Can we talk about shortbread?

There is no better cookie than shortbread. Fight me.

Almond-flour shortbread with orange zest on my mom’s luncheon china. Too much butter.

From make, to bake, to take no other cookie beats shortbread. It is the three ingredient wonder that makes you look like you know what you are doing. They work for every holiday, as well as appreciation gifts, and are easy to make gluten free (although they are never sugar free or fat free…sorry).

The base recipe is 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, 3 parts flour. So if you are going for a couple dozen (depending on size), here is what you might use:

1/2 cup sugar (bakers sugar is best, but use what you got)
1 cup SALTED butter (room temperature– 65F-69F).
2 cups flour

Cream the butter and sugar, mix in any flavorings, add the flour and mix until it is dough. Refrigerate or freeze for an hour and bake at 375F for about 10-12 minutes.

Wham! Yep, that’s it. From there, you have endless options and ways to fiddle, but you’ll almost always maintain that ratio of 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter, 3 parts flour.

I assume you have questions.

Why salted butter?

Oh hell yeah. You’ll notice I did not add salt. For one, I wanted to be cool and say that you can make something delicious with three ingredients. Just let me have this moment.

But you can add salt. If you use unsalted butter you’ll want to add 3/4 of a teaspoon. And if you like salty cookies, add fancy salt on top of the cookie before you bake it.

Seriously, give salted butter a try. I know it isn’t canon. I just really like the flavor. Check out Alison Roman’s Salted Butter and Chocolate Chunk Shortbread for a mind-blowing shortbread experience.

Why is your room temperature so specific?

Butter plays differently at different temperatures. Cold butter yields flakiness, which is why you use cold butter for pie crust and biscuits. For cookies, the goal is crumbliness. Room temperature butter is usually about 71F, but I live in an area that can reach triple digit temperatures in the summer. Plus I find that butter warms as you work it. I like the results best if I start at slightly cooler than room temperature. If your butter gets warmer, you will likely see a little more spread in the final cookie, but by all means bake them and eat them gleefully.

Why refrigerate or freeze?

What I like about this recipe is that the cookies get better the more the dough has time to fully integrate. Plus, it gives you options. I’ve made the dough on a weekend and baked up half a dozen in my toaster oven during the week for dessert. The dough will stay safe wrapped in parchment and cling wrap for a week in the fridge, and up to a month in the freezer.

In truth, we should start making nearly all our cookies this way. There is no need to buy cookie dough from the store when you can make it exactly how you want it and have it ready at a moment’s notice.

What size should I make the cookies?

Slice-and-bake shortbread is perfect for a quick cookie snack.

I’ve found that a tablespoon makes a really nice sized cookie. It bakes quickly and balances the richness. Depending on your customization, some cookies might spread, but in general, shortbread holds shape really well. Roll them into balls to get a half moon shape, or keep them in the same shape the scooper makes for a slightly flatter result.

Alternatively, roll the dough into a log before it is refrigerated and slice-and-bake. NOTE: For a really pretty finish brush the logs with a beaten egg and coat them in demerara or sanding sugar before slicing.

If you want to roll them out to cut into shapes, be gentle. Pat them into a flat disk and refrigerate. Then roll the dough out as lightly as possible.

How can I customize?

Nearly any way you see fit. Add a couple teaspoons of vanilla or almond extract. Add a tablespoon of citrus zest; a tablespoon of lavender or rosemary. A cup of chopped walnuts or pecans make a tasty cookie. You can also play around with the flour, substituting almond flour to make the cookies gluten free. Or replace about 1/3 of a cup of flour with cocoa powder to make chocolate shortbread. And 2 teaspoons of cornstarch in the flour can yield a tender/crisp texture that is amazing.

One key thing is to look up at least one recipe when your are planning a substitution. Substitutions might call for slight ratio changes as well. For example, when I use almond flour I cut back on the butter by 4 tablespoon (using the ratio measurements I mentioned above). Almond flour has a bit of fat in it and is more moist than normal flour. I get a lot of spread with that cookie if I put in too much butter. Do I still devour them? Yes, yes I do.

I also prefer shortbread for decorated holiday cookies, precisely because they hold shape better than sugar cookies. A simple icing of lemon or orange juice and powdered sugar mixed with seasonally appropriate colors allows you to pipe or flood beautiful cookies like a champ.

And now for the best part!

Mine, all mine.

Here’s the real secret. Kids don’t really like shortbread as much as adults do. My son will even pass up shortbreads with chocolate chip. It’s an adult cookie. It’s a subtle cookie. That means when I bake them, I don’t have to hide them. And that makes mommy a smart cookie.

Cornstarch is magic.

Make food yummy and science experiments messy.

Cornstarch is one of those ingredients that I never thought about. For most of my adult life, I loved cooking, but didn’t delve too deeply. I’d make a meal a few times per week or bake yummy cookies. That’s about it.

However, once my kids were born I realized just how into food I was. I’m now a special occasion baker, a nightly dinner planner, and a lunch-time prepper for hubby and elementary school kid. I spend a lot of time in the kitchen and a lot of time thinking about the kitchen.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t make complicated food. I’m not great at decorating cakes or making a meal look like a work of art. What I’m getting better at is using up what’s in the pantry/fridge. So if I have extra pears, you might see an Italian pear cake. Extra citrus (like I have now) will result in some lemon short bread or orange chicken.

Using up what’s available means getting creative. And that means you have to have some key ingredients on hand. These staples go beyond what I used to think of basics. They now include cornstarch.

Cornstarch is like a secret ingredient. No one really knows its there, but it helps you pull off some great food tricks.

Orange chicken, pudding, meringue…

Speaking of orange chicken, I will never again make the stuff without cornstarch. After I cut up pieces of chicken breast, I put it in a bag and shake it with a generous amount of our good friend. It helps the chicken crisp up and helps again when I’m making the sauce. I’ll write up my orange chicken recipe in another post. (For those of you paying attention, this is a one pan, one process meal)

My favorite dessert is pudding. If you use cornstarch to make it instead of “the box,” it is called creme patissiere (or pastry cream). I’m not going to give you the recipe, but you can find it easily. It’s a bit eggier than pudding, but very simple, and so delicious. I need to go make some right now…

Ok I’m back.

I’ve only made one meringue, but it started to weep immediately. Weeping/beading is when liquid sugar bleeds out at weak points in the structure. Further meringues are tend to shrink in the fridge. They are unstable and unsightly.

A friend of mine from college revealed that there were a few techniques required beyond whipping egg whites and sugar to achieve a stable meringue.

Here is what he told me:

“My Meringue is made with the usual sugar, egg white, salt, and vanilla extract, but also with a “roux” mixed in that is made with sugar, cornstarch, and water brought to boil. It does not bead. It also does not shrink after refrigeration, and this method keeps the weeping down to a minimum. Filling should still be hot when putting the meringue on to keep weeping down. 400F for 12-14 minutes.”

There are a ton of other things cornstarch does, like coat marshmallows and mochi to keep them from sticking. They are also the secret to luscious alfajores (Argentinian sandwich cookies filled with dulce de leche). Don’t worry- I plan to make those soon.

SCIENCE!

And finally, nothing in the kitchen happens without science. So it is really fun to take food and conduct experiments. These are great for a rainy day activities, or when you are trying to keep the kids from watching TV until their brains mush.

To make mud or ooze put cornstarch into a bowl and add a drop or two of food coloring. Add the water slowly, mixing the two by hand until all the powder is wet. Keep adding water until it feels oozy when you’re mixing it slowly.

While your kid is not listening, you can tell them about other non-Newtonian fluids, and how to escape quicksand or a vat of ketchup.

Be sure to get really nerdy about it; mention how Newtonian liquid flows at specific rates, but that this is a suspension. Pressure forces the particles into a locked position to hold shape. Watch this video of people filling shallow pool with cornstarch and water and walking across it. Fail at keeping your kids from falling down the YouTube rabbit hole.

Once you get their attention again, invite them to punch the ooze, to see that it is hard, and then stick fingers in slowly to pick it up. The goo will melt through their fingers and you’ll get cornstarch everywhere. YAY.

If you want to get really messy, consider adding borax and glue and make bouncy balls.

Mix together 1/2 teaspoon of borax, 3 tablespoons of cornstarch and 4 tablespoons of warm water thoroughly. Put 1 teaspoon of white glue into a separate container with a few drops of food coloring mixed in. Add the cornstarch, borax and water mixture to the glue. Roll the ingredients together between your palms until it becomes rubbery. Form into round balls after the stickiness is gone.

In reality, cornstarch is not that hard to clean. It is inexpensive and fun and will expand your food repertoire. Go make some magic.