I've never had any problem making these before, but it figures that the year I'm trying to take pictures and write it up... things go horribly wrong. Baking overseas is sometimes quite a challenge as ingredients are ever so slightly different and I'm still learning the quirks of this oven. Fortunately, a quick online chat with my Mom helped me rescue them. At least this way I can also tell you how to avoid or fix a similar issue!
Mom's Best Shortbread
1 lb (500g) softened butter
3 c flour
1 c icing sugar
1/2 c cornstarch
Make sure your butter is soft (but not melty!) and then whip it in a mix master until it's really creamy. Add the cornstarch and icing sugar while beating. Make sure you've got your mixer on a low speed and add slowly, otherwise it tosses up a lot of fine powder. (My cheapie handheld beaters have 10 speeds - super fast to rocket launcher --- erg!) You'll probably need to stop and scrape out the beaters a few times as they get clogged up with butter.
Shortbread Dough in progress
Then beat in the flour until the mixer can't handle it. Gently work in the rest with a wooden spoon. It will probably look something like this (though since my issue this year was not enough flour, yours might look more dry):
Allow the dough to "rest" in the fridge for only one hour.
Roll the dough out to 1/4 inch thickness and cut shapes. You can also spoon onto a baking sheet (and press with a fork or fancy-bottomed glass) if you're in a hurry or just testing. For the spoon method, use 3/4 to 1 inch circles, spaced an inch or two apart.
Shortbread before baking
Bake at 375-400° F for 8-10 minutes (or 180° C in a convection oven for about 10 minutes).
Cool slightly before removing from cookie sheet and store in an airtight tin. They taste better after ageing for at least one week, if you can wait that long.
Shortbread After Baking
The above photo is what your cookies should look like after coming out of the oven. Here's what my first tray looked like this year:
Eep! I had a bit of a meltdown myself when I saw that. I'd never had them not work and being pregnant seems to result in such minor disasters feeling extra traumatic. But don't despair if this happens! Get a hug from your sweetie, and read the tips below!
- The chilling in the fridge for just an hour is really important. If you skip it, the butter will be too warm and make the dough too soft to work with easily. If you leave it too long, it will get too hard.
- As with pastry, minimize how much you handle the dough or it can become tough.
- To avoid any baking disasters, you can do a small tester cookie before chilling. I've never done this before but it might be wise if you're trying them for the first time (or in a new country with a strange oven)!
- These cookies are very rich, so I recommend more smaller shapes. Fancy cut-outs like I do with the gingerbread are harder to achieve without the cookies breaking as they're very tender.
- If your cookies melt out of shape, you've not got enough flour. My Mom said she once accidentally was using a half-cup measure as though it was a cup. My problem seemed to be extra fluffy flour (which worked well for the gingerbread!), so I just didn't get enough. Using a pastry cutter, carefully work in an extra 1/2 to 1 cup of flour and do a tester cookie. (You don't need to do any more fridge time with your dough.) My remaining dough worked fine once I'd added another cup of flour, so my final flour weight was probably around: 615 - 630g. (This is just estimating after the fact by weighing a cup of flour, so don't worry too much about the exact weight).
- Let your cookies cool a little before you try removing them from the baking tray. I find it easiest to bake them on parchment paper and then just slide the whole paper off the tray.
These cookies are lots of fun to decorate. Traditionally, using clear corn syrup as "glue", we decorated them with assorted sprinkles. This is especially fun if you've cut out tree shapes! This year, I went for a simpler route of dipping some in chocolate. While I was at it, I also dipped some candied orange peel, candied ginger, and dried apricots. Yum!
Photographs and artwork by Allison Gryski. © All rights reserved.