Shortbread

September 10, 2016 § Leave a comment

Shortbread is the classic British, or more properly Scottish, biscuit. With just three ingredients, flour, butter and sugar balanced in the baker’s golden ratio of 3:2:1 it’s sublime in its simplicity, the perfect riposte to an oversized cookie or indeed the overworked esoterically flavoured creations on offer on our TV screens at the moment courtesy of the Great British Bake Off.

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Shortbread is relatively straightforward to make at home (though as I have discovered there are several ways to go wrong) but you can buy great shortbread too. One of my favourite commercially produced shortbreads is that made by Dean’s of Huntly. On a visit to Aberdeenshire not so long ago (mainly focused on sampling Speyside whiskies) we found ourselves in the small town of Huntly and took the opportunity to visit the factory showroom and café, learning the story of how Helen Dean started baking and selling shortbread from her family kitchen in the early 1970s. Dean’s shortbread truly is melt-in-the mouth and the list of ingredients for the premium all-butter shortbread is admirably simple.

So if Dean’s sets the benchmark, where does my own shortbread recipe come from?

It’s a combination of various different recipes plus a little trial and error.

In contrast to the brevity of the ingredients list, there are a number of aspects to the method for making and baking of shortbread that warrant a little further discussion or explanation.

1) Ratios

I referred above to the baker’s golden ratio of 3:2:1. Where does this come from you may be wondering?

I have 3 unimpeachable sources. The first is my mother-in-law’s handwritten recipe which calls for 6oz flour, 4 oz butter and 2 oz sugar (incidentally this is also what she does to make the best crumble topping); the second is Jane Grigson’s shortbread instructions from her book “English Food” (sorry Scotland!); the third is a classic shortbread recipe attributed to Katharine Robertson from the book “Seasonal Cooking” by Claire MacDonald of MacDonald who runs a famous hotel, Kinloch Lodge on the Isle of Skye.

2) Substituting some of the flour for cornflour, semolina or ground rice

The received wisdom seems to be that you can substitute up to one third of the plain flour with one of the above alternative starches. I have found that shortbread made with just plain flour has an amply crumbly and melt-in-the mouth texture if properly baked so why make things more complicated than they need to be?

3) What sort of butter is best?

I like to use a salted British butter, ideally a farmhouse one as this gives the best flavour to the finished biscuit. I think a little salt in the recipe lifts the flavour and if this is added by way of salted butter there is no danger of over-salting the dough. British butter is generally made from straightforward pasteurised cream and is known as “sweet cream” butter. Butter from the continental mainland e.g. Lurpak or the many French butters available are generally made from cream that has undergone lactic fermentation. This gives butter with a fresh, clean flavour but for shortbread making I prefer the richer taste of a sweet cream butter.

4) What sort of sugar is best?

Some recipes call for icing sugar but as far as I’m concerned, caster sugar is the way to go helping to achieve the desired crumbly texture. I also think that golden caster sugar gives an extra depth of flavour to the finished biscuit.

5) How should the ingredients be combined?

Some recipes suggest rubbing in the butter, flour and sugar whereas others suggest creaming together the butter and sugar and then working in the flour. I’ve tried both methods and find that it makes no difference. I find it easiest to start by creaming the butter and sugar in my Kenwood mixer and I was pleased to see that the legendary Helen Dean started off her family shortbread-making business using a trusty Kenwood mixer (proudly on display at the company’s HQ in Huntly – see photo above) so I feel I’m on solid ground here.

6) To roll or not to roll?

Several recipes suggest rolling out and cutting shortbread dough into shapes. Good luck to you if you can manage it! There is no way I’d attempt to roll out this type of dough as I find it just to hard to work with which is why I press my dough into a tin and cut it into fingers when baked. There are other recipes available for crisp little sablé-type biscuits that contain either egg yolks or whole eggs which are more suitable for rolling-out and cutting into shapes if that’s what you’re looking to make.

7) How long to bake and at what temperature?

Different recipes contain vastly different instructions on this aspect. As far as I’m concerned, relatively low and slow is the way to go which is why I suggest a baking temperature of 150 degrees C fan and 45 minutes’ cooking time. If you like a paler shortbread you might consider dropping the oven temperature by a further 10 degrees – Claire MacDonald’s recipe referred to above calls for a conventional oven temperature of 150 degrees C and a baking time of 1 hour.

Traditional shortbread

Makes enough to fill a standard rectangular Swiss roll tin (mine is 33cm by 23cm by 2cm) which when cut into fingers yields 36 individual biscuits. The ratio of flour to butter to sugar is the simple to remember 3:2:1 so you can readily alter the quantities to suit whatever tin size you have.

Ingredients

250g salted British butter
125g golden caster sugar (plus a little more for sprinkling afterwards)
375g plain white flour

Line the tin using a sheet of baking parchment carefully trimmed to fit. I do this by cutting a sheet of parchment slightly larger than my tin, pressing it into the tin to mark the division between base and sides then carefully snipping the paper at each corner at right angles then folding in the sides origami-style to create a 3D lining. If this sounds too complicated then just line the base of the tin.

Making the shortbread dough is easily done in a stand mixer but works well using a large bowl, wooden spoon and some elbow-grease too.
Cream together the butter and caster sugar thoroughly until the mixture is a little lighter in colour. Add the flour in 3 or 4 stages, mixing until well incorporated. The end result should be a crumbly dough that barely holds together and looks like badly made shortcrust pastry.

Tip the dough into the lined tin and spend a few minutes carefully pressing and distributing the dough evenly in the tin. You can do this using any combination of your knuckles and fingertips, a metal spoon or a small crank-handled palette knife. Prick the dough all over with the tines of a fork. I think this helps the dough to bake through more evenly, it looks attractive and importantly creates tiny pockets in the baked surface allowing the final sprinkling of caster sugar to adhere better to the biscuits.

Place the tin of shortbread dough into the fridge for at least 15 minutes to chill and firm up. It can be left into the fridge for several hours, even overnight if that suits your timetable.

When you are ready to bake, preheat your oven to 150 degrees C fan. Bake the shortbread for about 45 minutes until a light golden colour throughout. Judging the right degree of baking is perhaps the hardest aspect of this recipe and will probably require a degree of trial and error depending on how accurate your oven temperature is. It shouldn’t be too dark a colour – baking long and slow is the way to go. Also, if the shortbread is baked too long it becomes too hard and brittle and will shatter when cut into. If underbaked it will lack flavour and have a claggy rather than melt-in-the-mouth crumbly texture. When it is baked just right it will still be somewhat soft when cut into while still warm but, fear not, it will firm up to the right crumbly texture when cooled.

Once baked, remove from the oven, immediately carefully cut into fingers of the desired size (I cut mine lengthwise into 3 long strips then crosswise into 12 strips to produce 36 fingers) and sprinkle the surface with a little more golden caster sugar. Leave to cool completely in the tin.

Open season for Haggis – ideas for a Burns supper

January 25, 2010 § Leave a comment

Today is 25 January, Robert Burns’ birthday which means that the traditional Burns supper of haggis, neeps, tatties (mashed swede and mashed potatoes)and of course plenty of Scotch whisky will be served up to Scots both at home and abroad tonight.  We Sassenachs got in on the act early this year, on Saturday night in fact, when we were invited to a Burns supper at nearby Manchester Grammar School.

You might well ask why would anyone voluntarily go and spend an evening eating school dinners?  In fact the school did us proud and produced food of a high standard. Pride of place went to a splendidly proportioned haggis (Macsweens of course – I did check with the catering manager!) which was preceded by a bagpiper and ceremonially stabbed with the Skean dhu/Sgian Dubh (the dagger a Scotsman tucks into his sock).  You can clearly see the victim’s entry and exit wounds…

I realise this picture may not look appealing to those of a nervous disposition but, honestly, it was delicious.

Eating my meal on Saturday night, it occurred to me that hosting a Burns supper at home would be a fun evening and the food would be pretty straightforward.  To start, the obvious choice would be Scottish smoked salmon.  You could serve this as a canapé beforehand on tiny oatcakes and dispense with a starter if that suited.  Smoked venison too with redcurrant or, better still, rowanberry jelly would be good if you could source some.  A smoked loch trout or kipper pâté with oatcakes would be another option.  Don’t turn your nose up at kipper pâté – it may not sound glamorous but I can still remember some that I ate in Tiddy Dol’s (sadly now closed) restaurant in Mayfair some 20 years ago – velvety smooth and absolutely delicious with just a hint of  a peaty malt whisky in the background.

The main course would obviously be a haggis (there are vegetarian versions too to cater for all tastes) and the aforementioned neeps and tatties – these can be prepped in advance and heated through when you are ready to serve.  A little whisky poured over the haggis is all the sauce you need but you could serve a little gravy (or jus as restaurants insist on calling it) if you liked.  I like Francis Bissell’s idea from her book “Entertaining” of serving haggis Parmentier, a Scottish take on the bistro classic hachis Parmentier (a French version of shepherd’s pie). Cooked haggis, carefully spooned out of its casing forms the based of the dish with a smooth mixture of mashed potato and swede forming the top. Some finely shredded curly Scots  kale, steamed for just a minute or two to retain its vibrant greenness, would make a good accompaniment.

Pudding is a little bit of a challenge given the quantity of food you will already have consumed.  Cranachan (a combination of whipped cream, toasted oatmeal, whisky, heather honey and raspberries) would be traditionally Scottish and you could use very acceptable frozen Scottish raspberries.  If you wanted something very light and refreshing then a raspberry water ice or sorbet would fit the bill.  An individual baked or steamed pudding made with whisky and Dundee marmalade would be good for traditional pudding lovers.  My final pudding thoughts would be a Caledonian ice cream as served at Glasgow’s Ubiquitous Chip.  This is a witty take on a French style praline ice cream with frugal toasted oatmeal taking the place of the usual almonds.  You could serve this with a sauce of melted Mars bars – a nod to that other most traditional of Scots puddings, the deep-fried Mars bar….

I also give a recipe for an oatmeal shortbread biscuit as featured in the BBC Great British Menu programme.  Chef Jeremy Lee turned them into a neat stack with cream and raspberries but they are a good crisp biscuit either to eat on their own or to  provide a contrasting texture to a creamy pudding.

Recipe for Caledonian ice cream

This is a recipe from Glasgow’s Ubiquitous Chip restaurant brought to the masses by Delia Smith in her Summer Collection book.  Serves 8.  I’ve tried this recipe at home and it works well with our without an ice cream maker.

Ingredients

For the caramelised oatmeal

3 oz (75g) caster sugar
4 tablespoons water
2 oz (50g) pinhead oatmeal

For the syrup

4 oz (110g) caster sugar
4 tablespoons water

For the ice cream

1 pint whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Start by making the caramelised oatmeal. Put the caster sugar and water into a small saucepan over a low heat and leave it for 5 minutes. Then take a medium sized frying pan, place it on a medium heat and when the pan is hot, add the oatmeal and swirl it round the pan constantly so that it browns evenly – which it will do in about 5 minutes. Remove the oatmeal to a plate to prevent it becoming over-brown. By now the sugar in the saucepan will have dissolved so you can turn the heat up and let it boil. Watch it very closely until it becomes a rich brown caramel colour. Stir in the toasted oatmeal, remove from the heat and quickly pour the mixture onto a baking sheet lined with baking parchment. Put to one side to get cold and firm (about 15 minutes).  Then take off small pieces at a time and pound them in a pestle and mortar until they are the size of large salt crystals (you could do this carefully in a food processor too but don’t overdo it and reduce it to too fine a powder).  Put to one side in an airtight container until you are ready to make the ice cream.

To make the sugar syrup, measure the sugar and water into a small saucepan, place it over a gentle heat and stir until the sugar has dissolved – about 5 minutes. Then remove from the heat and allow to become completely cold.

To make the ice cream, pour the cold syrup into a mixing bowl along with the whipping cream and vanilla extract.  Whisk with an electric whisk or mixer until the mixture just begins to thicken and hold its shape. Then pour into an ice cream maker and freeze according to manufacturer’s instructions until firm but still pliable.  If you don’t have an ice cream maker, freeze the mixture until firm but pliable in a large plastic container, beating vigorously every half hour or so with a wooden spoon. Transfer to a bowl, stir in the oatmeal mixture, fold it in then spoon the ice cream into a loaf tin 7 1/2 by 4 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches.  Cover with a double thickness of foil and freeze until needed.

To serve, remove from the freezer to the refrigerator about 30 minutes before you need it. Dip the base and sides of the loaf tin into hot water for 10 seconds or so, loosen round the edges with a palette knife, then turn onto a plate.  Using a sharp knife dipped in hot water, cut into neat slices.

Recipe for almond shortbread thins

The original recipe title is for raspberry shortcake but I think this is confusing as shortcake to me means the American scone type soft cake.  It comes from The Great British Menu Cookbook accompanying the BBC TV series of the same name.  This recipe was cooked by chef Jeremy Lee.  Jeremy is a native Scot who is the longstanding head chef at London’s Blueprint café.  I have tried this recipe at home and it does work – the biscuits are delicious. It makes about 20 biscuits from memory (recipe says serves 4).

Ingredients

125g soft unsalted butter
40g caster sugar
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
40g best quality blanched almonds such as Marcona ground in a food processor quite fine but still with some texture
40 g toasted white breadcrumbs (from 70g bread chopped up, crusts on, baked at 150 degrees C/fan 130 degrees C/gas mark 2 for 30 minutes or until lightly toasted then processed to crumbs in a food processor)

To serve

250 ml double cream, softly whipped; a great bowl of raspberries, a small bowl of caster sugar, a little icing sugar for sifting

Beat the butter and sugar together well until pale. Pop in the orange zest and beat very well. Add the flour, ground almonds and breadcrumbs, and mix thoroughly into a soft dough.

Cut a large piece of baking parchment. Place the dough at one end of the paper, then roll it in the paper to make a sausage shape roughly 5cm in diameter. Seal the sausage in the paper and chill for a few hours or ideally overnight.

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C/fan 150 degrees C/gas mark 3.  Line a large baking sheet with baking parchment. Cut the roll of dough into 3mm thick slices (about the thickness of a UK £1 coin) and lay them on a baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool and become crisp.

You can eat them as they are or sandwich 3 of them together with raspberries and whipped cream to form a neat stack for pudding.

Producer/other details

Macsween’s haggis

http://www.macsween.co.uk/

Stockan and Garden oatcakes from Orkney

http://www.stockan-and-gardens.co.uk/

Glasgow’s Ubiquitous Chip restaurant

http://www.ubiquitouschip.co.uk/index.html

Please do leave a comment if you have Burns supper experiences or Scottish recipe ideas to share

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