Thursday, January 14, 2010

For Royalty of Every Age: Shortbread

When my daughter was very little, her favorite cookie was shortbread. This, of course, was before she discovered the magic of chocolate and way before the wonders of the peanut blossom cookie was revealed to her.

She had her first shortbread cookie from the bakery case at our local market. I think the beauty of the cookie caught her eye. The scalloped edges and the sprinkles of sparkly and brightly colored sugar made the cookie look like it was meant for a princess. And the Disney princess stage was in full bloom in my little darling.

From then on most trips to the grocery store started with one shortbread cookie handed over the counter in its little white bag meant just for her.

Of course I didn't go to the grocery store every day and children must have their regular cookie intake so I was happy to come upon a shortbread cookie recipe in one of the parenting magazines that seemed to be my main reading material in those days.

I thought of this memory as I was planning a party during the holidays. I already had a chocolate cake and a lemon tart on my menu. I like to have both ends of the taste spectrum represented for my guests. But I wanted just a little bit of something sweet for guests to nibble on with their coffee if they didn't want a slice of something bigger.

I had been rereading More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin at the same time I was mulling over my dessert choices.

In her essay titled, Butter, Colwin tells the reader of her passion for shortbread, "I would rather eat shortbread than any cake or cookie in the world. I would turn my back on a chocolate truffle or a banana split for one piece of crisp, melting shortbread. It is the essence of butter."

The idea of some short of shortbread cookie struck me as just the right choice for my third dessert offering.

In pastry, the word short refers to a tender, crumbly texture caused by the high fat content of the dough -- shortbread has a high ratio of butter to flour.

Shortbread is also usually flat due to the lack of any type of leavening in the batter. Shortbread is very similar to the classic French butter cookie, sables, except that sables have an even richer taste because the dough includes eggs. Many of the traditional shortbread recipes use rice flour but unbleached all purpose flour can easily be substituted.

In the Field Guide to Cookies, Anita Chu states, "the round shape (of shortbread) came from old (Scottish) pagan beliefs; the round shape scored with lines was meant to symbolize the sun, and shortbread was used as an offering at the end of the year."

I liked the idea of shortbread being my offering at my end of year party!

But most of the recipes I had for shortbread were either very plain or were the base for some other ingredient to shine -- like raspberry jam.

I wanted something sophisticated but not camouflaged.

Then I received an email from baker Susan Spungen. I had recently read an article by her in More Magazine that was called, Cookies for Grownups. In this article Spungen, who created the food for the recent movie, Julie and Julia, had taken many traditional cookies and had given them a bit of a twist. For example, cardamom cookies, double-ginger chocolate chunk cookies and yes, a shortbread cookie she called espresso shortbread.

I had emailed Susan because More Magazine hadn't included her instructions on how to measure the flour in her recipes. And after learning the hard way, I won't attempt any recipe unless I know how the flour is to be measured.

I found her website and dashed off an email. And to be honest, I didn't really expect to hear back from her.

But in a true professional manner and much to my pleasant surprise, she answered my question right away (spoon and sweep).

That decided it then -- espresso shortbread would be my cookie choice for my very grownup party.

Of course I would use a scalloped cookie cutter but instead of sparkly sprinkles on the outside, these cookies would have espresso sprinkles on the inside. Perhaps what a Disney princess would have first thing in the morning before putting on her crown and making her list of good deeds to do that day. I know I certainly need my coffee before putting on my crown every morning!

But this time I would be putting on my New Year's Eve party hat and bidding farewell to another year.

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