Shortbread is made with butter, flour, sugar and salt. It's as plain as plain can be. I like to shape the dough between my palms into a small ball and flatten it with the bottom of a glass, one-quarter to three-eighths of an inch thick. When the ball is flattened the edges break open asterisks-like, with stubby rays. These edges bake nicely in the oven, leaving the center a pale, off-white luminescent disk.
My wife and daughter like their shortbread with cornstarch, a new-fangled ingredient that adds lightness to the dough. My feeling is that corn starch flattens the flavor considerably, making an inferior baked good. We decided to have a Valentine's Day bake-off and decide as a family which shortbread we liked best. Luckily, we're an odd-numbered family.
After extensive negotiations to determine fair rules for a blind tasting, my daughter and I set to work. With softened butter at the ready, the dough takes only minutes to make. We both use our hands a lot, and once all the ingredients are in the mixing bowl we use our fingertips and hands to achieve the proper dough consistency, pressing and squeezing it into a manageable form.
We fortunately allowed decimal points into our voting, because fragments of numbers were all that separated our two entries. Had we used whole numbers only in our judging, a tie would have ensued. We learned that we like our preferred styles – we partisans all picked along party lines, even with our eyes closed! The outcome? When I'm baking, no cornstarch will be used, but when my daughter runs the kitchen, she'll do it her way.
1 cup butter, softened
2 cups flour
½ cup confectioner's sugar
¼ tsp salt
(Optional – ¼ - ½ tsp vanilla. I like vanilla, but even a small amount darkens the color of the dough and moves the flavor from a traditional shortbread into a different baked good.)
Cream butter and slowly add sugar. Add remaining ingredients and mix. Shape into 1" balls and place on cookie sheet. Flatten with bottom of glass. Bake at 350° F for 20 minutes or so. The edges should just be brown – don't overcook. Cool on a rack.
birch and grasses alone on the snow, grey sky indistinguishable. the flat world falls into the edge of time, lifeless, dull wedge of horizon and soundless ...