Wednesday, 15 June 2016

(Updated) Proto-Shortbread Saga

For a long time, shortbread has been a favourite comfort food. Buttery, crumbly and nice when dipped in cold milk or crushed and mixed with ice cream.

I can't remember the exact moment my affair with shortbread began, but two products are prominent: the stuff from Ayamas, and the fine, crumbly buttery cookies that used to be sold at Dream Centre at the Damansara Utama Methodist Church in Petaling Jaya.

From the latter, I once bought two batches that lasted weeks. This type and the Ayamas version was super-melt-in-the-mouth crumbly, which I suspect was due to rice flour or cornflour. They were tasty, so I was sad when the baker didn't make them any more. But I moved on to the store-bought Scottish stuff, though they weren't as appetising.

Then it started getting more expensive and my appetite for rich and creamy stuff started shrinking.

Three basic ingredients, plus a little vanilla extract I usually level-up
my coffee drinks with. How hard was it to put it all together? HARD.

This concoction has a long history in medieval Britain, Scotland in particular. From The Telegraph, a brief history of shortbread: is a biscuit-like affair, usually consisting of a holy trinity of flour, sugar and butter, but the original shortbread may have been a thrifty treat created from [enhancing] left-over bread dough, or cooked bread that was popped back in the oven to crisp up.

...The name possibly reflects the large quantity of butter or “shortening” used, which stops long gluten strands from forming and creates shortbread's distinctive brittle, sandy texture...

Several years ago, I learnt how "easy" shortbread was to make - it only has three basic ingredients: flour, butter and sugar. Mix it all up, bish-bash-bosh, pop i' in th'oven, happy days. The process, however, is more involved than that.

Creaming the butter and sugar by hand is hard work. After all of ten
minutes I was winded and sweating and didn't like the results.

My first attempt at making Scottish shortbread failed because I didn't measure the ingredients, I kneaded the dough too much, and I baked it at a high temperature. The result was a kind of buttery breadstick - solid, floury and unappetising.

(So the Scottish version isn't a firm favourite, but easy to start with for novice bakers with the occasional hankering for an easy-to-make buttery treat.)

Watching a video demo for what looks like roti canai later, I was reminded that kneading dough causes gluten to form, making the dough stretchy like bread, which is not what you want for shortbread or any crumbly pastry.

The second attempt was a little better.

The greasy, sticky mess that went into the oven. The holes I poked
into it closed up, as did the cuts. The results were still soft and
crumbly enough to be cut again.

I got a measuring cup but, as hard as I tried, the dry ingredients won't stay level after much tapping on the counter. Things started going sideways when I tried to measure the butter in the cup, which were in solid rectangular chunks.

Predictably, I guessed the amount to add and - oops - the dough turned out wet after I folded in the sifted flour. Too much butter. Beating the butter and sugar was another challenge. Even after about, like, 10 minutes, the texture was still grainy.

Probably should've cut the butter into smaller cubes to fit the cup.

I took a breather and, afterwards, split the wet dough in half. One portion I wrapped in cling film and refrigerated. To the other, I folded in more flour, bit by bit, until it was less wet.

Tried and failed to get the malted milk shade I liked. Not just
because of the temperature, but also the brown sugar.

Even so, it was a sticky mess I had spread on a baking tray and baked at around 140°C for about 30 minutes. The oven had heating coils at the top and bottom. Once the top acquired the colour I wanted, I switched off the top heat and let it continue baking.

In the end, though, I got golden brown instead of malted milk off-white.

The shortbread turned out greasy - of course - and I could still taste flour. But the crumbly texture seemed right. And it was, more importantly, edible. My older relatives had a taste and the only problem they had with it was the excess butter.

The finished product. Thankfully, not like the buttery breadsticks
I ended up with on my first attempt, which we will not speak of
again, thank you.

Other recipe videos I've looked at had other recommendations and different steps. Some would mix the butter and flour first, into a grainy texture, before adding the sugar (the powdery icing or confectioner's sugar). The butter has to be cold, too, and must not be allowed to melt too much.

Three basic ingredients, lots of hard work.

But I will nail it.

Looks good, but too greasy, compared with the commercially available
types I've had. Didn't have to throw out this batch, though, so
that's something.

Odd, that all the recipes I referred to online didn't say how long the shortbread would keep. No preservatives were used, so I'm guessing it'll be good for, like, up to two weeks from baking time. Was it because they expect it all to vanish on the same day?

20/06/2016   Failing to get good results with a measuring cup, I fell back on scales. Nothing fancy, just an analog scale. I'm not planning on going pro anyway.

I didn't get to look inside the box, so ... pink! But the old blender was
pink too and it served me well.

It's true that you'd only understand and appreciate food when you know how much of what goes into it. I'd planned for 90 grams with the latest batch, but as the pile of sugar got bigger and the needle struggled along the scale, what little planning I did went out the window and tunnelled into the road for sanctuary.

Sixty grams of sugar is a pretty big pile.

I learnt that I didn't have to mix until the sugar completely dissolved. After a few times of doing this I felt right at home - but mixing and folding in the flour by hand still blows, so the dough and the baker took a breather after the former has been shaped, wrapped in cling film and put into the fridge.

Batch #4, out of the oven. The colour's more to my liking because I kept
a closer eye on the product and fiddled often with the temperature.

Most of the references I used don't fold in the flour by machine, and if it's not necessary for the sugar - fine-granuled or powdered - to dissolve completely in the butter, then it's probably best to mix by hand if you're not making big batches.

This round, I kept a much closer watch on the oven temperature and frequently checked on the colour. The dough in the middle still looked underbaked, so back in the oven at 100°C for five more minutes.

I'm pleased with the results, although the latest batch was not as buttery or sweet as Batch #2 - maybe this is how it's supposed to be.

Makan kaki Melody received a few pieces of this batch. "Impressive!" she exclaimed via WhatsApp. "You can sell these."

Looks and tastes fine - and I'm not the only one who thinks so.

Wah. That's rare.

Even though shortbread is an established recipe - anybody can make it - that left me gobsmacked. It took me four tries; at least one person might argue that, had I started out with proper equipment, I'd only need two.

Guess I won't be buying my shortbread from now on. Nor will I be making my own so often. Sixty grams of sugar and 120 grams of butter is a lot to put into a single portion, even if stretched across two weeks or so.


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