One of the first things I was asked to cook at the pub was shortbread biscuits. It’s a very basic recipe – there are only three ingredients, so it should be simple enough to make. Apparently it has hidden depths though. Or maybe I’m just good at complicating things. Even after making it countless times, I still feel there are problems to be solved.
My first attempt was a failure. I was given a handwritten recipe and just told to ‘ignore the cornflour’. I failed to substitute anything for the cornflour and the results were crap. At this point, someone did give me what they said was a better recipe, and looking at it now, it’s very similar to the formula I’ve ended up with. I wasn’t happy with it at the time though. Partly what bothered me was that the quantities seemed a bit random (it started with 540g flour). I also couldn’t tell why it was better – and the person who gave it to me couldn’t tell me either. Finally, when I actually tried it, the biscuits were softer than I’d have liked them to be.
So I spent a while fiddling with the proportions at home. The first thing I tried was increasing the sugar. A higher sugar content seemed to provide better crunch, but in the end they just got too sweet – the better texture wasn’t worth the trade-off in taste.
I tried lowering the oven temperature to 140C, thinking that maybe the higher temperature was causing them to brown on the outside before they were cooked properly in the middle. Then I noticed a problem with spreading. I was cutting little star shapes, and the sharp edges were sagging. Initially I thought this was because the dough was too moist, so I reduced the amount of butter, but then I began having difficulty bringing the dough together when mixing the ingredients. I started adding a splash of water. Looking back now, I can see where I was creating problems for myself.
The biscuits were still spreading in the oven, in spite of the reduced butter content. I read something that suggested that if the temperature was too low, the biscuits wouldn’t firm up on the outside before the butter started melting and causing them to spread. This makes sense. (I remember reading something similar when I was making croissants.) I whacked the heat up to 180C but they came up with twice the degree of spread as before(!) I’m not entirely sure what happened there.
I reduced the heat to 160C and came up with the most perfect, sharp-edged stars. Unfortunately I didn’t actually eat one until a couple of days later, when I realised they were horribly tough and dry – virtually inedible in fact.
I could only think this was down to the water I’d added. I’m not sure why – it had always seemed like a rogue ingredient. I’ve never seen any other shortbread recipes which use water. So I stopped using the water and instead tried creaming the softened butter and sugar together with an electric mixer, before adding the flour by hand. This produced a much more moist dough and successful biscuits.
The major remaining problem, to my mind, is how to get pristine biscuits when handling such soft dough. Rolling it out evenly is difficult, and transferring the cut shapes to the baking tray is also a bit of a trial, no matter how many appropriately-shaped spatulas I employ. Last time I made them, I tried using an extra thick layer of flour beneath the dough, but then of course when the scraps are gathered up and re-rolled, a lot of extra flour is incorporated. I might try rolling it out on greaseproof paper. I wonder if it would work to oil the work surface, like you do when making bread.
With regard to getting an even thickness, some people suggest rolling out the dough between two strips of wood, or dowelling.
Anyway, the recipe! Before I start, I should say that I’ve found it helpful to think in terms of bakers’ percentages (as set out in the book How Baking Works by Paula Figoni), where each ingredient is expressed as a percentage of the amount of flour. So, for example, my recipe uses 40% sugar. If the amount of flour used was 500g (which is what I use at the pub – it makes three large trays of biscuits), you would use 200g of sugar.
Plain flour (100%), 70% butter (softened), and 40% sugar.
Preheat the oven to 160 degrees C (fan oven). Cream the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer, then rub in the flour by hand, and bring it together into a soft dough. Roll it out on a floured surface to a thickness of approximately 6-7mm and cut out the biscuits with a metal cutter, placing them on lined baking tray. Gather up the remaining dough and re-roll. Prong the biscuits with a fork (not sure how important this step is!) and sprinkle with a little sugar if desired. Refrigerate for 20 minutes, then bake for 15-20 minutes. They’re done when they start turning ‘golden brown’ at the edges. Leave them to cool and firm up properly before eating.
Edited to add… That thing about rolling the dough out between two strips of wood or dowel, to get biscuits of even thickness? It works really well, and anything will do really, providing its the right thickness (and you have two of them). I used two plastic lids from the storage tubs at work.