I made three batches of shortbread yesterday.
Yes, I’m a little nuts. It’s the last day of posting holiday cookie recipes around here. After jam tarts, gingerbread men, coconut sugar cookies, cannolis, plus 8 more, you think I’d be done. That’s an even dozen, right?
(Plus, if you go over to our friend Silvana Nardone’s blog, Dish Towel Diaries, you’ll find our recipe for chocolate crackle cookies, inspired by our friend Tamiko.)
So I could have stopped. I have to admit I’m a little exhausted. After I finish this post, we can leave for the city and do our first Christmas shopping. (shudder.) Perhaps no one would have screamed if I had let go.
However, I wanted to give you a baker’s dozen. You know that sweet little act of kindness, when the baker slips one more sugar cookie into your bag of dozen, a small surprise you find when you walk into your kitchen? That’s what I wanted to give you. (I guess I’m not being very silent about it.)
I promised you shortbread, and I just couldn’t put up a recipe until I knew it in my hands, until I could explain what worked for us, and hopefully guide you to making shortbread in your kitchen.
That’s all this is about: you baking in your kitchen, with your kids, your friends, with good music playing. And the joy we can give people with a few flaky bites of shortbread.
Besides, we had to make this.
A few weeks ago, we met Gabrielle Moorhead, who is one of the forces behind Grand Central Bakery. We all met at the Tom Douglas cookbook social, where we made baguettes with curried red lentil puree. (They were a hit.) Gabby and I started talking, animatedly, about baking and food and family. Her father, it turns out, was recently diagnosed with celiac. He’s doing well, but he misses certain foods. Mostly, his grandmother’s Scottish shortbread.
I couldn’t resist this. I had to make it for him.
Baking is so much more than following a recipe. In fact, I think you have to make a recipe once just to understand its dance: preheating the oven, then combining the flours and gums and salt. Do you cream the butter and sugar? Or melt the butter? Do you knead the butter with your hands? White sugar or brown? Flaky or fluffy? Which do you want? What story is this cookie trying to tell?
That’s why I have been so happily absorbed these past few weeks, with my hands in the flours. This is work beyond words. It’s about feel and instinct and trusting yourself and being in the moments and whistling while you work, the magic combination of pushing and acceptance, listening and wishing, watching for the sugar and butter to become one, and starting over if none of it works, without any fuss.
I love baking with all my heart.
And if you can give a man his grandmother’s shortbread back? The flaky layers and crisp crust, the mild sweetness, the way it melts on the tongue? So much the better.
You want to try it? Here you go.
GLUTEN-FREE SCOTTISH SHORTBREAD, adapted from Great Grandma Burgess
The original recipe makes a LOT of shortbread. Since I was making three different batches yesterday, I cut this one in half, the ratios you will see here. If you want, you can easily double this.
12 ounces gluten-free all-purpose flour mix
1 teaspoon psyllium husk
1 1/2 ounces white rice flour
4 ounces powdered sugar (grind it fine, if you can)
generous pinch kosher salt
1/2 pound unsalted butter, cool and not melty (out of the refrigerator for 10 minutes)
Preparing to bake. Butter a half jelly roll pan. (A jelly roll pan is a baking sheet with sides.) Carefully lay down a piece of parchment paper, with enough to leave some hanging over the edges. Press it into the buttered pan, taking care to leave no wrinkles. Butter the parchment paper. Set aside.
Making the dough. Put the flour, psyllium husks, white rice flour, sugar, and salt into a large mixing bowl. Whisk them together to combine and aerate. Cut the butter into small chunks and add them to the flour. Using your hands and patience, knead the butter into the dough. Think pie crust. Think about massage. You are trying to coat every part of the flour with fat. Work with purpose you don’t want the butter to grow too warm. When the butter is fully kneaded into the flour, you are done.
Press the dough into the buttered parchment paper. It might be crumbly at first, but you can press it together. (If you don’t have a half jelly roll pan and we don’t! fill only half the jelly roll pan.) When it is all pressed in, put another piece of parchment paper over the top and roll the dough smooth with a rolling pin.
Prick the top of the dough with a fork, leaving no more than 1/4-inch space between fork pricks. This will help prevent the dough from puffing and rising unevenly. Using a sharp knife, score the dough all the way down to the bottom of the pan. (If you want bars, cut those. If you want squares, cut those.)
Refrigerate the dough for 1 hour.
Baking the shortbread. Preheat the oven to 300°. When it is fully heated, remove the jelly roll pan from the refrigerator and slide it into the oven. Bake until the edges are lightly golden brown and the top of the shortbread set, about 45 to 60 minutes, depending on your oven.
Remove the shortbread from the oven. Cut into the lines you scored before baking. Allow the shortbread to cool before eating.
And there you have it. Gluten-free shortbread.
But wait! There’s more.
Yesterday, when I was playing around with recipes, I was a little dazzled by all the choices for shortbread recipes. Some say to use only cold butter, others insist it must be room temperature. Some even say to melt the butter. Some call for just all-purpose flour. Others say to add white rice flour (an old Scottish trick) for crispness, and others say to add cornstarch for softness. There seems to be no agreement.
I love that.
(If you want to understand it, read this Guardian piece about shortbread.)
So I had to make another batch, this time using cornstarch for softness and room-temperature butter so soft that the directions call for it to have the texture of whipped mayonnaise.
Oh my. Meyer lemon shortbread, soft without being dense, wonderfully tart on the tongue.
Would you like to make this one? It’s a recipe from Tartine Bakery, adapted by Shauna Sever. (I like anyone named Shauna.)
Rather than typing out the recipe, I’m going to make you head over there. All you have to do is use 280 grams of our gluten-free all-purpose flour mix (or any gluten-free all-purpose flour mix you like) for the all-purpose flour in the original recipe, plus 1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum and 1/4 teaspoon guar gum.
You see, that’s all you need to do to convert all your favorite family recipes: use 140 grams of your favorite gluten-free flour mix for every cup of regular all-purpose flour, add 1% of the volume of flours in psyllium husk, and then start baking. That’s it.
And after you have this in your hands and heart, you’ll start making up your own recipes. Like we do here.
Yesterday, even though I already had 2 successful shortbreads cooling on the dining room table, I pulled out the butter again. This time, I wanted to work with ratios and melted butter.
Brown butter balsamic shortbread cookies with rosemary.
And they were possibly the best of the three.
Want to make some? Just follow this, which is based on the standard ratio for shortbread cookies (1 part sugar, 2 parts fat, 3 parts flour). I have left it stripped down for those of you like Danny who don’t want a recipe but a list of ingredients. This is what my notes look like when I’m making something up, so I thought this time I’d let you see it this way.
Sugar + rosemary
mix flour, psyllium, salt
refrigerate in log
bake at 350° 12 to 15
If you have the ingredients, and you want the freedom of making this yourself without consulting a recipe, make these.
(Also, here’s a secret: you could substitute any flavors you wanted in there to make your own shortbread cookies. Roll the dough into a log and refrigerate before baking. You have refrigerator shortbread cookies.)
So there you have it: gluten-free shortbread, three ways.
It doesn’t matter how you make it, really. It doesn’t matter if your shortbread is imperfect. What matters is that you find that place of heart and hands, pushing and acceptance, and dancing in your kitchen as you bake shortbread for someone you love.