Cupboard Love: Shortbread

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

With the Great British Bake Off Final still fresh, in this installment, Doireann de Courcy Mac Donnell talks us through the simple task of making shortbread.

As said by our Food and Drink Editor, “Cooking is an intrinsically nourishing activity, even before you bite into the end-product. It’s a creative, meditative act of self-care”. Cupboard Love is designed to discuss how the most basic of staples of your larder can create the most delectable of culinary experiences. So far this volume we’ve had a dalliance with salted caramel, a love affair with tinned tomatoes and even a foray into the world of fancy instant noodles. However, for this issue, I’m bringing it back to basics - white flour. 

If you have white flour and some butter in your kitchen, don your Chef's hat - the culinary world is your oyster. You can make a tasty roux to turn into a béchamel - add a little dill and salt and chopped smoked salmon you’re ready for a tummy-hugging seafood spaghetti. Keep it simple with some parmesan and a hint of nutmeg and you have your white sauce for a lasagne. If you were feeling particularly brave and are suffering withdrawals from the end of another season of The Great British Bake Off (the brightest light in my life for the last couple of months as the world continued to implode. And Peter won? Undoubtedly deserving but Dave was just so likeable) you could even try your hand at some Choux pastry and serve up some fancy-pants profiteroles or cream buns. 

Perhaps one of the easiest things to make if you have flour in your cupboard, butter in your fridge, and are schlepping around the house in your slippers on a Sunday afternoon wondering what to do before it's an acceptable hour to vegetate on the couch, is shortbread. The Scots really know how to make a simple biscuit that tastes delicious. 

The recipe is one part white sugar to two parts butter to three parts flour. After letting your butter soften (just leave it sitting on your counter for an hour - it shouldn’t be melted), you chuck your three ingredients into a decent-sized baking bowl and rub between your fingers until they come together in a breadcrumb-like consistency. It’s a therapeutic and tactile task and shouldn’t take more than five minutes. Once you’re happy with your breadcrumbs you combine the mix together in your hands to form a ball of dough. Since it is a ‘short’ biscuit (a short mixture is one which has a high proportion of fat - in this case butter - to flour, and results in a rich crumbly bake) it can be difficult to gather it all into a single ball of dough. I find it easiest to put the dough which you brought together on a sheet of cling film plastic wrap and then tip the breadcrumbs of mixture which have escaped on top. After washing your hands - which will be a little greasy from all the butter rubbing - you then use the cling film to wrap it into one nice ball. Pop the dough in the fridge for about twenty minutes.

I’m a traditional gal when it comes to biscuits. Usually when I’m baking shortbread I go for the standard rectangle with little pricks along the top. To do this, I roll a thick wad of the chilled dough out and use a pizza slice to get nice lines. I then go along with a fork and prod little dots along each biscuit. Another quick and easy shape to make is to roll some dough into a golf ball in your hands before placing on your lined baking tray, and using the palm of your hand to press down and squidge the dough into round biscuits. Be sure to leave plenty of space between biscuits on the tray as they often spread a little. The biscuits can take anything from fifteen to twenty minutes in the oven, but be sure to keep an eye from fifteen minutes onwards. It only takes a minute or two to go from the perfect biscuit with a snap Paul Hollywood would be impressed by, to a biscuit which has caught a little and tastes slightly funny. Once you’ve taken the biscuits out the oven let them cool and harden for at least ten minutes.

There are many ways to spruce up a good ole shortbread biscuit. Using one of our previous Cupboard Love recipes, you can lather a tray of shortbread in caramel, spread melted chocolate on top and slice it up for decadent Millionaire’s Shortbread. Since we’re approaching the Christmas season, you can mould your shortbread into festive shapes and decorate with simple royal icing. I find it easiest to first outline your edge with a tiny piping bag and then flood the interior with runny icing. Once it has set, you have a lovely base to add detail too. Although, plain and simple shortbread is an equally lovely gift this Christmas. Bakers, you have one hour. On your marks, get set, Bake!