         I very much dislike cooking snobs, I try to keep the same mindset when i’m cooking as when i’m watching a film remake, as more of an artistic interpretation rather than a lore. It is reasonable to think that very few people will like raw chicken, it isn’t reasonable, however, to assume that everyone likes fried chicken, it’s all about balance and understanding. If you are really not used to certain flavours, and you’re not particularly adventurous food-wise, sometimes the food you are consuming is going to take some getting used to, whether it’s beautifully cooked or not. However, even with all of this, it’s entirely subjective, sometimes it turns out to be “The Departed”, sometimes it’s a “Psycho”…i’ll let you figure out which one’s which.
But back to shortbread (it was relevant I promise). I found something else out that rather intrigued me, it is the different additions with creating textures, for instance, by adding rice flour, and adjusting the ratio of plain flour to rice flour, it makes the end result a little more crumbly (‘short’ for the more traditional amongst us). Adding cornflour makes the mixture more melt-in-the-mouth type of thing, and Ayrshire shortbread insists upon cream and eggs as well, which seems a little odd to me, but each to their own.
          Also, I know that modern society is all about variety and what have you, but i’ve always thought that shortbread should be pure, as in without dried fruit and chocolate chips in the dough. Honestly, it doesn’t need anymore fats, it’s got enough butter in it, and though i’m sure the addition of chocolate may sell it to some, I am unfortunately not convinced.
          Something that I love about shortbread, is although it is a treasure of Scotland, and a few places have truly perfected it, Walkers have a fairly good recipe, for a mass produced item anyway, and Deans of Huntly could be even better. Both are pretty beautiful, and when i’ve tried other supermarket brands, it doesn’t quite live up to my incredibly high standards. But for me, as with most things, it’s always going to be about the home-made. Maybe I enjoy making things difficult for myself, where’s the fun in cruising on by?
But anyway, I’m going to be honest, before Tuesday I didn’t really know that much about shortbread at all, and i’m still by no means an expert, but seeing as it is a treasure to our neighbours up north, I thought it only fair I give it a research. And i’m so glad I did, because it is a rich and lovely and because it tastes so much better home made, it gave me something to do!The recipe for today is to my taste really, but so you know, it’s very rich, buttery and crumbly. If this sounds to your liking, and you’re enjoying the food porn at the bottom of the recipe, try it!
Crumbly Shortbread
Makes about 12 biscuits, depending on what shape you make
 
130g Plain Flour 
40g Rice Flour 
120g Butter
60g Golden caster sugar, unrefined. (Plus a little extra for dusting)
1/4 Cap of good quality vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
 
NB – before you start, because this recipe has so few ingredients, it is desperately important that you use good quality stuff, because you can taste the difference. I’m not made of gold, so I used Yeo Valley organic butter (not margerine, because that stuff is horrendous to me), if you can get unrefined flour too, that is a bonus, but I couldn’t get it near me so I had to make do with organic. The caster sugar is up to you, I used fairtrade golden because it’s kinda more earthy and not so sweet as refined, but it’s your call on this last one.
 
– Leave your butter out overnight, covered up, obviously we don’t want flies, to soften up, you need all the help you can get with working this. 
-If you have a mixer (with a blade rather than beaters) I would use it with the next because the dough gets quite tough with this method and without cold hands it’s difficult. If you want to try the ice water and use your hands, also feel free to get stuck in.
– Mix the butter with the sugar and make sure it’s combined really well.
– Sieve in everything else bar the dusting sugar and mix, but don’t overdo it. As I found today, it is nigh-on impossible to mix this with a spoon, so I did the ice trick to cool down my hands. 
– Make into a little ball of dough, cover, and stick it in the fridge for about an hour to cool down again.
– Wait until towards the end of the cooling time stick your oven on to 150C non-fan/130C fan oven/Gas mark 2, nobody wants to be an energy-wasting tit. Whilst your waiting, dot a baking sheet with a tiny amount of butter and put down some greaseproof paper.
– Go forward an hour and you’re going to have some pretty stiff looking dough. This is completely normal, and while it is a little crumbly sometimes, it is still very rollable.
– Sandwich your ball of dough between two layers of cling film and roll it out lightly with a rolling pin to about 1cm thick (mine was a little thinner).
– Cut it out into whatever shape takes your fancy, stick it on the lined baking tray, prick a few times with a fork and cook for about 15 minutes. Mine were relatively small size, about half the size of my palm, and took 18 minutes. But at 15 minutes check to see how they’re doing, then check them every minute or so (Not joking! They are a pain in the ass for burning). Give them a light touch with your fingertip, they shouldn’t be completely soft, but they shouldn’t be completely solid, and if they’re black you’ve gone too far.
– Remember, when they cool down they will solidify more, if you like shortbread slightly chewier, roll the dough out thicker and leave it in a little less time. But this recipe is suited for thinner biscuits so you may need to alter the overall thing. 
– But alas, the Scottish spirit is alive within us all, dust with sugar and nom away. I wouldn’t eat too many, I ate one and it was plenty decadent, so these will go around.
Hooray for pretty biscuits
I’ve made it sound like such a faff to make these, it’s not as bad as i’ve made out, I definitely need more practice though.
For now though, I bid you farewell, I shall be more diligent with my blog entries, and I shall reprise before seven days has passed.
Peace
JR
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