All bakers have that one recipe that they want to master. That recipe that will become their signature dessert. That recipe for which they’ll endure the stinging disappointment when their efforts result in teeth-cracking cookies or sawdust-crumbed cakes. That recipe that they will not give up on, no matter how many times they fail.
For many bakers, these recipes include more complex desserts, such as a soufflé, a dacquoise or even a signature apple pie. For my sister, on the other hand, that one recipe is Perfect Shortbread. Such a simple recipe — flour, butter, sugar and salt — and yet so many ways for it to go wrong.
I’ll never forget the first time my sister attempted shortbread. I was a high school junior and had just come home from soccer practice; I’d started to rummage around the kitchen for a snack when I spotted the cake stand topped with our tan microwave cover. I lifted the cover and was greeted by a lumpy, somewhat circular mass of brownish white dough.
“Um, ‘Manda?” I called out to my sister, who was busy putting ingredients away in the pantry. “What exactly is this?” “Shortbread. I made it,” she answered. “Shortbread?” I tilted my head and squinted at the lumpy dough. “Wait, when did you have time to make shortbread and what is it for?” “I just wanted to try. I didn’t have any homework.” I broke off a piece. “No homework … what kind of school do you go to?” “Murphy Elementary,” she said matter-of-factly. (My sister is pretty to-the-point.) “Try it!”
So I did. The result was…interesting, to say the least. I could pick up the hints of sweet buttery flavor, but it was tough to chew through something that still tasted like raw dough.
“Well, what do you think?” my sister asked. “It’s…not bad,” I hedged. I really didn’t want to hurt my sister’s feelings; she was only 10 at the time. “But…”
“But?” (Like I said, she’s to-the-point.)
“But I’m not really sure it tastes like shortbread,” I finished. “It was a good effort, though.”
“Oh, thanks.” But my sister was busy staring at the remaining chunk of dough in my hand, a determined little frown furrowing her brow.
Since that day, my sister has attempted that same shortbread recipe many times, and I’ve been subjected to tasting every attempt. Each new batch is better than the last, but none of them have resulted in Perfect Shortbread. My sister is a great baker and makes delicious chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter cookies. But she just will not let go of that shortbread recipe.
Because she’s so determined to make the Perfect Shortbread, I’ve done some research and found a new recipe that might do the trick. My plan is that, when I return home for the holiday break, my sister and I can tackle the recipe together. And, hopefully, my sister will finally be able to say that she has mastered that One Recipe.
(Recipe from Baking Illustrated)
1 ¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¼ cup cornstarch
2/3 cup superfine sugar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup unsalted butter, cold
1. Place oven rack in middle position of oven. Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
2. Line an ungreased 9” round cake pan with round piece of parchment paper. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.
3. Mix flour, cornstarch, salt, and all but 1 tablespoon of the sugar in bowl of electric mixer on low speed until just combined. (Save the remaining sugar to sprinkle over the shortbread.)
4. Cut butter into ½” cubes and toss with ¼ cup of flour mixture in a bowl.
5. Add butter and any remaining flour to the flour mixture in the bowl. Mix at low speed for about 4 minutes until dough is pale yellow and looks like moistened crumbs.
6. Lightly fluff and loosen mixture by tossing it with your fingers. Additionally, use your fingertips to rub the remaining pieces of butter into the mixture.
7. Place half of the mixture in the parchment-lined round cake pan and spread mixture evenly with your fingers. Press mixture into the pan with another round cake pan.
8. Add the rest of the mixture and repeat the pressing process. Quickly smooth the top of the dough with the back of a spoon.
9. Insert paring knife between dough and pan. Hold knife still as you rotate the cake pan counterclockwise to loosen the edges of the dough.
10. Invert the cake pan onto the parchment-lined baking sheet. Remove parchment circle from dough.
11. Insert a 2” biscuit cutter in the middle of the dough and cut out the center. Set aside the cut-out center and place the biscuit center back in the middle of the dough.
12. Place baking sheet with dough in oven and immediately decrease the temperature to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for 20 minutes.
13. Remove dough from oven and score the dough’s top surface into 16 evenly spaced wedges with a thin knife. Use a skewer to pierce whatever design you would like.
14. Place shortbread in oven again and bake for about 40 additional minutes until the shortbread is pale golden.
15. Still using the parchment paper, place shortbread on a cutting surface and remove the biscuit cutter. Sprinkle remaining tablespoon of sugar onto shortbread and cut into wedges at the scored marks.
Still using the parchment paper, place shortbread on wire rack and cool to room temperature for about three hours. Pay off your patience by treating yourself to a slice of shortbread to go with some milk or hot chocolate.