Thursday 1 December 2011

Brown Sugar Shortbread

Wow!  December first!  I follow a fair number of food blogs and it looks to me like the vast majority of them have started the month out talking about baking.  Since that’s my plan too it’s kind of humbling to realize that I’m so startlingly unoriginal.  On the other hand, there’s a good reason for all this talk about baking:  Not only is it a big part of our seasonal celebration, but it’s the perfect activity for this time of year.  Nothing warms a kitchen or makes a house smell better than something from the oven.

Last year, although I wasn’t yet writing my blog, I posted quite a few Christmas baking recipes.  I published them as photo albums on Facebook, with step-by-step instructions under each photo.  This year I have my blog, some more experience with recipe writing, a better camera, and—hopefully—improved photography skills.  Still, the basic idea remains the same.  My Christmas gift to my friends and family, and now to those who follow my blog, will be a baking recipe each day from now until the twenty-fourth.

I can’t claim that the recipes I’ll be sharing are original.  I’m quite sure that everything I’m sharing has been done by someone (or many someones), somewhere before.  And that’s okay.  The reason holiday recipes resonate with us is because they speak to memory and tradition.  I can say that these recipes are special to me because I’m sharing them just as I make them; with enthusiasm, care, and love.  So, let’s get out our mixing bowls and celebrate the season together.

The first recipe I’m going to share with you is Brown Sugar Shortbread.  It came to me from my great-grandmother, who brought it to Canada when she emigrated from Scotland.  The recipe was passed on to my grandmother who, in turn, shared it with my mom. 

Somewhere along the way the sweetener in this recipe got changed from the original brown sugar to icing (confectioners’) sugar (I think because it yielded a perfectly smooth, pale dough that worked well in a cookie press) but icing sugar lacks the flavour that brown sugar has.  I go with what Great-Granny originally used.  It takes a little more mixing but the results are well worth the extra effort.

There are few recipes simpler than those for shortbread.  Mine has only four ingredients.  Still, some cooks find it intimidating because care must be taken not to overwork the dough.  Shortbread should be so tender that it melts in your mouth, and overworking the dough can yield a tougher cookie.  There are a couple of very simple solutions to the problem:  The first is to add some cornstarch.  Cornstarch will help prevent the gluten in the flour from developing into long strands that toughen the dough.  The second is to mix the dough by hand.  It’s far easier to mix gently if you’re mixing by hand than it is if you’re using an electric mixer.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s make some shortbread.  You’ll need:

  • 1 pound butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar, firmly packed
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
Let the butter come to room temperature so that it softens.  (I cut my pound of butter in two because I find the smaller pieces are easier to break down with a wooden spoon.)  Cream the butter by squishing it against the sides of the bowl until it breaks up, and then stirring vigourously until it’s light and smooth.  Sift the brown sugar onto the top of the butter and, again, stir vigourously until the mixture is light and smooth.  Mix in the cornstarch in the same way.  The resulting mixture should look like this:

Sift the flour onto the top of the butter mixture, and stir it in until there are no dry bits showing.  The dough should look like this:

At this point you have several options: 

  • You can press the dough into a rimmed cookie sheet, bake it off, and cut it into bars right after you take it out of the oven.
  • You can press the dough through a cookie press onto prepared cookie sheets.
  • You can refrigerate the dough and form it into balls before baking it.
  • You can roll the refrigerated dough out to 1/4 inch thick between sheets of waxed paper and then cut cookies out with a cookie cutter.
 I usually press it into a rimmed cookie sheet and then cut it after it’s baked.

Bake the shortbread in a pre-heated 325ºF oven.  I won’t give you baking times because they’ll vary depending upon your oven and upon how you’ve formed the dough.  My cookie sheet of dough took about 20 minutes to bake.  When it’s done, the shortbread won’t have much colour but it will have turned a little golden around the edges and, although still slightly soft in the center, it will be mostly set up.  It will continue to firm up as it cools.

If you’re baking your shortbread in one big sheet and then cutting it as I did, cut it into bars or squares as soon as it comes out of the oven.  As you can see, I’m not very good at straight lines.  No one seems to mind though.  

Enjoy this traditional holiday treat with a cup of tea.  It’s what Great-Granny would have done.

I've received some questions about this recipe so I thought I'd update my post with a few pointers.  I'd also like to thank everyone who got back to me by phone, Facebook, and email requesting information.  It's very helpful to me to know what information you're looking for in a post.

Here are my answers:

-Pack the brown sugar firmly into the cup when measuring it.  Don't worry that the resulting cookie will be too sweet; the molasses in the brown sugar tones down its sweetness some.

-I sift my brown sugar by forcing it through a sieve with a wooden spoon.  I do this because we have a very humid climate here so brown sugar tends to form lumps and even some very hard "nuggets"  that won't break down even when sieved.  If I didn't sieve the sugar and discard the "nuggets," there would be hard chunks of sugar in the finished shortbread.

-The cookie sheet I used to bake my shortbread was 10 x 15 inches, with a rim around the edge.

-There is no need to line the cookie sheet, or to grease it.  There's enough butter in the dough to prevent it from sticking to the pan.

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