Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The truth about shortbread

I've done significantly more cooking in the years since I left private practice to have a better lifestyle.  I went from studying and disassembling recipes to making up my own.  Take, for example, linguine puttanesca.  My first puttanesca (c. summer of 2003) was made using a no-cook recipe out of Gourmet magazine and I followed it to the tee, right down to the 1 lb box of dried linguine.  I was in my last year of law school and worked full time as an engineering analyst doing patent prosecution at a D.C. law firm.  The recipe was a quickie, promising a zesty bowl of linguine with puttanesca in just 30 minutes.

I still find puttanesca to be an easy sauce to throw together, though I cook it now, without a recipe and the contents often vary.  I also roll out fresh linguine which, if I have leftover dough from a previous night, takes about as long to roll out as it does to boil a pot of water.  People tell me I'm crazy to go to such lengths for a bowl of pasta, but I've become convinced that nothing is all that difficult to make.  I've dispelled more than one myth about the difficulty of preparing food for mysef, from European items like ravioli and canard a l'orange to Asian dishes like stuffed tofu and matar paneer.  And I've discounted my inability to bake cakes and cookies as attributable to my inattention to detail to things like how many cups of flour vs. how many cups of sugar go into them, or my tendency to forget that something's in the oven (out of sight, out of mind!).

Well, at a holiday party last week, I found myself nibbling on a shortbread cookie and wishing I could bake my own.  My friend Jenny tells me "Shortbread's easy.  All you have to do is mix flour, sugar and butter, and VOILA!  Shortbread."  So I decided that the instructions were simple enough that I figured I could pull myself together long enough to keep count of the cups of flour vs. cups of sugar and just give these "easy" treats a try.

Now, I'm not going to call Jenny a liar (that title is typically reserved for politicians and select members of the Colorado bar).  But I will say that she left out a few details.  For one thing, shortbread is not quick and easy as 1-2-3.  The dough needs to chill.  Twice.

And the dough does not particularly "come together" like they suggest in some of the recipes I've seen (Ahem, Contessa and Joy, I'm referring to you).  It just stays crumbly, especially after you chill it.  Both times.

And I must admit that I couldn't entirely help myself.  I fell back into my old habits and managed to not follow the recipe.  I misread what kind of sugar I was supposed to use, and then I mixed up the quantities between Contessa's and Joy's recipes.  And I sacrificed one batch in the oven.  That said, I still managed to make perfect shortbread cookies and sandwich them around some homemade dulce de leche with a recipe I borrowed from David Lebovitz.  The result was akin to the alfajores I'd had in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago.

In hindsight the trials and tribulations of shortbread aren't that bad.  But there are a few warnings I could have had in any of the instructions I'd received or recipes I'd read.  And I've got to believe that I'm not the first person to have figured out an easier way to roll out the dough.  Here, I'll attempt to give you a recipe with complete instructions and a few tips on how to make shortbread that you won't find anywhere else.

Shortbread cookies
Makes about 40 3-inch diameter cookies
1 3/4 c butter, slightly warmer than room temperature but not quite goopy
1 c powdered sugar + more for sprinkling (you must have the cornstarch content)
1 tsp vanilla extract
3 1/2 c flour
1/4 tsp kosher salt
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a large bowl, beat butter and 1 cup powdered sugar until smooth.  Add vanilla extract and mix well.  In a separate bowl, mix flour and salt.  Add flour mixture to butter and mix well.  It will make a crumbly mixture and it won't really come together, but make sure the ingredients are well-mixed.  Pour the crumbly mixture onto a clean surface and separate them into two lumps.  Gather up each lump into a ball and set the ball onto a piece of cling wrap.  Flatten the ball into a disk, wrap tightly, and chill for 30 minutes.

Prepare baking sheets by placing a piece of parchment on each one.  Take the dough out of the fridge and roll it out to a disk about 1/4" thick.  It will still be crumbly and it is easier to roll out if you do it between two sheets of cling wrap.  Cut the disk with a cookie cutter and place on the prepared baking sheet.  Chill cookies for 10 minutes, then bake for 10 minutes, till cookies are barely golden.

Dust with powdered sugar.  To send a message to someone that you really care, put a tablespoon of dulce de leche between two cookies before you dust them with powdered sugar.  To smite your enemy, give a powdered sugar cookie to them while they're wearing dark colored clothing.

And there it is, the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about shortbread.


  1. yes, important point you make about the dough not coming together. you want it to look kind of "shaggy" because if it combines too much, you will have a "tough cookie" with a lot of gluten. these look awesome!

  2. Your alphajores look fantastic....fell in love with them in Buenos Aries. Since then have only had good ones when friends brought them back from Argentina. Will definitely try your recipe!

  3. @Johnisha: Thanks! High compliments from you. And I wish I'd called you when I was panicking about this!

    @Travis: If they weren't so fragile, I'd mail some to you. I' know how much you loved BA.

  4. I made this short bread cookies and its just amazing.My family loved it.Also choclate bread cookies are included in menu in this festive season.


  5. Learn basics to advanced level of cake baking that help to create masterpieces. The Baking class includes decoration techniques, cake decorated with cream and chocolates, applying glaze ice and so on.
    Baking Courses in Chennai
    Best Baking Classes in Chennai

  6. Online Cake Delivery in Chennai and taste the excellent types cakes. Learn Baking Classes in Chennai and surprise your closed one. Learn baking becomes easier and funny when you bake the perfect one.


Word. Just say it.