Shortbread

Originally published December 1, 2013.

The triumph of Scottish baking on the old national lines.

-TF Henderson

 

Little shortbread cookiesShortbread is the primordial cookie.  It has only three ingredients: sugar, butter, and flour.  And I guess salt is a welcome addition.  Sometimes there’s caraway.  And there are a few variations like Ayrshire shortbread that include eggs and cream.  But usually it’s just sugar, butter, and flour, combined in a very simple ratio: 1:2:3.

In other words, butter makes up fully one third of the weight of the dough, so this is indeed a very short dough, “short” referring to fat’s ability to inhibit gluten development, creating a tender, brittle pastry.  Some classic recipes will even replace a portion of the wheat flour with rice flour or arrowroot starch, which is even lower in gluten.

The other important characteristic of classic shortbread is that the only moisture in the dough comes from the scant water-content of the butter.  In fact there is so little water that not all the starch in the flour will be able to absorb moisture and gelate, which explains shortbread’s crumbly texture.

Being a dry dough that doesn’t spread during baking, shortbread is particularly well-suited to being shaped before baking.  Dough made with fine sugar like caster or berry sugar spreads less during baking than that made with coarse sugar.

Traditional Shapes.  Shortbread dough has to be warmer than fridge temperature to be workable.  I typically leave it on the counter for an hour before rolling.  There are several traditional forms.

  • Shortbread is often pressed into molds.  Traditional images include all manner of Scots paraphernalia: thistles, heather, clover (“trefoil”)…
  • Long rectangles called fingers are common.
  • The most common shapes are round discs, usually notches along the perimeter with thumb and forefinger, or with the tines of a fork.  This is said to mimmic the sun’s rays, especially on Hogmanay, the Scots New Year.  The shortbread rounds can be sized for individual consumption, or made larger, and cut into wedges much like a pie, in which case the cookie is called petticoat tails.[1] See the picture below.
  • Shortbread doughs of all shapes are often “docked,” that is, perforated with the tines of a fork.

Baking

After shaping the cookies it’s best to hold them at fridge temperatures for at least fifteen minutes.  The colder the cookies are when they go into the oven, the better they will hold their shape during baking.

Different folks have different tastes, but generally baking is done so as not to brown the cookies too much.  For thinner, individual cookies I use a relatively high temperature, maybe 375°F.  For thicker version like petticoat tails I bake at 325°F to give the dough a chance to cook through before the exterior turns golden brown.

Other Traditions

Like haggis, shortbread is very much a festive dish, associated particularly with Christmas and Hogmanay.  In Shetland shortbread is part of a traditional wedding, where it’s called the bride’s bonn and is used in a “throwing of the girdle” type game.[2]

Petticoat Tails

 

Shortbread

Ingredients

  • 8 oz caster sugar (granulated works okay in a pinch…)
  • 16 oz butter, room temperature
  • 22 oz all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Using the paddle attachment, cream together the sugar, butter, and salt at high speed in the bowl of a stand mixer.  The mixture will lighten in colour and take on a light, fluffy aspect.  This should take about 6 minutes.  Be sure to periodically scrape down the sides of the bowl.
  2. Reduce the speed of the mixer to low and add the sifted flour.
  3. Transfer the crumbly dough to the counter and press it together with your hands.  At this point the dough can be wrapped and refrigerated or frozen.  It will last for a couple weeks in the fridge.
  4. Remove the dough from the fridge about an hour before you intend to roll it out.  It can be a little tricky getting the dough to the perfect temperature, at which it is just workable.  If the dough gets too warm it is hard to work with and doesn’t shape well.
  5. Roll out the dough and shape as desired.  Transfer cookies to a heavy bake sheet and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
  6. For thin, individual cookies, bake at 375°F until just turning golden brown, maybe 12 minutes, rotating the tray half way through baking.  For thicker styles like petticoat tails, bake at 325°F until just turning golden brown, maybe 16 minutes.

 

Dark Shortbread

Many would not consider the following cookie a shortbread, as shortbread is usually virginal white, but before refined white flour and sugar were common, shortbread often contained oats, whole wheat flour, and other “less refined” ingredients.  This is an original recipe I adapted from the shortbread recipe in the Culinary Institute of America’s Baking and Pastry, Second Edition.

Ingredients

  • 8 oz cake flour
  • 8 oz whole wheat flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 11 oz butter
  • 5 oz white sugar
  • 8 oz brown sugar

Procedure

  1. As for classic shortbread, above.

 

Notes and References

  1. Being a young man in the twenty-first century, I had to look up what a “petticoat” is.  Though apparently an archaic garment associated with European court fashion, a Google image search turned up some very racy pictures which did a good job of explaining the term to me.  A petticoat is an undergarment, usually in the form of a ruffled, voluminous skirt, worn under a gown or dress, meant to keep the woman warm and give body and shape to the gown or dress worn over top.  The bottom of the petticoat is usually exposed.  Along with corsets, it is also part of a classic cabaret get-up.
  2. McNeill, F. Marian.  The Scots Kitchen.  ©2010 The Estate of F. Marian McNeill.  Birlinn Ltd, Edinburgh, Scotland.  Page 242.  This is also where I learned about the different recipes and shapes, like Ayrshire shortbread and petticoat tails.  I love this book.  Thank you, Lizzie!

 

Gingerbread Cookies

gingerbread_dough.JPGThere are several kinds of gingerbread cookies, from the soft, chewy type with large cracks in the surface, to the very smooth, brittle sort used to build houses and men.  This post is about the latter.

Below is a very simple gingerbread recipe that I wanted to post on Button Soup for the sake of completeness, as I use it to build my gingerbread houses.  I like to cut the excess dough into other traditional shapes, like men, Christmas trees, and dinosaurs.

Tips and Tricks

  • The key to getting this dough to hold its shape during baking is to roll it quite thin, about 1/8″, and to chill it thoroughly before baking.
  • This is one of the very few instances that I prefer blackstrap or baking molasses to the fancy sort.  I really like the minerality and acidity of the cheaper stuff.
  • Lightly oil the inside of the bowl in which you will measure out the molasses.  This way the molasses with slide out and you won’t have to wash any sticky residue out later.

Homemade gingerbread cookies cooling on a wire rack

 

Gingerbread Cookies

Ingredients

  • 4 oz unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 4 oz white sugar
  • 6.5 oz blackstrap molasses
  • 3 oz water
  • 18 oz all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp ginger powder
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Cream butter and white sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes, periodically scraping down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula.
  2. Add the molasses and water and beat until combined.
  3. Combine remaining ingredients and slowly add to the butter and sugar mixture while stirring on the lowest speed.
  4. Continue mixing on lowest speed until dough comes together and starts to pull away from the sides of the bowl.
  5. Cover dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 15 minutes.
  6. Roll out to 1/8″ thickness (about 4 mm) and cut into desired shapes.
  7. Put on a bake sheet with silicon lining and refrigerate 15 minutes.
  8. Bake in a 350°F oven for ten minutes.
  9. Remove to a wire rack to cool.

Bulletin: Exciting Developments in the Field of Fruitcake

Fruitcake, soon to be saturated with Sailor JerryI know I already posted today, but I wanted to quickly tell you about some cutting-edge developments in the composition and aging of the 2012 fruitcake.

Hazelnuts lose their spot to almonds.  For three years now my fruitcake has been poundcake flavoured with orange zest, garnished with glacé Evans cherries, candied Navel orange peel, and roasted hazelnuts.  The cherries are the star.  They bring loads of flavour, acidity to balance the buttery luxury of the cake, plus they’re from Lisa’s dad’s backyard.

Working with Evans cherries over the past couple years, we’ve noticed that their aroma has a distinct note of almond extract.  For some reason this aroma is especially evident in the single-varietal rumpots we’ve made.  This year we decided to substitute the hazelnuts with almonds, to see if they could reinforce or even elevate the great, natural flavour of the Evans cherry.

Appleton rum falls to Sailor Jerry.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to think about Sailor Jerry.  I know lots of kids who drink it because it’s marginally stronger than most brands of rum, and I guess because it’s associated with a tattoo artist, and probably also because it has a charming, trashy pin-up girl on the back of the label.  Its popularity in hipsterdom notwithstanding, in the last year it’s become my favourite spiced rum, mostly because of the boatload of vanilla essence on the nose.  It’s great in Coke for that reason.

Anyways, I’ve decided to age this year’s fruitcake with Sailor Jerry spiced navy rum, instead of the usual Appleton VX.  Maybe spiced rum will overpower or muddle the aroma of the orange peel and cherries.  I don’t know.  Sometimes you have to take risks.

Oat Cake in Maple Syrup

Oatcake in Maple Syrup

This is one of my favourite ways to showcase my maple syrup.  A simple oatcake is baked, then cut into squares and cooled.  The baking dish is then filled with hot maple syrup, which the cake soaks up like a sponge.  Essentially a lazy man’s pouding chômeur (a lazy man’s poor man’s pudding?)

Oatcake in Maple Syrup

Ingredients

  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1 1/4 cup boiling water
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tsp freshly ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 tsp baking soda

For the soaking syrup:

  • 2 cups maple syrup
  • 2 cups water

Procedure

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F.  Grease and flour a 9″x14″ casserole.
  2. Combine the oats and water.  Set aside.
  3. In a stand mixer, cream the butter and sugars until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Add the eggs one at a time until incorporated.
  4. Sift dry ingredients into a separate bowl.  Slowly add to butter mixture with mixer on lowest speed.  Scrape down the sides of the mixing bowl periodically.
  5. Fold in the oats.
  6. Pour the batter into the casserole.  Bake until a wooden skewer comes out clean, about 25-30 minutes.  Cool.
  7. Once the cake has cooled, cut into serving squares without removing from the casserole.  Heat the maple syrup mixture on the stove, then pour over the cake.  Let stand for several hours.  Gently warm in a low oven before serving.  Spoon any syrup left in the bottom of the casserole over the plated cake.  Serve with ice cream. 

Bûche de Noël – Yule Log Cake

My mom has prepared a yule log cake every Christmas I can remember. I have no idea how this tradition came to my family, as it is extremely French (“bûche de noël”), and we are not.

The cake is a simple sponge. Whole eggs are beaten thoroughly, sugar is added, then a bit of water, and finally flour and cocoa are folded in. The batter is runny, and forms a shallow, uniform, fine-textured cake after baking.

The interior icing is a buttercream made by whipping room-temperature butter into Swiss meringue. Swiss meringue is a mixture of whipped egg whites and simple syrup cooked to soft ball stage.

The exterior frosting is icing sugar beaten into lard, which makes the colour bright white, in contrast to the beige buttercream inside the log.

I dragged a fork across the exposed sides of the cake for a bit of texture.

A yule log cake

Yule log cake

Fruitcake

The waiting is the hardest part.
-Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

 

I used to revile fruitcake, but in recent years a description by Jeffrey Steingarten has made me more receptive to the dish.

…full of dark, saturated medieval tastes and colors… aged for a year and then set aflame at the very last minute, carefully spooned out like the treasure it is…

I became mildly interested in the idea of aging baked goods, but I still regarded fruitcake as a gaudy curiosity. Then I came across fruitcake in the memoirs of a woman who grew up during the depression in Northern Ontario, called On Turnips, Teas, and Threshing Bees. Her description of fruitcake, and the lengths her family went to prepare it, surprised me. They started collecting ingredients early in the fall, candying ripe fruit. Later in the year they had to seed all the Muscat raisins and crack the walnuts by hand.

Even the eggs were a luxury. Apparently chickens have only recently decided to lay eggs all year long (persuaded by better feed and warmer barns?). Her family preserved the last of the fall’s eggs expressly for the Christmas fruitcake. They kept them in a jelly she called water glass, which is sodium silicate. Storing the eggs for months was a considerable sacrifice for her family, as during the depression eggs were one of the few bartering items they had to trade for necessities like flour.

Living in the Canadian shield, spruce was the main wood for ovens and furnaces. Hardwood was comparatively rare, but a few chosen logs were set aside for the fruitcake, which needed to bake at low temperatures. They cherished this cake.

I decided to reconsider my position on fruitcake this year with a simple trial: a single loaf with glacé cherries, candied orange and lemon peel, and hazelnuts.

Glacé cherries

Glacé cherries“Glacé” is a confusing term because it can refer to ice cream, cake frosting, fruit candied in “hard crack” syrup, or simply fruit preserved in syrup. It’s that last definition that applies here. Most sources I consulted had a similar procedure for making glacé cherries:

Make a simple syrup of one part water and one part sugar.  Bring to a simmer, add pitted cherries, remove pot from heat, cover and let stand over night.  This is simply to infuse the syrup with cherry, and the cherries with syrup. The next day, remove the cherries and reduce the syrup until a candy thermometer reads 230F.  This gives a good thick-but-runny consistency.   Reintroduce the cherries, simmer briefly, then store in a sanitzed jar.

I used our local evans cherries instead of the BC bings.  They were so soft after the glacé process I worried they would be too delicate to fold into the dense pound cake batter.  While they definietly don’t hold their round shape like the bings, they managed to stay in one piece.  Their tartness is a welcomed addition to the cake.

 

Candied Peel

Candied orange peelCandied peel is dead simple to make. Remove the peel from lemons and oranges. Use proper, thick-skinned oranges like navel, not thin-skinned mandarins. Cut into strips.

The peel is usually blanched to remove some of the bitterness of the pith (the fleshy white part). Put the peels in cold water and bring to a boil. Strain and repeat. Strain and repeat.After blanching, boil the peels in simple syrup until translucent (see left). Remove and roll in sugar. Soak the peels in water or liquor before folding into the cake batter.

 

Batter

I made a simple, dense, pound cake of equal parts butter, sugar, eggs, and flour, by weight. If you cream the butter and sugar well enough, there’s no need for baking powder. I added the zest of one lemon, then folded in my cherries, candied peel, and hazelnuts.

The doneness of the cake depends on how you intend to store the specimen until Christmas. If you’re just throwing it into the fridge, it’s important that you slightly under-bake the cake, so that it remains moist. If you’re going to be steeping the cake in alcohol, bake the cake as you normally would, until a knife inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Folding the nuts and fruit into the fruitcake

The fruitcake, fresh from the oven

 

Aging

If you’re taking the alcoholic route, keep your cake in a non-reactive container at room temperature. Every couple of days, sprinkle rum or brandy onto the top and sides of the cake. Alton Brown uses a spray-bottle to achieve a uniform mist of liquor. I partially block the bottle opening with my thumb and pour.

Sprinkling rum on fruitcake

Results

After a few weeks aging, the cake is dense, moist, and redolent of fruit peel and rum. It’s remarkable how the flavours develop over the weeks. This is definitely going to be a tradition in my house.

Maybe next year I can use beaked hazelnuts from the river valley…

 

Sliced fruitcake

Ingredients

  • 8 oz unsalted butter, cubed
  • 8 oz granulated sugar
  • 8 oz eggs
  • 8 oz all-purpose flour, sifted
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 orange, zested and juiced
  • 5 oz roasted, skinned hazelnuts
  • 5 oz glacé evans cherries, strained from liquid
  • 5 oz candied orange peel
  • approximately 1 cup of fine, spiced rum

Procedure

  1. Preheat oven to 325°F.
  2. Thoroughly butter the base and sides of a ceramic terrine and line with parchment.
  3. Combine butter and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer.  Cream with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy, about five minutes.  Start on a low speed, and once the sugar and butter have combined, turn to medium-high.
  4. With mixer still running, add the eggs one at a time, allowing each to be fully incorporated before adding the next.  Add the orange zest and juice.
  5. Turn the mixer to  the lowest speed.  Slowly add the flour.  Stop the mixer as soon as all the flour is incorporated into the batter.  Do not over-mix.
  6. Fold in the hazelnuts, cherries, and candied peel.
  7. Transfer the batter to the prepared terrine.  Bake in the 325°F oven until the top of the cake is domed and brown, and a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean, roughly 60 minutes.
  8. Remove the cake from terrine and cool on a wire rack.
  9. Once cooled.  Transfer the cake to a container with an airtight lid.
  10. Store the cake at a cool room temperature, about 15°C.  Every other day for 1 month sprinkle 1 tbsp of rum over the cake, getting the liquor on all the surfaces.  I affectionately refer to this as feeding the fruitcake.

Pouding Chômeur – Poor Man’s Pudding

Pouding chômeur, ready for the oven: cake batter floating in a sea of maple syrupMy dad grew up in eastern Ontario, in sugar shack country. The most common applications of maple syrup in his home were pouring over pumpkin pie and cornbread, or, if he was especially well-behaved, as a dip for white bread. These dishes win for most direct conveyance of syrup to mouth without drinking from the bottle, but I need something (slightly) more refined.

My Québécois dessert of choice is pouding chômeur. “Chômeur” means unemployed. Here it functions as a substantive, so this is “unemployed person’s pudding.” “Poor man’s pudding” is a more natural sounding translation. Whatever you call it, it’s a fantastic, unadulterated way to enjoy maple syrup.

A simple batter of creamed butter and sugar, eggs, flour, and milk is spooned into a baking dish filled with maple syrup and cream. The batter looks like islands on a lake. Once cooked, the islands expand through the baking dish and cover the syrup entirely. The syrup thickens, partly by reduction and partly from mixing with the batter.

Once the top has browned thoroughly, squares are cut from the cake, and the maple syrup is ladled over them. Even though the dish is extremely rich, it benefits hugely from the presence of ice cream.

 

Pouding Chômeur

Ingredients

  • 900 g maple syrup
  • 40 g golden corn syrup
  • 130 g heavy cream
  • 200 g all-purpose flour
  • 6 g baking powder
  • 2 g kosher salt (I like to taste little pings of salt in the syrup.  If you don’t, only add 1 g.)
  • 130 gunsalted butter, softened
  • 60 g sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 175 g whole milk

Procedure

  1. With the rack in the middle position, preheat the oven to 400°F.
  2. In a saucepan, bring the maple and corn syrups to a boil. The corn syrup prevents crystallization of the syrup.  Simmer the mixture until a candy thermometer reads 108°C (226°F), about 15 minutes. This brings the mixture to a consistency just slightly thinner than the classic “syrup stage”.  It will reach the proper concentration during the baking process.  Remove the pan from the heat, add the cream, and stir to combine. Pour the mixture into an 8″ x 8″ baking dish and set aside.
  3. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl. Set aside.
  4. Cream the butter and sugar in a stand mixer on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 10 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl every 2 minutes.  Add the egg and beat until the batter is smooth.  With the mixer on low, add the dry ingredients in three additions, alternating with the milk.
  5. Using an ice cream scoop, drop about 9 balls of dough, about 45 mL (3 tablespoons) each, into the syrup mixture. Bake until a toothpick inserted in the centre of a ball comes out clean, about 40 minutes. Serve warm or cold.

Notes and Variations: A more traditional approach is to place the dough in the baking dish and pour the partially cooled syrup mixture over it before baking. Note that the cake will be more thoroughly soaked if you use this method.

Pouding chômeur can also be made in individual ramekins, instead of a casserole.

Pouding chômeur