Monday, October 31, 2011

Shortbread Mania

I don’t normally dream of food. I think about food a lot sometimes (presently I have tempeh on my mind, almost constantly) and I often have cravings (mostly for calorific food like cheese pretzels or corn nuts); but I dare say I have never dreamt of food. But last week, I dreamt of shortbread. How random is that? Shortbread! 

So this was it: I was at a garden party (actually I was the only one at the party), sitting at a table wearing a kilt. I was looking intently at a plate of pale, sugary shortbread that was placed in front of me. There was a huge tea pot beside the plate, but no cups (how rude!). I could hear a a horse somewhere in the background but there wasn’t any sign of a prince (again, how rude!).Quite bizarre and a little boring, given that nothing actually happened in the dream. No story. No plot. No drama. I woke up wondering (of all things) why I chose a grey kilt and not a red one! I am weird ... for choosing grey... I know.

I don’t interpret dreams but I’d say I have taken “craving” to a whole new level. My subconscious was craving shortbread ... and I was more than willing to comply.

I’ve made shortbread several times before so I could have easily dug out an old recipe but instead, I chose instead to trawl the net for something different. BIG MISTAKE. Well, not mistake exactly, but what should have been a quick and easy baking job became a week-long project.

Turns out there are more ways than one to make the classic shortbread and I was game to try a few recipes in search of my favourite.

There are three essential ingredients in all shortbreads —  flour, butter and sugar (the ration between the three is usually 4-2-1) and the process of making shortbread is really quite straight-forward:
   Step1: Cream the butter and sugar. Most recipes call for softened butter but some use melted butter.
   Step 2:  Fold in the flour, being careful not to over mix the dough (unless you like tough cookies!)
   Step 3: Bake.
That’s the standard recipe I’ve tried and my biscuits always turn out well: buttery, soft and crumbly. But in my search for something different, I stumbled on a recipe for a vegan shortbread that uses absolutely no butter.

No butter?
I put aside my skepticism — can you even call it shortbread without the butter? — and decided to give it a go.

Experiment One  : Vegan Shortbread

 No butter? No worries!
Instead of butter, the vegan shortbread uses canola oil. AND, apart from the sugar and the flour, the recipe also calls for baking powder and rice flour (which many cooks say enhances the texture of shortbread). 
The recipe: 
2/3 cup Oil
1/2 cup icing sugar
11/2 cups + 1 tbsp all purpose flour
1/4 cup + 1/4 tsp rice flour (I used tapioca flour instead)
1/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
2 tsp vanilla
granulated sugar for sprinkling (optional)

Preheat the oven to 160C. Line an 2ocm round pan with parchment paper. Mix all dry ingredients together. Make a well in the center and pour in the oil and mix with a wooden spoon. Add the vanilla and mix it in evenly. Transfer the dough (slightly sticky) onto the lined pan and press evenly with the back of the spoon or your hand. Poke holes with a fork and lightly score it into 8 wedges.Sprinkle with raw sugar and bake for 35-40 mins. Let it cool before cutting.
The result: It was pretty good actually. Way above my expectations. Soft, crumbly and very tasty. The only flaw: I kinda missed the butter. I like my shortbread really buttery and even though the vegan version was nice, I wanted a buttery biscuit.

The verdict: the vegan shortbread is a wonderful alternative for people who don’t eat butter. But since I do, I’ll  stick to my standard recipe.

Experiment 2: Melted butter and twice the heat.
Are you (pine) nuts about shortbread ?
The second recipe uses butter. But it uses melted butter. And, it takes a while to make because once you mix the ingredients together (pretty much the same way you mix it in the vegan recipe), and after you've pressed it into the tray, you have to let it rest (and you thought bread was difficult) for two hours MINIMUM) before you  bake it. And, after baking it for 30-odd mins, you have to take it out, let it rest AGAIN and then pop it back in the oven for 10 mins. 
I wasn't sure what the "resting" was for so I baked a batch without resting it at all and another batch with the required 2-hour rest. Turns out, resting made the shortbread more tender. Still crunchy (thanks to the double baking) but nice and tender inside. Still crumbly, like a good shortbread should be. The double baking seems like an awful lot of work but if you like a nice crunch on the outside of your shortbread, you'll be willing to go the extra mile. 

 Twice-baked Shortbread 
(from SmittenKitchen; adapted from Alice Medrich's Pure Dessert

170g unsalted butter, melted and still warm
5 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
Granulated sugar for sprinkling

Mix the sugar into the warm, melted butter and stir till combined. Add the vanilla and then fold in the flour (mix the salt in first), bit by bit.

Line your baking tray with foil (let the foil hang down the sides). Press the dough into the baking tray/pan. Flatten and let it rest for at least two hours.

Bake in a pre-heated oven (150C) for 30-40 mins (place it in the lower rack of your oven).
Remove and let it cool for about 10 mins. Remove the shortbread (lift the foil by the flaps) and gently cut it with a sharp knife into squares. Place the squares on a lined baking sheet and bake for another 10 - 15 mins.

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