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A Treatise on the Making of Shortbread

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In shortbread the recipe is such a little thing compared with the experience that goes into making it what it can be, so I've included the recipe at the end and will start with a treatise on the subject of making shortbread. If all you want is the recipe, feel free to skip to the end.

Most of the flavour of shortbread comes from the butter so, the better the butter, the better the shortbread. That doesn't mean you have to use butter imported from a single farm in Ireland where young maidens sing traditional ballads to the cows every night, but just be aware that the quality matters.

How you make shortbread depends on two things: whether you have a food processor and how crumbly you want the final product to be. If you do it all by hand it has a definite home-made feel to it and it's very crumbly indeed. When it's done baking you should cut it into little rectangles while it's still hot, but don't otherwise touch it until it's cold, as the pieces are very delicate and will fall apart if you move them before they're set.

If you want very crumbly, then do make it all by hand and do use the butter straight out of the refrigerator—don't let it warm up at all. Keep cutting the lumps of butter in half until you've got 32 of them and then start mixing with your fingers or a pastry blender.

If you're doing it all by hand it can be difficult to get the vanilla evenly distributed, so I add the vanilla to the sugar first and mix it around with a fork until the sugar has absorbed the vanilla fairly evenly, then add the rest of the dry ingredients, followed by the butter.

With a food processor you can still make it fairly crumbly if you a) use very cold butter, and b) use a minimal processing technique; put the dry ingredients in the processor, add the vanilla, process for 10 seconds, add the butter (in 32 little lumps) and pulse the mixture until the butter is just blended in—no more than 1520 seconds, pausing after 10 seconds to see if it's done—stopping before the mixture begins to acquire a cakey consistency. I can't really explain this any better but you'll know when you've gone too far.

For a firmer, perhaps more professional texture to your shortbread, take the butter out of the refrigerator, cut it it up into 32 little cubes, and let it soften for at least a half an hour. Put the dry ingredients into the food processor, add the vanilla, and blend for 10 seconds. Add the butter and process for about 45 seconds. The mixture will have a homogeneous, cakey consistency.

In any case, once you've made your dough, however you choose to do so, turn it out into a 9"x9" baking tin (I always use a pyrex, oven-safe, glass one), spread it evenly, and pack it down as firmly as you can, using either the back of a spoon, or, more traditionally, your knuckles.

Then, using the back of the fingers of one hand to hold the mixture in place, prick holes poking a fork held in the other hand between the fingers of the first hand at about finger-width intervals.

Notes:

C&H markets a product they call "Baker's Sugar" which is very close to British caster sugar and works very well. It comes in a package that looks like a quart carton of milk.

If you can't get caster sugar or Baker's sugar, you can use confectioner's sugar with a certain loss of texture.

Please use real vanilla extract and not vanilla flavouring. The real stuff has become expensive in recent years, but you only use a very little of it at a time and a small bottle should last a good while.

Please do pre-heat your oven.

The Recipe

Whatever else you do, pre-heat your oven to 325F.

If doing this all by hand, sift the dry ingredients together, add vanilla or Scotch and mix a bit more, then cut in the butter, blending until you have something like breadcrumbs.

If using a food processor, give the dry ingredients a quick whirl with the vanilla (or Scotch), then add the cubes of butter and pulse until you have the consistency you want. 10–15 seconds will give you a crumbly, home-made style of shortbread, whereas 45 seconds will give you something more like what you can get in a store.

Scrape the mixture into a 9"x9" baking tin—greasing it is not necessary—and pack it down with the back of a spoon or your knuckles. Powerful Scottish knuckles are recommended but not required.

Pierce the surface about every 0.5" with a fork.

Bake for 45 minutes and cut it into pieces while it's still warm and soft. Then you have to wait until it's cool to lift the pieces out, or they'll fall apart on you.