Millionaire's Shortbread

Somewhere in the long, long, ago past, I think maybe just as I was going into high school, I acquired my first camera.  It was a Vivitar 35mm SLR that also came with a telephoto lens, a tele-converter lens, camera strap, and a flash, all of which was neatly packed into a hard plastic case with a soft contoured interior that cradled each component. Not only that, but the case was fitted with an “over the shoulder” strap that meant carrying would be a breeze! If that wasn’t enough, the case could also hold four, count ‘em… four, plastic film canisters (which came included) tucked neatly into convenient cut outs located in the lid. How could any kid want more? Sure other people were buying the super fancy, Nikon, Olympus, or Canon cameras but I’ll bet theirs didn’t come with a case strap… What’s that?... most cases have a strap you say…  well… no matter.  For me this was the deal of a lifetime… or at least my lifetime up to that point. I remember looking through the display cases at all the different cameras at the store, not knowing anything about cameras at the time, when I saw that set. I think it sparkled a little and I am pretty sure I heard harp music and there must have even been a hidden choir behind the counter making sounds like angels at the heavenly gates when I saw it. I was instantly sold.

When I got home I took out all the components and laid them on my bed so I could get a better look at them. I examined each lens trying to figure out what all the numbers and markings meant and I looked at the camera itself, again trying to figure out why there were so many numbers on it and what they correlated to.  Up to this point the only cameras we had been using around our house were Polaroids which were just point and shoot and what you got was what you got.  This new camera had moving dials, rings that you could twist, and a switch on the side that surely did something. I screwed a lens onto the body and looked around the room through the viewfinder and then in a rare and unprecedented move I took out the manual and actually read it, cover to cover, luckily it was only about 20 or so pages… but hey, I read it. And then, I read it again.

Armed with a couple of rolls of film and only a very basic knowledge of depth of field, film speed, and shutter speed I set out. I went around the house taking pictures and trying different settings so I could see what the results would be. When I had finished taking all the pictures I could, I went over to the drug store and gave them the rolls of film to be sent off to the developer.  In just a little over a week I would have the pictures back and I would be able to see how they came out.  When I got the pictures back of course, there was no way I could remember what the settings were, nor what I was expecting to see, but all in all they weren’t too bad. None of them were overly blurry, none of them were awful to look at… but it was clear that I still had a lot to learn; about composition; about light; about subject matter.

For a few years I subscribed to Popular Photography magazine and I can honestly say that through the pages of that magazine I learned a great deal. None of it I remember now… with the exception of one quote, from one photographer, which basically said - you can take 100 or more pictures and they all might be good but only one of them will be great. Only one will have the perfect light, the perfect framing, the perfect exposure, the perfect colors, the perfect… everything. This was never more apparent to me then when I was trying to capture a sunset. I took many, many sunset pictures but getting that “perfect” shot was pretty elusive.

One night (many, many, years later), David and I were visiting Santorini, Greece. We were on our way to dinner walking down this small pathway right at sunset. The colors in the sky started changing as the sun dropped closer to the horizon and for a good several minutes the view was inexplicably beautiful. From that particular vantage point on the path everything lined up perfectly. It was the perfect sunset and we both knew that we should run back to the room to grab the camera and immortalize that moment on film. We turned back up the path ready to race back to the hotel when David pointed out that we would never make it there and back before the perfect moment had passed and then we would not only have missed the perfect picture, we would have missed the perfect sunset altogether. He was right too. So, we stood there on the side of the hill, silently watching, until the last bit of the sun dropped over the horizon never once regretting that we didn’t go back for the camera.

I can’t imagine how many rolls of film I took over the years. There are boxes of photos in the garage, and a dozen or more photo albums on the bookshelves. I lugged that camera almost everywhere we went, taking pictures of some of the most mundane stuff you can imagine.  Truth be told, it was a pretty nice first camera and I kept it, and I used it, for more than 20 years. Today we use the camera in our phones for everyday photos; mostly just photos of Riley (so, so many pictures of Riley). We also have a new digital SLR (since film is a thing of the past) which we can connect to the laptop and with some software we can see and adjust the composed picture before we even snap the shutter. I can’t say that I have gotten any better at composition or lighting despite forty plus years of taking pictures but the software certainly helps.

The best thing about personal photographs is when you revisit them years later… looking back at all of the Christmases, birthdays or summer vacations; Seeing how our clothes have changed, how our hair has changed, how our surroundings have changed.  Moments in time that have been frozen and can be kept forever (so long as you made proper back-ups). You can visit them over and over again.  A good photo collection can recount your life through all of its ups and downs, through all the different places you’ve been and the people you have met. Picture after picture weaving a rich tale of your life.

You don’t have to be rich though, to make these cookies (see what I did there?). In fact there is a fair amount of speculation as to how these even came to be known as Millionaire’s Shortbread.  These are facts that I couldn’t care less about. The fact that it has a shortbread cookie base (yum), a caramel center (yum), and a chocolate top (yum) is all I need to know.  I first saw the recipe for these in the November 2016 issue of Cook’s Illustrated. After reading through the recipe I couldn’t help but think that this was basically a Twix candy bar… cookie base, topped with caramel, and coated in chocolate. How could I not make these?  

Now, before you jump right in, I have to say that these are not your everyday cookie. These should be reserved for only rare occasions. These are packed with sugar, and butter, and cream, and chocolate, none of which are all that good for you in excess quantities. These are rich – hence the name millionaire’s shortbread… (ok, I might have made that part up) but they are rich for sure.  There is also just a little bit of what some might call “bad news”. One thing is that each of the layers can be a bit tricky to make. The shortbread layer will need to be compressed as soon as it’s out of the oven so you need a wide flat spatula (or other large flat bottomed object) to do that with. You also need a good instant read thermometer for the caramel layer as well as a nice heavy bottomed pan to cook it in. This is the layer that most perplexes many bakers. It’s easy to scorch the caramel if you cook it over too high heat, if your pan is too thin, or if you don’t stir it well while it’s cooking… and if your burner is too low, it can take a very long time to get the caramel to the proper temperature as well. Note that a candy thermometer that attaches to the side of the pot will most likely NOT work in this recipe; you will need a good, digital, instant read thermometer. The chocolate layer also has a few issues that are a little quirky.  Melting the chocolate too fast is not good and can cause it to separate and turn chalky white and if you heat it too much it won’t temper correctly and leave a dull finish on the top. And even if everything goes as planned just cutting them into bars needs to be done carefully with a serrated knife and the cookie part will still most likely crumble a bit. This is definitely not a recipe for the beginner cook. So why do I think these bars are worthy of a “Best Thing About Food” post.  Because when you do make them successfully, you get to share them with the people around you. You get to take them to the office and let everyone share. You’ll be able to put them on the holiday potluck table between Brian’s celery and carrot platter and the Jell-O brand dessert that Bonnie from accounting made and for that, people will thank you and just maybe they’ll want to take your picture while eating them…. Oh, and also… they’re sooooo… good.   

Here’s the recipe:

Total time needed: 3 hours

Ingredients

For the Crust

  • 2½ cups (12½ ounces) all-purpose flour

  • ½ cup (3½ ounces) granulated sugar

  • ¾ teaspoon salt

  • 16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted

For the Filling

  • 1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

  • 1 cup packed (7 ounces) brown sugar

  • ½ cup heavy whipping cream

  • ½ cup corn syrup

  • 8 tablespoons  (1 stick) unsalted butter

  • ½ teaspoon salt

For the topping

  • 8 ounces bittersweet chocolate (60% cacao) 

Directions

Preheat the oven, with a rack in the lower–middle position to 350°F

Make a foil sling for a 13 by 9-inch baking pan by placing a piece of foil that is 13-inches wide by 17-inches long into the bottom and up the long sides of the pan, allowing about 2 inches to hang over the pan on both sides, then place a 9-inch by 21-inch piece of foil into the bottom and up the short sides of the pan, again allowing excess to hang over evenly on each side. Push the foil into the corners, smoothing it flush to the pan. 

For the crust

In a medium sized bowl, whisk together the flour, the granulated sugar, and the ¾ teaspoon salt.

Add the melted butter and stir with a rubber spatula until the flour is evenly moistened and no pockets of dry flour remain.

Crumble the dough evenly over the bottom of the prepared pan. 

Use your hand to pack the down firmly and smooth the dough into an even layer then pierce the dough at 1-inch intervals with a fork.

Bake until light golden brown and firm to touch, 25 to 30 minutes. 

Transfer the pan to a wire rack and using a sturdy metal spatula and a towel to protect your hand, press down firmly on the entire surface of the warm crust to compress (this will make the finished bars easier to cut). 

Let the crust cool until it is just warm, at least 20 minutes.

While the crust cools prepare the filling

For the filling

Stir all of the filling ingredients together in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. 

Place the pan over medium heat and cook, stirring gently and frequently (at least every minute once the temperature gets to about 200°F), until the mixture registers between 236°F and 239°F on an instant read thermometer, about 16 to 20 minutes. Note the temperature will fluctuate in the pan so be sure to stir during the cooking process and test the temperature in a few places if necessary. 

Pour the caramel over the crust and spread it into an even thickness with an offset spatula (the mixture is very hot, so be careful here). 

Let the caramel cool completely, about 1½ hours.

When the caramel has cooled completely it’s possible that you may need to use a paper towel to pat the top of the caramel so as to absorb any butter that has risen (this is rare but it can happen). Too much fat on the caramel can cause the chocolate to not adhere to the caramel layer.  

For the topping

Use a fine microplane or the smallest holes of a box grater to very finely grate 2 ounces of the chocolate, then chop the remaining 6 ounces of chocolate into very small pieces (about ¼ inch or smaller).

Microwave the chopped chocolate in a medium sized bowl at 50 percent power, stirring every 15 seconds, until it has just melted but not much warmer than body temperature (check by holding the bowl in the palm of your hand), 1 to 2 minutes, depending on your microwave. Stir often while melting the chocolate and don’t overheat it.

Stir in the grated chocolate until smooth, returning to the microwave for no more than 5 seconds at a time to finish melting, only if necessary. 

Spread the chocolate evenly over the surface of the filling with an offset spatula, then refrigerate 10 minutes just until the chocolate has set.

To cut

Using the foil overhangs, lift the shortbread out of the pan and transfer it to a cutting board then remove and discard the foil. 

Use a serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion (take your time while cutting) to cut the shortbread in half crosswise into two 6½ by 9-inch rectangles. 

Cut each rectangle in half to make four 3½ by 9-inch strips then cut each strip crosswise into 10 equal pieces. 

The shortbread can be stored at room temperature, between layers of parchment paper, for up to 1 week.

If you make these, I hope you’ll take a picture and then in thirty years when you look at that photo, you’ll remember how you spent time reading this strange persons food blog that had almost nothing to do with food…  oh, and that’s right, that was the year your hair was purple.

Riley was still very interested in these bars, even though he couldn’t eat any of them.