I believe, in this life, that most people are firmly on one side of two camps. For example, there are swimmers, and there are runners. Those who believe Buffy belonged with Angel versus those who preferred her with Spike. People who like the smell of chlorine, and people who like the smell of gasoline. And there are cookers and there are bakers. I am the former.
I don’t know if it’s that I’m too impatient, or not particularly exacting and careful in the kitchen, but I am much better on top of the stove than inside the oven. I can fix the most heinous of catastrophes—excess of salt, sauces that won’t thicken—with my own personal bag of cooking tricks (usually, adding an influx of flour). Maybe it’s the loss of control that makes baking such a trial for me: Once it’s in the oven, it’s out of my hands. There’s no more tweaking to be done, even if I throw a handful of flour at the oven door. My insecurity, of course, is aided and abetted by various previous disasters: The time I forgot to add the dry ingredients to a batch of gooey cookies. The time I got the English measurements wrong in a cake recipe and it appeared to curdle. The time I couldn’t figure out how to store a multitude of cake pops. The people on that English show would call most of my projects “not a good bake.”
My culinary frustration is only fueled by the fact that my mother was an excellent baker. While I can barely get two batches of holiday cookies together for leave for Santa (my son likes jam thumbprints; my daughter prefers peanut butter blossoms), Mom had several options that she baked dozens of every year to gift to fortunate friends and relatives. She even used specific cookie cutters for specific varieties (like her gingerbread bears, for example). Every year I’d look forward to her pinwheels, her kolachkes, her almond crescents, with no expectation that I would ever be able to equal them myself. Most years I “helped” her with her annual huge baking endeavor, and she was very nice about it, but it was like Michelangelo being assisted by a finger-painter; I learned a lot more from her than she ever would from me. But I didn’t pay close enough attention, because I still didn’t learn enough.
My mom even mastered one of the trickiest cookies out there, to my mind: the shortbread cookie. I believe she favored Martha Stewart’s recipe, which as with most things Martha makes, is about half-butter. Shortbread is fascinating to me because, besides the butter, there are only two other ingredients: flour and powdered sugar (and a little salt). What could possibly bind all that together, besides my most fervent desires?
After all, I’m a huge shortbread fan, When I lived in the U.K., I greedily gobbled up every Walker shortbread varietal I could get my hands on; that delicious cookie producer comes from Scotland and is actually the country’s largest food exporter. Biting into a Walker rectangle is like crunching into a sweet stick of butter that then dissolves in your mouth. The renovated Music Box Theatre in Chicago has a deluxe bar and all now, but I’m still disappointed that they stopped selling Walker shortbread at the concession stand: my favorite movie snack ever.
So, despite my considerable lack of baking talent, I decided to attempt the Everest of cookie-making: shortbread. And unfortunately, I decided to do this a few years ago for a holiday cookie exchange, in which everyone brings six dozen cookies and swaps. Sadly, and unsurprisingly, I wound up with a solid mass of shortbread, and here’s how:
- First, it’s my suspicion that I overworked the dough. Shortbread dough can be temperamental, apparently.
- Second, I didn’t have the proper cookie drying equipment. What I did have was a small kitchen, so I idiotically decided to layer shortbread cookies on top of each other when they came out of the oven. Consequently, they all melded together. Soon I had a shortbread mountain, and not a single individual cookie.
Unfortunately, the cookie exchange was being hosted by my downstairs neighbor, who knew I was home. There was no way out, really. So I brought Mt. Shortbread down to her apartment and told her friends my ridiculous tale of cookie woe. My project looked even more pathetic next to all the cute, festive cookies that everyone else had been able to accomplish. But everyone was really nice about it; after chiseling a piece off the side, they’d offer, “At least it tastes really good!” But with no cookies to swap, there were no different varietals for me to take home from the exchange that night.
In keeping with tradition, I have been too afraid to ever attempt to make shortbread again. But I’ve always been curious about it. So, for Butter Week, we asked a few Chicago pastry chefs their secret for knocking the degree of difficulty of this tricky baking project down a few notches. They offer temperature controls and a certain secret ingredient, which may be enough to add “try to make shortbread again” to my list of resolutions for 2018. Also, “purchase cooling racks.”
Anna Posey, pastry chef and co-owner, Elske
Shortbread, like most “simple” recipes can be tricky. And there are a lot of ways to cut, bake, shape it. But the best way to make shortbread is to use very cold butter, and the best butter you can get with a high fat content. Chop the butter into small cubes. Then using a food processor, pulse the butter in until sandy. Then just mix until it comes together. And then I like to chill the dough again before baking! And just for a summary of how to make great shortbread: good ingredients, and very cold butter.
Dana Cree, executive pastry chef of The Publican brand
I like to use cornstarch in my shortbread recipes. Adding a touch of cornstarch helps bind some of the water in shortbread, making it unavailable to participate in gluten formation. It’s quite effective, however, so adding too much will cause your cookies to fall apart.
Claire Smyth, executive pastry chef, Honey’s
A lot of people toss cookies aside as if they are something easy you make for a bake sale, but a good cookie comes with practice, patience, and a watchful eye. When it comes to shortbread, there is a small window between perfect and rock solid. My trick? Cornstarch. With this small addition, you get the perfect crumble without having to add more flour.
Using the whisk attachment to a stand mixer (or work on your arm muscles!), whip the butter until it’s almost doubled in size. Slowly add the flour, powdered sugar, and cornstarch. Use a flat sheet tray with a lip, buttered and floured so your cookies won’t stick and spread the mixture in one flat layer. I like to make mine thick, so don’t be afraid to double or even triple the recipe! Sprinkle granulated sugar and a touch of sea salt over the top and bake at 300 degrees until golden brown. Cool your cookies and cut into bars and enjoy!