So you may have noticed that a lot of my blogs feature sweet things... desserts, if you will. Well, that's my Achilles heel, the thing I gravitate to most of all. Don't know why, but if I had to guess...
When I was just a young boy... oh, stop groaning... ahem… where was I, oh yeah... when I was just a young boy my parents always had some sort of sweet thing they fed us, generally right before bed time. It might have been a bowl of ice cream, or soda, or cookies, or cake, or pie... whatever it was we got to eat it twenty or thirty minutes before we had to go to bed. I have not been able to confirm this with anybody but my guess is, we would eat these sugary things, get crazy hyper for a bit then the inevitable sugar crash would hit us, just as it was bedtime, and we would fall right to sleep. I'm not saying this is the best tactic to use with your children but hey, I wasn't complaining because I got ice cream before bed!
The ice cream my mom bought came in a rectangular carton and it was often Neapolitan, which is a row of chocolate ice cream on the left, a row of vanilla in the middle, and a row of strawberry on the right. I only liked the chocolate and vanilla. In fact most of us kids only liked the chocolate and the vanilla. If you got to the ice cream last, there would just be a lonely stripe of strawberry left over. If that happened, you would simply put the container back in the freezer and then you tried to find something else to eat. When I knew that all three flavors of ice cream were still available I would go to the kitchen, get the ice cream and scoop parts of both chocolate and vanilla into my bowl. Then, if we had it, I would pour some Hershey's syrup on top (by the way... we always had it) and then I would go back to living room to finish watching Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man or whatever was on the television at the time. I wouldn't eat the ice cream right away though; it had to get a little soft. When I felt it had reached the perfect temperature, I would take my spoon and stir it all together in the bowl until it was a frozen chocolate soup. This annoyed my dad to no end and he would always have some comment about how I was ruining my ice cream by making soup. One day I can remember telling him that all I was doing was making a milkshake without any milk and that by stirring it together it made it more like soft serve ice cream. Some nights later, I was sitting on the floor watching television as usual, perhaps the Bionic Woman or Police Woman or Charlie’s Angels, when I heard a quiet tink, tink, tink sound coming from the couch behind me. I turned (as if I was simply needing to get a little more comfortable) just enough to see my dad unsuccessfully trying to stir his ice cream into a milk-less milkshake without making any noise... I didn't say anything (I’m not stupid).
If it wasn't ice cream that we were eating before bed it was cookies. Growing up, Chips Ahoy cookies were my favorite with a really cold glass of milk. Back then Chips Ahoy cookies were not packaged in sleeves and they didn't have a re-sealable bag. There were just two long rows of delicious chocolate chip cookies in every bag. I could personally eat three quarters of a row in one sitting. Okay I'm not fooling anybody there, I could eat way more, but I did have a little restraint (usually).
In any case, I attribute my affliction with desserts with those early years of eating sweet stuff before bed. Even today, after the sun has set, the dinner dishes are done, the neighborhood has gotten quiet and the hour grows late, I find myself looking into the refrigerator for some little thing to nibble on. There have been many times that David and I will walk to the little market down the street far later than we should (thank goodness for stores that don't close until eleven) just to pick up an overpriced ice cream bar, or a little package of cookies when nothing else is in the house.
As a kid and maybe even a young adult, I pretty much ate the same cookies over and over. Chips Ahoy cookies, Nutter Butter cookies, and those completely covered pink and white animal shaped cookies that are sprinkled with the little colored balls on them, were my go-to cookies. Then at some point I got to taste what I called a grown up cookie, since it wasn't any of those things I just mentioned. It came to me one day via a vending machine, I don't know why I chose it, but most likely because my other choices were fruits or vegetables. Clearly the non-descriptive cookie looking thing was a better choice than whatever else was available. The package simply said, (what I assumed was the name of the person who baked the cookies), Lorna Donne. This was my first ever shortbread cookie and even though they didn't have any chocolate chips in them I was still hooked. A little later in life, I was to discover Pepperidge Farms Chessmen, and after that I stumbled on a gold mine; Lu Biscuits, which are shortbread cookies with a dark chocolate back (now we're talking!). I have eaten plenty of shortbread cookies over the years and they are, for the most part, all really good. Each with their own style, taste and texture. But when I found this recipe it forever became my favorite shortbread cookie. The recipe comes from the Bouchon Bakery cookbook by Thomas Keller and Sebastian Rouxel. And you know I have to say it... guys if you're reading, feel free to drop in one night (Thomas, don’t forget to bring the wine) and we can chat… I’ll make pizza.
There is not a lot to say about shortbread cookies. If you've never eaten a perfect shortbread cookie you are in for a real treat. If you have eaten perfect shortbread before, then you know what I'm talking about. Fun Fact: Last December I baked a batch of these along with a large number of other cookies and I decided to freeze some for later. One night (okay, it was the very next night) I took out a few and set them on a plate to come to room temperature, but I got impatient and after only about two minutes out of the freezer I started eating them. Wow what a treat that was! I highly recommend trying it.
Here's the best thing about shortbread though, it takes well to added flavors. I almost hate to suggest changing anything from this recipe, but it's nice to know you can. If you like lemon you can do that. Pineapple? Sure. Rosemary? You bet. Almond flavor? I don’t see why not. Peppermint? Sounds great. How about Anise? … … … Well... my mother would like that, but not me, so I have to say no. In any case, this classic shortbread will get you started and after that let you can let your own creativity take over if you desire. Me… I’m sticking to the basics. Why mess with perfection?
To make these you will need a stand mixer, a ruler (yes a ruler), and a scale because some of the ingredients are only listed by weight, which is the best way to get a perfect result every time.
There is one thing I would like to say before you start making these… There are only 5 ingredients in this recipe, so if you were ever going to splurge on better ingredients, now is the time. If you can... buy a European style butter, like Plugra which is generally available in most markets and the vanilla bean paste, which you can purchase at stores like Williams-Sonoma or Sur La Table, is well worth the extra money you'll pay.
Here is how I make them.
Start by gathering…
180 grams unsalted butter at room temperature
90 grams of granulated sugar
2 grams (½ + ⅛teaspoon)kosher salt
5.9 grams (1 teaspoon) vanilla paste
270 grams all purpose flour
24 grams (2 tablespoons) granulated sugar for dusting
Once you have everything ready to go, place the butter in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat at medium low speed until the butter is smooth.
Add the 90 grams of sugar and the salt to the bowl and mix again on medium low speed until the butter mix is fluffy, which takes about 2 minutes, then scrape down the bowl to be sure the sugar is completely incorporated.
Next add in the vanilla bean paste and mix on a low speed until it's evenly distributed in the butter. That should only take about 30 seconds.
Add half of the flour and mix on low speed just until combined, about 20 seconds, then add the other half of the flour and again mix on low speed just until it gets combined, about another 20 seconds or so.
Scrape down the bowl again and be sure that there are no pockets of flour on the bottom that didn't get mixed in. The dough will be crumbly at this point and you’ll think that something is wrong, but it’s not.
Pour the dough onto your work surface and using the heel of your hand (I also use my bench scraper to help) push the dough together into a 5-inch square block. Try to make the block as even as possible, that is to say it should be the same thickness over all. That will really help when it comes time to roll it out.
Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and place it in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours. You heard me... 2 hours. You really want your dough cold.
While you’re waiting for the dough to chill get two pieces of parchment paper that are at least 13 inches square. On just one of the pieces draw a 9-inch square with a dark pencil as perfectly as you can in the center of the paper. This will serve as a guide when you're rolling the dough.
When the 2 hours is up, preheat your oven to 325°F with racks in the upper and lower thirds.
Set the piece of parchment with the square drawn on it, pencil side down, on your work surface then take the dough out of the refrigerator, unwrap it and place it centered in the square. Top the dough with the second piece of parchment.
The dough will be very firm so take your rolling pin and pound the top of the dough, working from one side to the other, then turn the dough 90 degrees and pound the dough again working from one side to the other. This should help keep the dough from cracking as it's rolled. And it will soften it enough to allow you to roll it.
Roll the dough into a 9-inch square. Just use the template you drew earlier to roll it out evenly so it fills the square perfectly. Again you want the dough to be level through the whole square so that each cookie will be the same thickness. I also use my bench scraper here to make sure the dough has nice straight edges and sharp corners.
Now, check the dough, if it's warm pop it back into the refrigerator to firm up. Remember we want to keep it cold.
The next thing is to take your ruler and a chef’s knife and score the dough horizontally every 2¼-inches, then score the dough vertically every 1½-inches. This will give you 24 equal sections. Easy right? Check the dough once more. Is it still cold? If not you know what to do... yep back in the fridge until it's firm.
Cut the cookies all the way through the score marks, then sprinkle with the 24 grams of sugar and place them on parchment lined baking sheets, 12 cookies per pan. You should leave about ¾-inch between each cookie.
Bake them until they are a pale golden brown, which takes 17 to 19 minutes and don't forget to rotate the pans from front to back and between the shelves about half way through baking.
Allow the cookies to cool on the pans for 5 minutes then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.
You can store these cookies on an airtight container for about three days or freeze them for up to a month.
So there they are, my favorite shortbread cookie. And remember this can just be the start, you can add flavors to the dough pretty easily, you can dip them in chocolate, ice them with your favorite cookie icing or glaze, or you can continue to make them as is (my preferred version).