“Pastry-making…is one of the most important branches of the culinary sciences. It unceasingly occupies itself with ministering pleasure to the sight as well as the taste.” So said Mrs. Isabella Beeton in The Book of Household Management, first published in 1880.
A rather staid way to describe the near-magical creation of a glistening, chocolate-glazed caramel tart, or the conjuring of delicate squares of thyme-scented shortbread, no?
There is nothing staid about pastries, of course, and that has much to do with what is arguably the most important ingredient in the art and science of baking: butter.
“Shortbread” can be a confusing term for baking novices. First, it’s not a bread at all, but rather a kind of cross between a butter cookie and a fine pastry. “Short” refers not to its height (or lack thereof) but to the fact that shortbread’s high butter content prevents the formation of long protein strands (or gluten) in the dough. Such dough yields a tender, crumbly texture, or “short bread”.
If anyone knows shortbread, of course, it’s the Scots, who traditionally serve wedges of it during the mid-winter holidays. Time-honored Scottish shortbread is made from just four ingredients—butter, sugar, salt and flour. While their “plain” shortbread is an irresistible specialty that requires no improvement, bakers also add such flavorings as chocolate, nuts, dried fruit and even fresh herbs, to make a good thing even better.
Prepared and cut like a bar cookie, shortbread is easier to make and more special than drop cookies, and so rich and buttery that it doubles as a special-occasion dessert. The method couldn’t be simpler: Cream butter with sugar, gradually incorporate flour to obtain a firm dough, then press the dough into a pan and bake it. The dough is also pliable enough to cut into shapes or roll into sliceable logs. Some bakers mark the top of shortbread with designs, either using cookie stamps or simply a fork.
When making shortbread, keep these things in mind: