Making Shortbread

You know, I could almost be convinced that they look like petticoat tails (even though I have no idea what a petticoat tail looks like). Whaddya think? Shortbread is one of those things that every baker should know how to make, since it’s the basis of a wide variety of cookies and some crusts. Those of you who keep track of such things may notice that shortbread is almost identical to French pâte sablée (roughly translated: “sandy” dough), save for the fact that pâte sablée generally calls for some whole egg.

Begin by combining your flours, sugar and salt in the bowl of a mixer fitted with a paddle and stir to combine them.

Add in your cold butter all at once. Use the good stuff if you can, since you’ll notice the difference. Beat on medium speed for 3-4 minutes until the butter is incorporated.

It was a bit hot when I put this together, so the dough turned out a little smoother than it ideally should have been. Large, malleable, slightly crumbly clumps is probably the ideal texture. However this ended up working pretty well.

Now then, for shaping. To get the classic “petticoat tail” slices, follow along below. Otherwise, roll, cut and bake your dough as you see fit. If you have a pair of inexpensive cake layer pans — the kind I hope you never actually use for cake — this is an excellent time to put them to work. You know the ones, you get them in the supermarket for $2.99 a pair. Line one of them with waxed paper or parchment.

Press in your dough…

…top it with another piece of parchment…

…apply the other sheet pan…

…and mash it down firmly.

Remove the pan and peel off the top layer of wax paper.

Run a butter knife around the edge of the pan to loosen the dough. You can also use the knife to trim off some of the dough that squishes up the side of the pan there. If the dough seems very soft at this point you can refrigerate it for half an hour or so to firm it.

Turn out the round onto a parchment-lined sheet pan (no, you don’t have to use the graduated kind, it just makes me feel all science-y).

Remove the second piece of parchment. Insert the sheet pan into the 425 oven, then immediately turn the heat down to 300 and bake for 20 minutes. What’s with the blast of heat? Simply to firm the exterior of the dough mass and prevent too much spreading.

Some spreading is inevitable — and desirable, since you don’t want your pieces to be too thick. Now then, insert a small — about two inch — cutter into the center of the round and leave it there. Next score the round into 16 pieces by making shallow cuts in the round…slice it half, then the halves into halves and so on.

Lastly, poke some holes in the shortbread with a wooden skewer. You can do any design you like. I dig these concentric circles because I’m uptight.

Bake another 30-40 minutes until the shortbread is lightly browned. Allow it to cool for ten minutes, then remove the circular cutter and cut the pieces along the scores. Cool the shortbread completely before eating, about 3 hours…if you can wait that long.

Why cut the center out? you may ask. All I can say is it’s traditional. The genius of it is that it preemptively takes the pointy ends off the cookies so they can’t snap off on their own. Plus it gives the baker his or her own personal treat.

Reader Lynn adds:

Shortbread is a heavenly treat….the secret’s in the butter. If you don’t have good butter, you may as well wait until you’ve got it before making shortbread.

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