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Shortbread


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Maybe the cornflour/cornstarch vs rice flour was originally a regional difference. My Scottish great-grandmother was a rice-flour purist, and her family came from somewhere in the western part of Scotland (an island??), and held such a strong influence over us  that my sister and I thought the whole family was Scots in origin, until we noticed that the other family names were very far from Scottish!

I can't test my recipe for you, sorry, as my oven is not working. When I dug out my mother's recipe book, covered in flowered oiled paper, I find that she has listed 8 oz flour + 3 oz cornflour (cornstarch), 6 oz salted butter, 4 oz fine sugar. I wonder if this is not her recipe, but somebody else's version that she wrote down as a curiosity, because she always used rice flour and spoke very scornfully of cornflour. I don't think I used more than 2 oz of rice flour though.

I don't remember the exact oven temperature (325 deg F at most, maybe? Recipe says "very moderate, and I recall baking it at a lower temp. than my mother, but I've used a small convection oven here in Japan for so long that I can't give a good figure for somebody using a conventional oven). I used to chill the shaped cookies very thoroughly before baking as slowly as possible. The family thinking was that rolling, cutting and re-rolling was not a technique for shortbread - best to press, and failing that, pat out and roll just once or twice, then simply prick and cut into squares.

Although the flour:butter:sugar ratio above is 4~5:3:2, I don't think that there is an exact "ideal" ratio, because apart from individual tastes, the water content of the butter, and the fineness of the flour and sugar will make a difference. Baking in Japan from NZ recipes was never difficult for me, but using US recipes designed for higher-protein flour usually required a lot of adjustment. I don't recommend reducing sugar content too drastically, because the texture will change. If you do cut down on sugar, though, you may find the rice flour texture better than the softer cornflour texture.

"Shorties" were a richer cookie made with 9 oz flour,  6 oz butter, 5 oz sugar, 9 oz flour, and 1 t baking powder, baked like thumbprint cookies. Richer, but also much easier to make, and in my family, strictly an entertaining cookie, with no ritual significance at all!

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6 hours ago, helenjp said:

When I dug out my mother's recipe book, covered in flowered oiled paper

 

You had me convinced here...

Okay, I will try the two Scottish grandmother recipes first!

 

Thank you so much, @helenjp for your very informative post!

 

6 hours ago, helenjp said:

Although the flour:butter:sugar ratio above is 4~5:3:2, I don't think that there is an exact "ideal" ratio, because apart from individual tastes, the water content of the butter, and the fineness of the flour and sugar will make a difference. Baking in Japan from NZ recipes was never difficult for me, but using US recipes designed for higher-protein flour usually required a lot of adjustment.

I know it's hard in words, but are you able to explain what the texture of the dough should feel like, then? (This is why I liked @Okanagancook's recipe method as it said to add flour just until it cracks. I thought that was interesting and I liked that old-fashioned go-by-feel thing - I do plan on measuring how much I add though).

 

6 hours ago, helenjp said:

I don't recommend reducing sugar content too drastically, because the texture will change. If you do cut down on sugar, though, you may find the rice flour texture better than the softer cornflour texture.

This really intrigued me, but I don't quite understand. Sorry, can you explain further? 

Why would rice flour texture be better than the softer cornflour texture if there's less sugar? How is sugar content related to that?

My family really likes their stuff a lot less sweet and I always struggle with this because I know you can't reduce sugar too much without (sometimes drastic) sacrifices to overall quality. This is why I'm trying to learn as much as I can so I can figure out how to adjust recipes properly. But I do also want to know how to make things by the normal standard for when I bake for people other than my family. It's hard to manage because I noticed that they actually like some things better when sweeter, as long as the overall product is very good. So I find that more often than not, my family does agree with the normal standard... Not sure if I'm making sense here. I don't really understand their tastes myself, so it's hard to explain without going into specific foods.

 

6 hours ago, helenjp said:

9 oz flour,  6 oz butter, 5 oz sugar, 9 oz flour, and 1 t baking powder, baked like thumbprint cookies. Richer, but also much easier to make, and in my family, strictly an entertaining cookie, with no ritual significance at all!

I love the sound of this... A while ago, I had a very rich thumbprint cookie, and I loved it! It was one of the best cookies I've ever had... This must be it! I'll be trying this too, after all this regular shortbread stuff is out of the way... Do you just use the same method as you would for other cookies? Cream butter and sugar, then add flour and baking powder?

 

Edited by Ess
forgot to ask about shorties (log)
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I won't be baking until later in the week, but I wanted to write the two recipes down. So when I went to do this, I found that they're almost identical!

 

On 2017-02-17 at 11:23 PM, JohnT said:

8oz cake flour
4oz cornflour
6oz butter (all butter here was salted in the 50's and 60's)
4oz caster sugar

 

6 hours ago, helenjp said:

8 oz flour

3 oz cornflour (cornstarch) - or 2oz rice flour?

6 oz salted butter

4 oz fine sugar

 

 

The only difference is the cornstarch amount! And both grandmothers seem to use the same method of just pressing into the pan.

 

Is 'caster sugar' and 'fine sugar' the same?

 

Okay, so if two Scottish grandmothers agree like this, we must be getting close to a 'best' recipe...

 

Edit: Just realized JohnT's uses cake flour, and I would assume helenjp's uses all-purpose. Wonder if it will make that much of a difference? Canadian all-purpose is a lot higher in protein... More things to consider!

Edited by Ess
realized flour type difference (log)
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Yes, I noticed that John's recipe was the same! Texture of the dough - I did think about how to describe that, but it's been so long. My family theory was that people whose hands were a little bit too warm for pastry-making were just right for shortbread. Mix the sugar into the flour(s), and then cut or grate the cold butter in, and rub in with the fingertips very patiently until the dough is like very coarse sand. When you use your hands to form it into a mass it should stick together with just gentle pressure. That description of a mass that cracks sounds perfect!

Sugar will make the shortbread crisper, which counteracts the crumbliness that the butter causes. Without any sugar, the dough would just be hard (tough). Rice flour tends to be coarser than cornstarch or flour so it makes the shortbread dissolve into a sandy texture in your mouth. That's why I prefer it to cornstarch - cookies like Melting Moments (not the US style) "melt in the mouth", but to me, it feels as if they turn into a wodge of stodge.

Caster sugar and fine sugar, yes, although the recipe said fine sugar, caster sugar is what we used.

Flours. I checked the NZ flour protein content  - aim for 7.5-10% protein content, preferably on the low end. But if your flour is on the higher side, just use a higher proportion of cornstarch/rice flour. Rice flour - after I posted, I suddenly realized why I only used about 2 oz rice flour. It's because I couldn't get western-style rice flour in Japan, and the local type is very finely milled, so using 4 oz made the dough difficult to amalgamate. 3 or 4 oz of western style rice flour should be fine. Sorry to be misleading.

And baking temps - if your shortbread has a finely mottled or speckled appearance, the oven was too hot. But lots of people prefer it that way, and find the very pale type insipid, so bake it as long as you want!

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20 hours ago, Ess said:

Is 'caster sugar' and 'fine sugar' the same?

 

Edit: Just realized JohnT's uses cake flour, and I would assume helenjp's uses all-purpose. Wonder if it will make that much of a difference? Canadian all-purpose is a lot higher in protein... More things to consider!

 

@Ess as far as I am aware, caster sugar and fine sugar are the same.

 

Also, there is no such thing as all-purpose flour in South Africa. Our "cake flour" is as close as you will come to AP flour and the protein is most probably around the same as you would get in Canada, around 10.2%. This is most likely why the recipe has slightly more corn flour than the one quoted by helenjp.

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9 hours ago, JohnT said:

@Ess as far as I am aware, caster sugar and fine sugar are the same.

 

Also, there is no such thing as all-purpose flour in South Africa. Our "cake flour" is as close as you will come to AP flour and the protein is most probably around the same as you would get in Canada, around 10.2%. This is most likely why the recipe has slightly more corn flour than the one quoted by helenjp.

Canadian AP flour runs in the 12% range, give or take. 

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"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

 

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So I messed up both recipes and need to do it again, but just thought I'd report the fact that I did try...:/

I know, I know, how do you mess up shortbread?! There's only 4 ingredients...

Well, I'm pretty sure my scale is off.  I have always been kind of aware of this and try my best to adjust, but it didn't work out this time... It's really bad with receiving weights of very light items (e.g. cornstarch) or in very slow increments...

There was way too much flour and/or cornstarch in the final product.

I did kind of have my doubts when I was making the dough (so I did add some more butter) - it wasn't really coming together and it was really crumbly like streusel. But I just pressed it into the pan. It did cut fine and when it came out the cookies did not fall apart. But I don't taste butter at all, it feels like I'm just eating flour...

Sigh.

FWIW, I did like the rice flour one better. Don't know if this counts though, because I messed up the recipes.

 

My plan was to take pictures of the crumb of the two different cookies but they look exactly the same.

 

Both seemed to use ~10% protein flour. Since I only had superfine cake flour and AP I mixed the two, like they do for that famous cake flour-bread flour chocolate chip cookie recipe (which a lot of people claim is best) as I read a comment saying that cake flour and bread flour mixed together is basically AP (based on protein content) so certain people just used AP, but others commented that there is a texture difference with the two different flours mixed together which makes the cookie better... Not sure about that. On a side note, would anyone happen to know about this?

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Thank you so much @helenjp for your detailed information! Really helpful and I enjoyed reading it.

...I'm sorry I still managed to mess up and do not have proper results :hmmm:

 

I really do hope that when I get around to trying a proper batch that someone else will eventually try some as well so we can have various opinions and see which recipe has the most votes...

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7 hours ago, RobertM said:

So, what formula/ratio,would you use for a base in a bar (like Twix), a shortbread base, a layer of caramel and enrober in chocolate.

A layer of cocoa butter would be required to prevent fat migration....

I wondered this too. I've never heard of the cocoa butter requirement. 

 

 

 

Is it possible to get that floury taste I described with my failed cookies due to them being underbaked? 

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Yes, if you bake at a low temperature, you have to wait patiently until they are really baked, as they can firm up without the flour actually cooking if you are unlucky.

I actually baked some shortbread for the first time in years, in my toaster oven, which has no thermostat. I used Japanese light brown sugar, ground almonds instead of the cornstarch/rice, and the toaster oven was a bit hot when I put them in, but they were definitely shortbread, and they lasted about as long as shortbread usually lasts. For the past few years it has become difficult to buy butter in Japan, but thanks to Valentine's Day, and no big baking demand again until Fall, this is a good time to find butter in the stores!

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I am pretty sure my shortbread was underbaked. I just remembered I had a friend long ago who gave out shortbread cookies in the holiday season and always talked about how she was very particular about baking them and she just bakes it enough to be bakes and doesn't like it baked any more. And you did mention the mottling if baked longer (though some people prefer it like that). I tried to go for the paler like you described as it matched what I remember from my friend's shortbread long ago (though I must say it wasn't particularly outstanding), but I guess it still needed a lot more. The edges were ever so lightly beginning to brown.

 

They all got eaten though.

 

I think the rice flour shortbread I had before (the one I mentioned in my first post) just had a crazy amount. Because I really like the texture of the rice flour in this particular one.

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The almonds sound like a great variation! Glad to hear you still get to enjoy some baking... I thought it was tragic when you said your oven was currently broken. So strange how what we consider a staple here is so hard to find on the other side of the world!

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Still hemming and hawing about new oven - eventually I will cave and get one, I am sure.

I tried baking paler shortbread years ago, and think it REALLY takes so much longer than you would expect. If you are baking at say 150 deg C or 300-325 deg F, be prepared for it to take 45 minutes instead of 15. When it's really nice and crisp all the way through, it's done, and shouldn't taste of raw flour any more. I think that twice-baked technique works particularly well with pale shortbread, especially if it is thicker than 1/4". Good luck!

I knew I had started mine too high because the top was browning, yet the bottom had melted a little (that is, there was no longer a nice crumb structure). Even so, pulling it apart and rebaking it at a lower temperature helped a lot.

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10 hours ago, helenjp said:

I tried baking paler shortbread years ago, and think it REALLY takes so much longer than you would expect. If you are baking at say 150 deg C or 300-325 deg F, be prepared for it to take 45 minutes instead of 15.

Okay, it was underbaked for sure! I was thinking of how other cookies usually take ~15 minutes, so as soon as it firmed up a bit, I took them out! I set the timer for 15 minutes and kept adding a few minutes so I'm not sure the exact time (plus opening and closing probably took away a lot of the heat) because I always seem to overbake other cookies by adding "just a few more minutes" so it made me paranoid... I definitely need to try again.

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On 2/21/2017 at 8:10 PM, Ess said:

I read a comment saying that cake flour and bread flour mixed together is basically AP (based on protein content) so certain people just used AP, but others commented that there is a texture difference with the two different flours mixed together which makes the cookie better... Not sure about that. On a side note, would anyone happen to know about this?

 

Cake flour, at least in the US, is typically treated with chlorine gas, which does something to the starch that makes the starch more absorbent, so it can absorb more water and sugar, and slows the starch gelatinization which gives better risen cakes.  So a mixture of the two isn't just AP flour, even if the protein content is close.

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44 minutes ago, dscheidt said:

 

Cake flour, at least in the US, is typically treated with chlorine gas, which does something to the starch that makes the starch more absorbent, so it can absorb more water and sugar, and slows the starch gelatinization which gives better risen cakes.  So a mixture of the two isn't just AP flour, even if the protein content is close.

 

Wow! We love our poisonous food processing here, don't we? :wacko:

 

How did you find this out, dscheidt, because, sadly and unsurprisingly, it's not disclosed on ingredient lists? You seem to have an inside track, and I would love to know your thoughts on this matter.

 

I wonder if our beloved and light White Lily biscuit flour here in the American South is also subjected to this chlorine treatment. I understand chlorine is a water soluble gas and should evaporate, but still? Flour still retains a bit of moisture and perhaps the poisonous dissolved gas as well. Yeah, I'm aware I have no choice but to drink chlorinated recycled sewer water alternated with ammonia periodically from my city water system.

 

I don't understand why "politicians treat me like a mushroom, 'cause they feed me bull and keep me in the blind." As performed by Travis Tritt from his "Lord Have Mercy on the Workin' Man" from his 1992 album T-R-O-U-B-L-E. The song is written by Kostas Lazarides, who interestingly is of the unlikely Greek nationality to be writing country songs. xD I actually rarely listen to country music, having a low tolerance, but this is one of my favorite songs of all time.

 

What is so terrible about your average consumer Jane and Joe having information about how their food is handled, processed, where it's from and what the bleep is in it? There is so much money and effort spent against this simple freedom of information about food that it is scaring me quite a bit. How far are we from "Soylent Green" when we start sliding down this slippery slope?

> ^ . . ^ <

 

 

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6 hours ago, Thanks for the Crepes said:

 

Wow! We love our poisonous food processing here, don't we? :wacko:

 

How did you find this out, dscheidt, because, sadly and unsurprisingly, it's not disclosed on ingredient lists? You seem to have an inside track, and I would love to know your thoughts on this matter.

 

I can't answer for others, but it's covered at length in McGee. The relatively harsh bleaching process makes the flour granules more porous, and therefore lighter and more absorbent as well as whiter. In the case of White Lily, my understanding is that they simply mill low-protein wheats for their flour. 

 

Chlorine bleaching isn't something I personally get exercised about, because chlorine is routinely added to most municipal water systems anyway as an antibacterial agent. If it causes me a health problem, it will certainly be from drinking water as opposed to eating cake flour. :)

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"Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition...The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” - psychologist David Dunning

 

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15 hours ago, Thanks for the Crepes said:

How did you find this out, dscheidt, because, sadly and unsurprisingly, it's not disclosed on ingredient lists? You seem to have an inside track, and I would love to know your thoughts on this matter.

 

Chlorine is one of the agents used to bleach wheat flour.  Some relevant info at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flour#Bleached_flour

When/where I grew up in the US, bleached AP was the norm and unbleached flour was something of a specialty item, as I recall.  Now many brands market both bleached and unbleached products.  Rose Levy Beranbaum convinced me that they have different performance characteristics.  

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9 minutes ago, Fernwood said:

 

Chlorine is one of the agents used to bleach wheat flour.  Some relevant info at Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flour#Bleached_flour

When/where I grew up in the US, bleached AP was the norm and unbleached flour was something of a specialty item, as I recall.  Now many brands market both bleached and unbleached products.  Rose Levy Beranbaum convinced me that they have different performance characteristics.  

 

How do they differ?  

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1 hour ago, ElsieD said:

 

How do they differ?  

 

Here's a rather detailed treatment (about cakes) from Rose's website: http://www.realbakingwithrose.com/2010/03/the_power_of_flour_part_one_of.html#.WLClpBiZP6A

She generally takes a very empirical approach to questions like this (her master's dissertation was about the effect of sifting on yellow cake), though the explanations could sometimes be clearer.  Several statements from the conclusions:

"4. bleached flour results in the best flavor.
5. bleached flour results in the best volume.
6. bleached flour results in the most tender and velvety texture.
.....................................................................................................................
7. unbleached flour results in less volume.
8. unbleached flour results in a coarser, chewier texture.
9. unbleached flour results in a cornbread-like flavor."

 

And from her book The Pie and Pastry Bible: "Although the bleached and unbleached all-purpose flour from the same national brand have essentially the same protein content, the flours will not behave in an identical manner.  Bleaching destroys the extensibility, or stretching quality, of the flour, so using bleached flour would result in a strudel dough full of holes.  Bleaching also diminishes the strength of the gluten formed, so using an unbleached flour for a pie crust would make a tougher crust."  

 

All of that being said, I use King Arthur unbleached AP flour for all my routine baking without much thought.  I do make pie crusts per a RLB recipe with a mix of bleached AP flour + cake flour (I make them in batches and freeze) and I will break out the (bleached) cake flour for cake recipes, when Rose tells me to, because I find that following her recipes faithfully yields predictable results..  

Edited by Fernwood
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KAF used to make a bleached cake flour that was this side of heaven. A few years ago they decided not to bleach anything any more. I still mourn the loss if that cake flour. It made cakes ethereal. The cakes are still light and nice, but they've lost that lovin' feeling, it's gone, gone, gone. I don't understand why you'd use cake flour in shortbread. I don't think it would mimic the texture that rice flour or corn flour adds.

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@Fernwood. That's interesting.  I use unbleached AP flour for most things, but if a recipe calls for cake and pastry flour I use that.  Similarly, I only use bread flour for bread.  But, I have made pathetic attempts to make pastry and unbleached flour might be the problem there.

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  • 2 years later...

My first post! I would like to contribute to this already amazing topic.

NYT's Melissa Clark's 'Fudgy' Shortbread

From Original Article:
150g sugar
225g unsalted butter
250g flour + 3/4tsp fine salt

My own 'metric' version:
1.8dl (167g) caster/superfine sugar
250g (3dl) salted butter
5dl (278g) flour

Below is how I make these, based on personal preference and a bit of research. Read linked article to see how Melissa makes them.

With hand mixer, work sugar and room temperature butter until fluffy. Pour in all the flour, and 'fold' it in until just absorbed, then stop. I actually find a chop stick perfect for this. Spread in a small* pan. Bake in center of oven 30-60min @ 135°C / 280°F. Let cool just a little, and cut into 'fingers'. I like to make the fingers small, due to how satiating this version is.

*: I bake a double size portion in this square 9" tin. Result is somewhat substantial thickness around ~1".

-Please note that the dough will look like there is too much butter, especially while in the oven. But they will still turn out amazing. They are everyone's new favorite, since I started making them a year ago.

-Please also note that low flour content means non-suitable for making 'rounds' - use for fingers and petticoat tails only.

-Baking time will vary quite a bit with layer thickness. Then there is personal preference. I like them best when the color is just starting to change near the outer edge, so after 30 min I start checking every 5 min.

-In my opinion, these are a rare case of pastry that does not taste optimally hot from the oven. I actually prefer them served cold from the fridge the next day, making the taste rounder, less buttery and less salty.

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