A Little Bit of History
Historically, shortbread is associated with Christmas and hogmanay (New year's Eve in Scotland). Traditionally, it was and frequently still is, formed into one large cookie, notched around the edge to represent the rays of the sun.
The Scots still love shortbread, their sweetest contribution to the world's cuisines. In Edinburgh shortbread is decorated with bits of citrus peel and almonds at holiday time. In Ayrshire it is often enriched with cream and eggs. In the Shetland and Orkney Islands it is flavored with caraway seeds and known as "Bride's Bonn."
The legacy of shortbread as a tea-time favorite remains, but this simple cookie is equally delicious with coffee or milk or wine or champagne. it also complements ice cream, custard, fruit and other simple desserts.
A number of favorite recipes, ones in use for years, are really shortbreads even though they are not called by that name. The melt-in-your-mouth, confectioners' (powdered) sugar-coated balls that are on almost everyone's cookie tray at Christmastime are shortbreads in the round. Rich and tart-sweet lemon bars are fancy shortbreads. Bizcochitos, the traditional Christmas cookies of New Mexico, are basic shortbread jazzed up with anise seed and pine nuts.
Just about any basic butter cookie can rightfully be called a shortbread. Many of these simple cookies developed their own identities when imaginative cooks added fruits, nuts, chocolate, spices, herbs, peels or cheese. Some recipes call for brown sugar instead of granulated or confectioners' (powdered) sugar, creating a distinctive caramel-like goodness. Others change the type of flour and, like magic, a new cookie is born.
Most shortbreads may be baked in a variety of ways and decorated after baking with frostings, glazes, sprinkles or nuts. They may be dipped in chocolate and chopped nuts. they may be put togther sandwich-style with frosting, jam, ground fruits and nuts, or ice cream.
No one need be fussy about the choice of baking pan because shortbread is undemanding and, in most cases, a number of different pans are appropriate. If the recipe calls for an 8- or 9-inch pie plate, a round or square cake pan works equally well. You may also choose a same size springform pan, a tart pan with or without a removable bottom, or a quiche dish. Or you may want to use a decorated shortbread pan found in specialty cookware stores.
Or, you may simply flatten the dough into a free-form circle (or rectangle or square) on a cookie sheet. Or press it into a shortbread mold. The point to remember is that the dough should be pressed to a thickness of approximately 1/4 inch. Or you may want to experiment with pressing the dough into individual madeleine or shell molds and be rewarded with really beautiful little cookies.
It is important, too, in some recipes, to pierce the uncooked dough all over with the tines of a fork [or a toothpick]to minimize bubbles during baking. It's also a good idea to check a time or two during the baking and to pierce any large bubbles that may appear.
Most shortbreads may also be rolled to about 1/4-inch thick on a floured surface and cut with cookie cutters or knife-cut into fingers, diamonds, rectangles, or whatevers. Or the rolled-out dough may be imprinted with designs using a patterned springerle rolling pin, then cut into individual cookies and transferred to a cookie sheet.
They may also be formed by hand into small cylinders or balls which may be baked as such or flattened to 1/4-inch thick with a decorative cookie stamp, with the bottom of a glass or with the tines of a fork dipped in granulated sugar or flour.
The shortbreads produced by many recipes do xceptional double duty as tart shells and as cheesecake bottoms and may substitute for crumb crust in any recipe. Just be sure that the tart fillng you use is compatible with th flavors in the shortbread crust.
Adapted from The Best 50 Shortbreads by Barbara Karoff, © 1995 Bristol Publishing,