December 22, 2005
There Must be Shortbread!
I do not cook for a large family and therefore it is only to be expected that my Christmas baking has decreased proportionately - excepting those years when we host a holiday open house, in which case I find myself making even more things than if I were baking for a family of twelve. Every year, I weigh the pros and cons of different recipes versus the available time, strength and energy that are available to me. Fruitcakes - dark, rum-soaked, full of naturally dried fruit without a neon-coloured cherry to be found - I only make every couple of years, in tiny loaf pans for passing out to relatives and friends of the fruitcake-appreciating persuasion.
When I was a kid, there were no baking-traps to navigate around. Pretty much the only holiday sweets we had were those that we made ourselves (excluding Santa's modest delivery), or polite amounts of those made by our neighbours and relatives. There were no cookie-studded workplace platters to navigate around, no client-appreciation chocolates lurking on every surface in the kitchen, no office parties with alcohol and rich food. Thus, I stumbled into the business world completely unprepared for the onslaught of goodies that were on offer throughout December, where polite meant actually taking a piece of grainy fudge or a misshapen sugar cookie instead of restricting oneself to one. I was also completely unprepared for the shocking variety of cookies all called shortbread. As we all know well, the only true shortbread is the one that your mother used to make, right?
My mother's shortbread is incredibly simple to make, and is the one thing that is an absolute requirement on my holiday table. Because it is easy to make (even easier to eat!) even at my tiredest I can manage to knock out a tray of these. It has become my one must-have bit of holiday baking.
1 cup salted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup icing sugar
large pinch ground ginger
2 cups unbleached, all-purpose white flour
Preheat the oven to 350 F. Lightly grease (or spritz with canola oil) a large baking sheet.
Cream together the butter and the icing sugar until the mixture is light, fluffy, and its colour has changed to white. This will take several minutes with a hand-mixer, and is essential, as there is no levening agent in the cookies. Add the ground ginger and one cup of flour, and mix until the flour is thoroughly incorporated. Add the other cup of flour, but use a spatula to blend it smoothly into the dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured board, sprinkle with a little flour, and roll out to the desired thickness - I like mine only a little thicker than thin sugar cookies, but not too thick. Traditionally, these are cut into squares or rectangles, and special shapes were reserved for the sugar cookies. I've thrown caution to the wind here, however, and used a little tree cutter for my shortbread this year.
Cut the cookies however you like - if using a cutter, you can re-roll the scraps and cut again, but do handle carefully because if you add too much flour during the rolling, they can get a little tough. Place the cookies on the baking sheet - they won't need much room between them because they don't really rise, but a bit of space makes it easier to pull them off the sheet. I like to poke some airholes with a fork to prevent the dough from bubbling up, but it's not strictly necessary.
Bake for 10 - 15 minutes, depending on how thick your cookies are. Check frequently - a slight tinge of gold on the edge is okay, but you don't want them to brown. Cool on racks and store out of sight, if you hope to keep them around for a few days.