Here’s your chance to cook with the cast! Make the featured recipe with us and comment on your experience below—we’d love to hear how it goes. Our cooks will answer any questions you may have, too.
9/23/2011 Update: Bridget has picked a favorite photo! Take a look at the size of this thing.
For a chance to win an entire Season Three 2-DVD set of Cook’s Country TV autographed by host Christopher Kimball, make this week’s recipe and email a photo of your completed dish to email@example.com by noon EST, Thursday, Sept. 22. Bridget will pick her favorite snapshot and name the winner on Friday, Sept. 23. Good luck!
Did I mention that I’m married to a Scot? As in a real, born-outside-of-Glasgow, kilt-wearing Scot. We’ve got a picture of Robert Burns on the living room wall, and a can of haggis (don’t ask) in the pantry. Why should you care? Well, long story short—I take shortbread very seriously.
And so does the test kitchen. Traditionally, this cookie is short (ha-ha) on ingredients (butter, sugar, and flour), but the amounts, the technique—heck, even the weather—can greatly affect the outcome. Shortbread should be hearty enough to hold a wedge shape. It should buckle under your teeth and crumble willingly in your mouth. Slurped down with a cup of tea, it’s good stuff indeed.
Problem is, shortbread can be downright (pardon my French) crappy. It’s usually overworked either by hand or machine to the point that it bakes up as tough as a fossil. The kitchen’s job was to create a shortbread that was buttery and tender, yet sturdy—every time.
Let me introduce you to the greatest enemy of shortbread (after Edward I): gluten. Basically, gluten is a protein found in flour that when mixed with water (and there’s water in butter) gives structure—or if overworked, toughness—to baked goods. In the test kitchen, often we’ll substitute all-purpose flour with cake flour (which contains less gluten) or cornstarch (which is gluten-free). In either case, we had shortbread with little flavor.
So we fired up the Wayback Machine and found that once upon a time, this cookie contained oats as well. And since oats have plenty of flavor and little-to-no gluten, we had the answer to heartiness and tenderness. That Quaker-label guy is so smart.
Those oats have to be ground finely to disappear into the shortbread, and the best tool for the job is a coffee or spice grinder. But word of caution: The oats will taste like whatever you ground in there last—so unless you want cumin, coffee, or caraway shortbread (and believe me, you don’t), stick a small piece of white bread in the grinder first and grind away. The bread should clean it all out.
Now the ground oats are mixed with flour and a little cornstarch for extra tenderness. For sugar, we use confectioners’ sugar; granulated sugar was just too… well… granular. Go figure. For butter, you’ve got to use the best unsalted that you can buy. You will taste it in this recipe. We work cold pieces into the dry ingredients (by “we,” I mean the standing mixer). The machine cuts in the butter almost like pie pastry.
Here comes the fun part: Patting the shortbread into a circle. Why a circle? Well, because it’s traditional and the pagans make us do it! It’s easier than it sounds, and to get an even layer, use the collar of a springform pan as a guide. After dumping the dough inside the collar and smoothing it out, stamp out the center using a cooking cutter—and of course we bake that, too.
To make sure that the shortbread is cooked through and set (but not too dark), start off the baking at a sweltering 450 degrees for just 5 minutes, and then lower the heat to 250 degrees for another 15 minutes.
If you were to look at the shortbread at this point, you’d surely think that a) it isn’t done, and b) it looks nothing like shortbread. Don’t worry, we’re not done baking. First, remove the collar and score the shortbread into wedges—miss this step and you’ll be handing out the shortbread in one big circle! Then take a wooden skewer to poke holes in the dough, which lets the steam escape. You can be careful with this, or poke out a message for a loved one. “Will you marry me?” is always nice. If they say no, you still have the shortbread.
Then back in the oven it goes for about an hour. But here’s the key: To bake the shortbread through and keep it pale and golden, turn the oven off. Even better, stick the wooden handle of a spoon in the door to prop it open a bit. This will allow the heat and any moisture in the oven to escape quickly.
With two more hours of countertop cooling time, there’s plenty of opportunity to get the kettle on. Heck, we’ve even scored the wedges to show you where to cut. Just sit back and enjoy that snap of tender, buttery shortbread with a wee cuppa tea.