Sep 11, 2012

Experiments in Shortbread

I've never made shortbread and have always been a little hesitant to try as it seems to be one of those things that have got to perfectly meet with the expectations of the person consuming it or else you might as well not bother.  Coming from a German and Dutch background, my childhood memories are somewhat void of shortbread experiences.  Ask me about zimtsterne or baumkuchen and i can wax lyrical for hours... shortbread not so much...

Today i sat down with all my recipe books and searched for all the different shortbread recipes that i have.  The overwhelming similarity between all the recipes is the lack of ingredients and the simplicity of the method.  One needs but three ingredients to make traditional shortbread: flour, butter, sugar.  There is some variation as to the kind of flour used.  Some recipes use wheat flour only, some a combination of wheat flour and corn flour.  Another alternative is to use rice flour, instead of the cornflour or, in combination with the corn flour.  Tradition dictates that the ingredients should be present in the ratio 3:2:1 - flour:butter:sugar.

In my quest for the most 'perfect shortbread' recipe, i experimented with 5 different recipes.  I would normally not try so many recipes off the bat when commencing my search for the perfect one, but as i don't know anything about the mechanics, chemistry or techniques of shortbread, i decided to try and figure it all out by trying as many recipes as i could lay my hands on.  This helped me to get a better idea of what kind of texture and consistency of the raw dough i was looking for to achieve the ultimate texture in the baked product.  By designation 'short', refers to a crumbly, brittle texture.  In my opinion, the biscuit should be creamy in texture and flavour, and contrary to the simplistic connotation of the 'bread' portion of it's name, i feel that it should have a certain richness about it.  

Further light reading on the topic, an article in The Guardian by Felicity Cloake: to my mind, enlightening and entertaining.

So, let the experimentation begin....

Recipe # 1
Hails from my go-to recipe book:  The Complete South African Cookbook, Magdaleen van Wyk, Struik, 1980 (order here)

360 g flour
12 g cornflour
40 g castor sugar
120 g butter 
120 g margarine  (i absolutely abhor margarine, so substituted it for butter)

1.  Cream the butter, margarine and sugar in a mixing bowl until light and creamy.
2.  Stir in the cornflour and flour gradually, mixing with the fingertips to form a stiff dough.  The mixture must not be crumbly.
3.  Press the mixture into a greased baking tin (i used a 20 x 35 cm tin).  Mark into fingers or squares with a knife and prick the shortbread with a fork.
4.  Bake in the oven at 150 ˚C until slightly browned and shrunk from the sides, about 1 hour.
Remove from the oven and sprinkle with a little castor sugar.  Allow to cool slightly in the tin, then remove and cool completely on a wire rack.  Store in an airtight tin.

Verdict: Too crumbly, bland (not enough sugar/sweetness)

Recipe #2
From Cook and Enjoy it, S.J.A de Villiers, Completely revised edition, Human and Rousseau, 1992.  Another South African stalwart: this recipe book is my go-to for all sorts of recipes from how to preserve fruit and make marshmallows to cooking veg and making a good roast.
In the recesses of my memory, i have it that my sister made some well-loved shortbread at one stage in her life.  So, i was very excited when i saw that some recipe amendments had been scribbled adjacent the recipe in her handwriting.

240 g cake flour
65 g icing sugar
1 ml baking powder
1 ml salt
175 g butter

1. Preheat the oven to 160 ˚C
2. Sift the cake flour, icing sugar, baking powder and salt together.
3. Gradually blend the butter with the flour mixture and knead until smooth.
4.  Roll out to a thickness of 1 cm or press a 1.5 cm thick layer into a small baking tin (i used a 20 x 35 cm tin).  Prick with a fork.  Mark the 'fingers', but do not cut through.
5.  Bake for 25 - 30 minutes or until pale brown.
6.  Cut through along the marks while still hot.  Store in an airtight tin.  The flavour improves after storing for a few days.

Verdict: Nice texture, but not quite 'short' or crumbly enough.  I think that i was slightly overzealous when i patted it down in the tin! Flavour was good, but not quite perfect.

Recipe #3
This recipe is the one that i had the highest expectations of as it comes from a volume entitled:  The Great British Book of Baking, Penguin Group, 2010.

260 g plain flour
100 g castor sugar
40 g cocoa powder (as i deem it correct to compare apples with apples when performing experiments, i omitted the cocoa, but i will definitely give it a try with cocoa at some later stage)
a pinch of sea salt
200 g unsalted butter, chilled and diced
extra sugar for sprinkling

1.  Preheat the oven to 180 ˚C.
2.  Put the flour, sugar, cocoa and salt into the bowl of a food processor and pulse for a few seconds.  
3.  Add the butter and run the machine for about 30 seconds - the mixture will look like fine sand.
4.  Tip the dough into a 20 - 25 cm loose-bottomed cake tin, well greased with butter.
5.  Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes, until just firm.
6.  Remove from the oven, sprinkle with sugar and cut into sections along the marked lines with a very sharp knife. (It is very important to cut the shortbread while still warm, as it is very brittle and difficult to cut neatly when cool.)
Leave to cool before removing from the tin.

Verdict: A favourite.  Lovely texture - crumbly, but also slightly crunchy somehow. Buttery and rich and a perfect amount of sweetness.

Recipe # 4
For this recipe we turn to a much-loved lady of the British baking world: Fiona Cairns and her book: Bake and Decorate Tea Time Luxury, Quadrille Publishing.

500 g salted butter, softened
200 g golden castor sugar
500 g plain flour
250 g cornflour or rice flour

1.  Preheat the oven to 170 ˚C.
2.  In the bowl of an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar.
3.  Gradually sift in the flour and cornflour, mixing briefly between each addition, until it binds together.
4.  Flour your hands and gently knead the dough until just smooth.
5.  Wrap in clingfilm and refrigerate for 30 minutes.
6.  On a floured surface, roll to a thickness of 5 - 6 mm before cutting with a shape of your choice.
7.  Place on a baking tray lined with baking paper and bake for 15 - 20 minutes (i baked mine for 30 min).
8.  Sprinkle with sugar, then cool for 10 minutes before carefully transferring to a wire rack.

Verdict:  the cornflour flavour was too strong.  I would recommend using a mixture of corn and rice flour or maybe just rice flour.

Recipe # 5
I posted the fact that i was doing some shortbread experiments on facebook and a friend of mine shared a link to a recipe that she uses to make delicious shortbread, so i put it to the test along with the other four.


125 g lavender caster sugar
225 g unsalted butter, softened
300 g plain flour
50 g rice flour

1.  Cream the butter and sugar
2.  Sift the flour and rice flour into the mixture as well as some lavender flowers and mix together until the mixture resembles bread crumbs.
3.  Put some flour on your hands and knead the dough gently until its smooth.
4.  Wrap the dough in clingfilm and refrigerate for 15 minutes.
5.  Roll the dough out to a thickness of 5 mm and cut out with a shape of your choice.
6.  Place on lined baking trays and place in the refrigerator for a further for 30 minutes before baking at 180 ˚C for 15 - 20 minutes.
7.  Carefully place the biscuits on a cooling rack and sprinkle with the extra sugar.

Verdict: Good texture and great flavour.  Definitely a winner!

In conclusion: there is definitely something to be said for the traditional 1:2:3 ratio of sugar:butter:flour as the recipe whose ingredients are the closest to that ratio (recipe # 3) has the best shortbread-esque texture.  While the other recipes had either a great texture or great flavour, recipe # 3 definitely had the best texture and flavour.  The 5th recipe attempted, i made it both with and without the lavender, was also a great balance of flavour and texture, but lacked a little of the luxuriousness of recipe # 3.  For my purposes, i have chosen to use the 5th recipe for the future as i prefer the look of the rolled out biscuits to those that are cut after baking.  The consistency of recipe # 3 is too crumbly to be able to roll it out and cut out neat shapes.  If you want to make shortbread for retail purposes - opt for the 5th recipe, if you just want a cookie jar filler, recipe #3 is your guy!

1 comment:

  1. Hi
    Thanks for an interesting read. I make shortbread with a 3,2,1 ratio as you describe but I use a different method to all that I have seen. I put everything in the bowl at the same time and squeeze it all together to form a dough. I have never chilled before baking and use cutters and the shape remains intact, you should try it.
    Heather K UK