Traditional Scottish shortbread was the first recipe I ever clipped from a newspaper. I know it sounds odd because it’s not Italian. But of course that’s precisely why I was drawn to it. To me, everything that was not Italian was exotic–even a basic biscuit with just three main ingredients–butter, flour, and sugar.
What drew me to the recipe, though, was a fourth ingredient–rice flour. It seemed rather un-Scottish to me (but what did I know–wine cookies were the biscuit of choice in our house). In fact the addition of either rice flour (or ground rice) or corn flour is common in Scottish shortbread recipes; rice flour gives the cookies a grainy, crumbly texture, while corn flour makes them more dense.
The recipe I clipped came from the New York Times. It was only one column wide and had no picture. For years that yellowed clip lived in my mother’s overstuffed recipe box. It may still be there. I made those cookies dozens of times–my dad was especially fond of them–and they always turned out perfectly–crumbly and crispy, with a little bit crunch and a lot of buttery goodness.
So naturally I had to mess with the recipe. I have a tendency to “Italianize” recipes. I wouldn’t call it a compulsion; I don’t feel the need, for example, to make “Italian” pad thai. But let’s face it; some recipes beg to be played with and in my opinion shortbread is one of them.
Hazelnuts came immediately to mind, maybe because it’s fall, or maybe just because I love them, in spite of the fact that when I was little my mother made me shell dozens and dozens of them during the holidays (more on that in a forthcoming post). I toasted a handful of hazelnuts and rubbed off their skins. I ground them finely and added them to the basic shortbread dough. My hunch turned out to be a good one.
The cookies were fragrant and rich with the flavor of the nuts and butter, yet they retained the delicate crumble and crunch of real shortbread.
These cookies have definitely earned a spot on this year’s Christmas cookie plate. In the weeks that follow I’ll be writing about other cookies that I am making for the holidays. Baking cookies is without a doubt my favorite part of being in the holiday kitchen, so why prolong the fun? Buon Appetito!
Traditional shortbread was one of the first things I learned to bake, using a recipe I clipped out of the newspaper when I was a girl. As is my habit, I decided at one point that I needed to “Italianize” the recipe, and these delicious bars were born.
- 1 slightly rounded cup shelled hazelnuts
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened to room temperature and cut into pieces, plus more for greasing parchment paper
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 1/2 cup rice flour
- 1/2 teaspoon flaky sea salt, such as fleur de sel
- Confectioners’ sugar for dusting
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread the hazelnuts out on a shallow baking pan and bake them for 10 to 15 minutes, until they are fragrant and their thin skins have split. Wrap the hot nuts in a clean kitchen towel and let them sit for about a minute, then vigorously rub and roll the nuts around while they are still wrapped in the towel. Open the towel and transfer the nuts to a shallow bowl to cool. Not all of the skins will have rubbed off, but this is fine. Once the nuts have cooled, transfer them to the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade and chop them finely (you can also do this with a sharp knife).
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until it is creamy. Add the sugar and beat until the mixture is fluffy. With the mixer on low speed, add the flours, chopped hazelnuts, and the salt and beat just until the dough begins to come together.
Lightly butter a 9-inch by 12-inch rectangular baking pan and line it with enough parchment paper to create an overhang on two sides. Lightly coat the parchment paper with butter.
Press the shortbread dough into the baking pan, taking care to distribute it evenly. Bake the shortbread for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the edges are golden-brown and the center top is pale golden and set. Transfer the pan to a rack and let the shortbread cool for 5 minutes. While it is still warm, cut the shortbread into 16 squares, and cut each square in half on the diagonal to create 32 triangles. Leave the cut shortbread in the pan until it is completely cooled.
Lift the shortbread out of the pan by lifting up the parchment overhang. Place the shortbread on a cutting board and separate the pre-cut pieces. Arrange the shortbread on a decorative cookie plate and dust with confectioners’ sugar.
Store any leftover shortbread in an airtight container at room temperature.
Copyright 2010 Domenica Marchetti