Shortbread: Simple. Delicious. Wonderful. Except for the waistline, perhaps. Oh, and the cholesterol levels, maybe. But it can even be made gluten-free quite nicely, I am told, using tapioca flour instead of wheat. I have not yet tried this, but I imagine will at some point.
Recently I bought a beautiful shortbread pan (you can get it cheaper on Amazon, it turns out) and some wonderful friends (they know who they are) sent me a package containing some special vanilla extracts to add to my Penzey's Double-Strength, so now I have a bona fide vanilla collection.
It's the holiday season, when gifts of cookies are usually welcome, so I can pawn off some of the extra calories and white flour and sugar and butter by bringing them to parties and offices and such. This is essential to my survival. Otherwise, I will eat the whole thing all by myself.
I wanted to experiment with the flavors of the various vanillas (the aromas vary wildly!), and shortbread seems to be a simple way to appreciate the flavor of the vanilla without a lot of distraction from other elements. So I broke out the fresh Vermont (salted*) butter, the King Arthur flour, and some sugar, along with my assortment of vanillas, and went on a little baking bender over the past few days.
I've used various shortbread recipes over my lifetime. The original Scottish recipe I used as a child called for something that was very hard to find around here then -- rice flour. But I persevered, found the flour, and I remember it being truly lovely. I seem to have lost that recipe, which was given to my mother by friends of hers who lived in Nova Scotia at the time. I'm sure I could find a reasonable facsimile of it on the internet, but more recently I decided to give the recipe on the King Arthur Flour site a try. There are two reasons for that: 1) That's where I bought the new snowflake shortbread pan I got, and the recipe was right there in my face, and more importantly, 2) I recently baked their original poundcake recipe (warning: not for wimps) and it was hands-down the best poundcake I have ever baked or eaten (there are still two mini-cakes in my freezer). I also baked their Vanilla Dream cookies, with the same result. So I figured maybe their recipes are WINNERS.
And it appears that they are.
So how did it go, you're wondering?
Batch One: Made with Penzey's Double Strength Vanilla and no almond extract. DELICOUS -- maybe the most delicious of the bunch, but then I keep on saying that. Each one seems to get better than the next. Perhaps I am drunk on my vanilla (don't get me started by the wingnut comment I saw on a food site -- a recipe for making homemade vanilla extract) where a person said, "Vanilla has alcohol?! Good to know. I won't put any in my kids' food until they turn of age." It's now official, as if it wasn't already: I have zero tolerance for stupid people. ZERO. I JUST CAN'T TAKE IT ANYMORE. Oops. You got me started.) Ahem.
My mistake on Batch One was that I put the whole batch into my new snowflake pan. It came out delicious, but very thick and heavy, and less crisp than shortbread should be -- closer to a bar cookie in texture.
Batch Two: Made with Mexican vanilla and a touch of almond extract. This time I put half the batch into the snowflake pan, and rolled out the other half and used a 2-inch cookie cutter to make little rounds to bake separately. Excellent texture and flavor, but I think Mexican vanilla is not my favorite of all the vanillas (sorry all the baking writers who say Mexican vanilla is the best! It's great, and if I didn't have anything to compare it to, I think I would agree. But lo, I have Tahitian vanilla.)
I can spend a good part of the day just sniffing the jar, and be happy. It even helps to tolerate The Stupid People. Sometimes.
So onward to Batch Three.
Batch Three was made with Tahitian vanilla and a little bit of almond extract. In my opinion, the flavor is the best of them so far. BUT I used two 9-inch round cake pans for my shortbread, and this is what happened when I turned it out.
I was able to salvage some of the edges. They are the small triangle-shaped shortbreads shown on the plate in the photos. I could very happily spend the day eating the crumbs, but I won't.
So I'm not sure what the problem was there. I think I did everything right. I sprayed the pans with non-stick spray. I baked it at the right temperature and baked it long enough. I might not have worked the dough quite enough before patting it into the pan, or I might have tried to release it from the pan either too early or too late -- I just don't know.
Today may warrant more experimentation.
*Salted butter is recommended, because there is limited mixing and no real liquid involved when making shortbread. Added salt might not be uniformly mixed in, and/or fully dissolved in the shortbread dough.