Well, it sounds funny when you say it three times, but butter is truly something I cannot be without. When I’m reading a recipe I judge it based on the ratio of butter to the other components. What?! Only a quarter-cup in a whole batch of cookies? Nonsense. Next!
Butter isn’t simply there for flavor, which is does do marvelously. It is a textural god-send, turning flour into flaky pastry and a moist scallop into a crisp-edged bite of the salty sea. Butter has been a staple of the human diet as long as milk production itself has been around. This most valued food was initially made by mistake, as anyone who has over-whipped heavy cream has discovered. The clumps of fat form and the liquid (buttermilk) separates out. A more simple treat has never delighted me more.
I’d never made shortbread before, but I feel like it is such a great example of what you can do with great ratios of really lovely ingredients. A layered, dense sweet/salty cookie that has a grainy, fine texture. Use the best butter you can find for these, I think the reward is obvious when you take the first bite. By the way, I felt like these got better and better over time…Like a few days, a week, however long you can keep them around without sneaking one every time you pass the kitchen.
(adapted from Great Cookies by Carole Walter, Clarkson-Potter 2003)
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup rice flour (easy find in the bulk section or gluten-free area)
- 1/4 generous teaspoon salt (like heaping, I guess)
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, slightly softened
- 1/2 cup superfine sugar, plus more for dusting
Preheat your oven to 300°F, and position the shelf in the center of the oven. Line a 9-inch square (or similar, I think mine was 9 x 11) with foil, pressing it into the corners and shaping it smoothly across the bottom and sides of the pan. Sift the flour, rice flour and salt together three times and set aside.
Place the butter in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and mix the butter on a medium speed until smooth and creamy, about 1 minute. Add the sugar gradually, taking about 1 minute, and then allow to mix for about 1 minute more. Stop and scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Remove the bowl from the machine and transfer the butter mixture into a large, wide bowl. Using a wooden spoon (and your muscles!) cut half of the dry ingredients into the butter until it’s almost incorporated. Work in the remaining dry by adding it in five or six small additions. This is where you must move quickly and deliberately, as you want to keep the butter relatively cool. The “dough” will look like a pile of lumpy flour that could never be a cookie, but gather it and knead it gently to smear the bits of butter.
Scoop your dough/flour ball into the foil-lined pan and use your spoon to distribute it evenly. Then, using a flat-bottomed glass press the dough evenly into the pan, being careful to get into the corners. Clean the edges of the pan with either a small spatula or a dough scraper.
Bake the shortbread for 55 to 60 minutes, or until the top feels set. It will be very pale. Remove from the oven and let stand for 5 minutes. Using a very sharp knife, carefully cut through the dough 1 1/2 inch intervals, making five (ish) strips, and then quarter-turn your pan and do the same going the other way, making 25 small squares. They stay in the pan. Sprinkle lightly with superfine sugar, and return to the oven for another 10 minutes or until lightly brown.
Remove from the pan, and using the foil as an aid, take out the individual squares and place them on a cookie sheet and return them to the oven for 10 minutes to dry and crisp. Remove and let cool on the pan for five minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. And your mouth. Trust me on the previous advice to let them sit a few days in a plastic bag. They really do get better with age. 🙂