Today I made chocolate chip cookies that broke into a hundred little pieces when I touched them with my spatula. If someone thinks they know why this happened, email me!
On the bright side, the lemon bars I made on Thursday were excellent. The best part was definitely the shortbread crust.
Shortbread is a lovely old Scottish invention originating out of rusk, a 12th century medieval biscuit flavored with spices and sugar. The yeast used to make rusk was replaced with expensive butter, and shortbread became a special treat consumed only on Christmas and Hogmanay (New Year’s Eve). Queen Mary popularized this biscuit in the 16th century serving it to her royal visitors. I like to imagine her eating shortbread sliced into crumbly wedges flavored with caraway seeds, looking out her window onto green pastures where peasants toiled away.
The first printed recipe of shortbread dates back to 1736. There are several regional varieties – shortbread can include coriander and caraway, orange peel and almonds, and ginger depending on where you are in the UK. The shortbread is made in circular molds, finger shapes, or wedges called petticoat tails.
Shortbread follows a very simple ratio: 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, 3 parts flour. No leavening agent, no shortening, no eggs, no oil.
Compared to other cookies, shortbread has a high ratio of butter to other ingredients. Butteriness is a crucial quality for shortbread; in fact in 1921 the British government legislated that for a product to be called shortbread it must get at least 51% of its fat from real butter. The term short itself means crumbly, hence why the fat added to pastries is called shortening.
Why does butter make for crumbly pastry? Well, proteins in wheat flour form gluten when combined with water. As you knead the dough, gluten forms into a mesh that gives baked goods their structure, and becomes more and more stretchy, filling with gas bubbles from leaveners. Gluten is what creates allows for those air bubbles in your baguette, creating chewiness. In shortbread, we want to minimize gluten formation. The butter physically interrupts gluten formation and is a major tenderizer.
Shortbread is traditionally baked at a low temperature to avoid browning. However I like a little bit of browning. Because the sugars caramelize and the Maillard reaction takes place, which creates a large number of yummy flavors.
Lemon bars (recipe from Joy of Baking)
113 grams (1 stick) of unsalted butter at room temperature
30 grams (about ¼ cup) confectioners’ sugar
130 grams (1 cup) all-purpose flour
1/8 tsp salt
200 grams (1 cup) granulated white sugar
*Why is 1 cup of flour only 130 grams, vs. 200 grams of sugar? It’s because you are traditionally supposed to sift your flour before you measure it. Use a scale.
2 large eggs
1/3 cup of fresh lemon juice (about 2 large lemons)
5 grams (1 tablespoon) grated lemon zest
25 grams (2 tablespoons) all purpose flour
Instructions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and place oven rack in center of oven. Butter an 8 inch by 8 inch pan.
Shortbread crust: Beat your butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Add the flour and the salt and beat until the dough starts to come together. Press the dough onto the bottom of your pan and bake for 18 – 20 minutes, or until lightly brown on the edges. Remove from oven and let cool.
Lemon filling: Beat the sugar and eggs until nice and smooth. Add the lemon juice and zest, and stir to combine. Fold in the flour. Pour the filling over the crust and bake for 17 – 20 minutes, or until the filling has set. Remove from oven and let cool.
Cut into squares and dust with powdered sugar. Go to town!