23 September 2009

slinging hash: shortbread

I don't know if it is because my children are getting older, or I'm just paying better attention, but this year it struck me in an altogether new way how stressful the beginning of the school year is. Between whipping the kids back in to shape and figuring out everyone's schedules, it is like trying to fit together the pieces of an extremely complicated three dimensional Chinese puzzle, and it has me longing for the simpler days of summer.

But school is underway, and my clientele have demanded that I put my apron back on. Because I aim to provide the best customer service possible, that means the cookies are coming. I really don't have a lot of time or energy for weekday baking, so I turn to shortbread. They are as close to a no-brainer as possible; they come together quickly, with very few ingredients.

But my favorite thing about shortbread, aside from its simplicity and utter deliciousness, is that once you have the basic formula down, it is infinitely variable. This means you can perform all sorts of kitchen sorcery, and trick your children into thinking you are making a different, carefully crafted batch of cookies every week. They catch on eventually, but you can have a good run of it.

My favorite way to make shortbread is with instant espresso powder and chocolate chips, and that is how I prepared them for the first week of school. Predictably, Sarah issued one of her proclamations, heretofore unbeknownst to me, that she finds this particular shortbread disgusting — I believe her exact words were they hurt her throat. This was something of a surprise to me as she has happily eaten these for years, but I took it as a sign of the dreaded cookie fatigue. 

Because I am a good listener, this week, I made plain butter shortbread, and it was really no surprise to hear my kids complain about this. 

Gabriel: "They're so boring."
Sarah: "Why didn't you make the coffee ones again? Plain ones taste like nothing."
Sacha: "Cookies!"

Sometimes, a mother can't win, and in the best of circumstances, one's children have no idea how good they have it, and that is how it should be.

Espresso chocolate chip shortbread
adapted from Dorie Greenspan and Melissa Clark

The basic formula for shortbread is 2 sticks of butter, 2/3 cup sugar, 2 cups flour. I like confectioners' sugar because it gives the cookies a smoother, more tender crumb, but granulated sugar works equally well. To make plain butter shortbread, omit the espresso and chocolate chips. To this basic formula, you can add grated citrus zest (about 1-1/2 teaspoons), a spice or seed (up to one teaspoon), a tablespoon of chopped rosemary or lavender, the seeds of a vanilla bean, and so on, and so forth. 

1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
generous pinch of salt
2/3 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate chips

1. Beat the butter and confectioners' sugar in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, on medium speed until very smooth.
2. Add the espresso powder, mix until incorporated.
3. Reduce mixer speed to low, add flour, and mix until just incorporated. Fold in the chocolate.
4. Use a rubber spatula to transfer the dough to a gallon-size zipper-lock plastic bag. Leave the top of the bag open, and use a rolling pin to roll the dough into an approximately 9 x 10 1/2 inch, 1/4 inch thick rectangle. The dough may crease a bit. Smooth it out as you go if this sort of thing bothers you. Otherwise, don't worry too much about it. Seal the bag, pressing out as much air as possible, and refrigerate at least 2 hours, or up to 2 days.
5. When ready to bake, position oven racks on second and fourth notches, and preheat to 325 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.
6. Slit open the plastic bag and use a knife to cut the dough into 1 1/2-inch squares and transfer to baking sheets.
6. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back halfway through. The shortbread should be pale, rather than golden. Transfer cookies to a rack to cool.


  1. I just love it when you use words like "heretofore". That, and the very thought of Sacha downing cookies with espresso. Always good writing, Pamela!
    jo s.

  2. Mmmm. I'm still working my way thru the 2 batches I made of your zuccini bread.
    Very admirable reserve & maturity in not making sure (as I do at high volume) that they know how good they've got it.