Happy Holiday (with shortbread)
As a gardener whose life is nurtured by, centered in , moored to the earth and the passing upon it of the seasons, I have to say all this flapdoodle over the name of the evergreen in the living room really rankles my curd. Here’s what: it’s a holiday tree; the holiday is the winter solstice; and people have been celebrating it with these trees for more millennia than Christianity can claim.
The decorated holiday tree is a symbol of life in the midst of darkness that belongs to everybody, atheists included. The only people who might reasonably claim it has been hijacked are Druids – and at least so far most of them have had the good sense to just keep quiet and eat cookies ( another aspect of the celebration that is WAY older than certain religions).
‘nough said. And since by now you probably have your tree if you’re planning to have one, I will say only don’t forget to keep it watered, to minimize the risk of fire and to make sure it smells good for as long as possible.
THE COOKIE PART – SHORTBREAD DIVISION
Shortbread is “cookie” reduced to the absolute basics, you can’t get any closer to eating sweetened butter unless you do it with a spoon. And recipes don’t get much easier, either. This one spends a lot of words on the fine points , but the bottom line is a short ingredient list and about 5 minutes of work.
Because the ideal texture is extremely tender and crumbly, recipes typically call for mixing all purpose flour with something like cornstarch or rice flour to lower the overall gluten content. It’s easier to just use cake flour, which every baker should keep a supply of for just these occasions. (The good side of its being devoid of any meaningful nutrient content is that it keeps forever).
For about 40 cookies, depending on how you shape them:
½ pound butter – freshness is more important than either salt or fat-content
¼ cup brown sugar
¼ cup white sugar
¼ teaspoon salt or a pinch more for unsalted butter
2 ½ – 3 cups cake flour ( amount needed will vary with the moisture content of the butter, the way you measure, and how rigid you want the finished cookies to be. The less you can get away with, the better – within reason, of course. )
1. Take the butter out of the fridge and let it soften until it is claylike, neither slump-squishy nor hard.
2. Put the sugars, salt and a few tablespoons of the flour in a processor fitted with the metal blade. Process until you don’t hear any brown sugar lumps. Add enough more flour bring the total up to 2 ½ cups. Give it another whirl or two.
3. Cut the butter into 8 or 10 pieces, scatter them over the flour, then pulse until the dough forms large clots and is just about to make a ball. This is lots of pulses.
4. Let the dough sit in a cool but not cold place for at least half an hour, up to half a day ( remove from processor and wrap in plastic if opting for the latter).
5. When ready to bake, heat the oven to 325. Roll about a tablespoon of dough into a ball, then lightly flatten it into a cookie. Put it on a piece of foil; put the foil in the center of a small, flat pan ( bottom of a pie tin works fine) and put it in to bake. Check after 6 or 7 minutes. It won’t be done yet, but it will have done enough of what it’s going to do so you will know whether to knead in more flour. Do so if necessary – freestanding shapes often need a bit more to avoid puddlehood.
6. Shape the dough (see below) on an ungreased cookie sheet, preferably the double kind with the air-layer in the middle. Bake until the shortbread is pale gold clear through , 15 minutes for pressed cookies, 20 to 30 minutes for classic wedges or little molds. Do not underbake; if it looks like the edges are browning too fast, just turn down the heat.
SHAPING SHORTBREAD DOUGH
Classic: Gently roll into balls the size of tennis balls. Flatten into circles a bit more than ¼ inch thick in the center, slightly thicker at the edges ( they get more heat). Circles should be about 5 to 6 inches in diameter. Use floured fork tines to punch into 8 wedges, then punch the center of each wedge. Leave everything attached. After baking, repunch wedges while the cookies are still hot, then separate when cold.
Molded: This is a good dough to use in the tiny fluted metal cups – about 1 inch across the top – intended for candies and Swedish sandbakkelsen. Roll teaspoon size pinches of dough into balls, put ‘em in the ungreased cups, then go back and press down in the center with your thumb. Dough should come about ¾ of the way up the sides. ( It will smooth out in the baking but still be a bit dimpled.) Be sure to let them cool completely before trying to unmold. Serve as is or put a dollop of tart jam or chocolate ganache in the dimples.
Pressed: Standard advice for pressed cookies is to use a cold sheet and warm dough. With these, it works better to have both items at room temperature. If you can’t get the pressed shapes to stick, use the star opening and make rings.
(Shortbread-Molded: fancy cookware stores sell clay shortbread molds with elaborate patterns. For best results, use the recipes that come with them. )