Shortbread is perhaps the easiest of biscuits to prepare but is surely one of the most delicious. A basic recipe has just three ingredients – flour, butter, and sugar – which are transformed in the baking to a beautiful rich golden biscuit. After CT took some to work, her colleagues have been after my recipe, so this weekend I made another batch and took a few notes for the blog. So, now my secret is out – this recipe makes the most superb crumbly biscuits.
Although recipes vary, the basic proportions of the ingredients should be more or less the same – three parts flour, two parts butter, and one part sugar; easy to remember and easy to scale to whatever quantity one wishes to prepare. I use a white caster sugar and good quality salted butter – I rarely touch unsalted butter, as even in sweet dishes a little salt enhances the flavour. The secret to this recipe, though, is in the flour.
Shortbread can be made just with plain flour. This should be a soft white flour milled for pastry. Some recipes recommend a little rice flour or corn flour, which, being free of gluten, finely milled, and binding well with the water content of the butter, helps make the biscuits crumbly and tender. Other recipes suggest adding some semolina, which produces a more coarse texture. I use a mixture of two parts plain flour, one part corn flour, and one part semolina. It is this combination that makes the texture so good. The dough will be on the dry side, but will come together. It should be handled as little and as gently as possible.
Lately, I have been flavouring the shortbread with a little dried lavender. In the quantity suggested, it adds a subtle floral note, but one must be cautious with lavender, as using too much can result in a strong, medicinal, flavour that is not pleasant. Another option is vanilla, for which a good quality vanilla bean paste is ideal.
I used to make my shortbread in small cake tins. The dough is pressed in, smoothed off with the back of a spoon, the edges crimped decoratively, and the dough pricked all over with a fork. As soon as it comes out of the oven, it is cut into triangles, and carefully removed from the tin when cooled a bit. Now, though, I tend to roll out the dough to around 5mm thick and cut out individual circles using a suitably sized wine glass and carefully lift onto parchment with the aid of a palette knife. A lightly floured surface is needed to prevent sticking, but use as little extra flour as possible as getting too much in the dough is detrimental. The only variable comes in the baking. The time for the bake will vary depending on the thickness, from around 18 minutes for a thin round biscuit to 30 minutes or more for a more traditional version made in a cake tin. When ready, they should have a light golden colour and be firm to be touch.