If your experience with shortbread is limited to bland, chalky specimens from a tin, you might wonder how this plain-looking bar (which dates back to at least 12th-century Scotland) came to be one of the British Isles’ most famous teacakes. But when shortbread is made well, it’s easy to understand why it earned a reputation as a favorite of high-ranking palates from Mary, Queen of Scots to Elizabeth II.
The pleasing, delicate texture of these cookies depends on using confectioners’ sugar and lots of butter. When the dough is made with granulated sugar or even superfine sugar, the cookies turn out more dense and praline-like, with a coarse interior texture. But the small grains of the confectioners’ sugar melt more easily into the dough, resulting in a finer texture that would make its forebears proud.
HOW TO MAKE SHORTBREAD
1. Knead the dough by hand: With no liquid or egg to help hold the dough together, we found it necessary to knead the dough by hand for about 3 minutes before shaping. The heat from your hands melts some of the butter, helping the flour to absorb it. This light kneading also makes a crumble-free dough.
2. Make a big cookie: Press the dough into a round disk, then place it on top of a large piece of parchment and roll out into a 9-inch circle, about ½ inch thick. Using your fingers, flute the edge. We bake the shortbread like one big cookie rather than in a cake pan because it browns more evenly and looks great.
3. Poke and score: Use the tines of a fork to poke holes in a circular pattern all over the dough; be sure to poke all of the way through to the baking sheet to prevent the dough from puffing as it bakes. Using a small knife, score the dough into 16 even wedges. (Don’t cut all the way through the dough.)
4. Give it a rest: Refrigerate the dough for 20 minutes. Doing this allows the dough to relax so that it doesn’t shrink in the hot oven.
5. Sugar, then bake: Sprinkle the granulated sugar evenly over the dough. Bake until the shortbread is pale golden brown. Sprinkling with sugar before baking gives the sugar time to melt and caramelize, giving better color, texture, and flavor to the shortbread.
6. Cut it while it’s hot: After removing the shortbread from the oven, use a chef’s knife to cut it into wedges along the scored lines. Let the shortbread wedges cool on the baking sheet for 10 minutes before transferring the wedges to a wire rack to cool completely. If allowed to cool completely before cutting, the shortbread will be very hard and brittle, and will break into uneven pieces.