Friday, December 12, 2008

raised on robbery: making the best shortbread

"I'm a pretty good cook, I'm sitting on my gro-cer-ieeeeeees" is the Joni Mitchell line that runs through my mind a lot from Court and Spark. December translates to my life in the South via food, friends, and family. It takes a lot of focused effort to cook and eat your way through a Southern holiday, and I don't mind spending the time doing it.

There are many witty breakdowns of the Southern food groups, all focusing on pork fat, caffeine, etc., but for my part, let me just say that my genius-inspired artistic materials have always centered around butter and sugar. I can make a clove-studded dry cured Virginia ham (preferably home-cured Kentucky cut) with the best of them, along with the required homemade yeast rolls or beaten biscuits, depending upon which Southern state we're in when Christmas arrives. But my heart, darling, belongs to that cocaine of the Southern palate, that white powder of progress: Sugar.

Classically, shortbread is a late arrival in my family Sugar history. Sure, I remember it from childhood, but back then the real stars were the Lane Cake--a two layer, rather low but impressively spread out white cake with a fruit and
bourbon filling, frosted with fluffy white 7 Minute Frosting with a blizzard of freshly grated coconut--and the classic tall pristine white fresh coconut cake whose process began when you went to the store to pick out the very one right coconut that would yield enough juice to make the basting syrup for the layers. I have made my grandmother's fresh coconut cake many, many times, and it never takes me less than a solid day. Then there was the Christmas morning windfall of sugar as my grandfather dusted off the punch bowl and began beating with a hand rotary mixer the dozen eggs he always started with for the first bowl of egg nog. At Thanksgiving we had dinners, but at Christmas we had sideboards. I didn't really understand the necessity of shortbread until much later in life. But that didn't mean that I didn't take to it with any less cell-level love.

The following recipe has evolved over the last three decades. Christmas does not begin until the first batch is in the oven nor does it end until that magical point in January when we look in the shortbread tin one last time and find nothing but a few good crumbs.

Shortbread As We Know It

1 lb. best butter, room temperature, NOT chilled
1 c. sugar
1/4 c. rice flour
4 ½ to 5 c. organic, unbleached all-purpose flour
1 tsp. good quality double-strength vanilla

Cream butter and add sugar in a good stand mixer, beating until well blended. Add flour, one cup at a time until the mixture won’t hold any more flour and stay
“bonded.” It should feel like Play-Doh. (The crumbs must bind together when pressed, so never use cold butter, tempering it in the microwave if you have to.)Too much flour, and the dough will be too crumbly; too much butter and the finished cookie will be too crunchy and not dense enough to the tooth.

Pat mixture into a clean, perfectly dry jelly roll pan (must have sides).
Pat until smooth, then take the back tines of a fork and draw lines
across the dough. Bake at 300 degrees for about 30 minutes or until
lightly golden. Watch your oven. If your oven is too hot, the bars will become too brown on the bottom. If your oven is not hot enough, the bars will stay pasty and pale and will never turn out right. Adjust accordingly. What you are looking for at this stage is a light tinge of gold. When bars reach that desired shade, remove pan from oven and turn heat down to about 175 degrees. Take a sharp knife and cut the dough into the size squares you want. (I personally like about 1 ½ inch squares.) Do this now while the dough can still be cut.

Return pan to oven and leave about an hour. Remove pan and take all of the little squares and turn them on their sides so that air can flow evenly around them. Return pan to the oven once again and leave for hours. It’s even OK to turn heat down to 150 degrees and let the pan sit in the oven all night. Do a taste test. If the squares are mellow throughout and not doughy, then they are ready to pack
into airtight tins.

Shortbread has to “cure,” kind of like a ham. It is better a week after you make it. Make it about 50 times and you will truly understand the difference in brands of flour, butter, and different ovens.

In California they serve warm shortbread with desert wine. In Virginia they serve it with tea. I’ve never had it served with anything it did not somehow suit better than anything else on the sideboard, perhaps with the exception of CHEESE STRAWS, but that’s later......

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