Tuesday, June 29, 2010
A coy little shortbread recipe has been beckoning to me for a while now, and I finally surrendered to its siren song. It's not just another run o' the mill shortbread, though. How does it differ? Well, it's characterized by a few ingredients that, while common, are each distinctive in their own right. Place them in combination and beautiful things start to happen. I'm talking about elements like exceptionally rich butter, the seeds of a fragrant vanilla bean, enough golden cornmeal to add an intriguing crunch, and the tastiest dried cherries in the world.
When I gave in to the desire to make this shortbread, my first thought was to pair it with something cool and creamy--maybe homemade ice cream, panna cotta, or pudding. But occasionally, while in the midst of baking, it becomes crystal clear that a finished creation can, and perhaps even should, be allowed to stand on its own. This is one such recipe.
Good classic shortbread excels in showcasing a few basic components--butter, sugar, flour. But, used judiciously, additional items carefully chosen can raise a shortbread's profile in the finest way, and that's what we have here, most notably with the cherries. Now, though, let's talk specifically about the butter for a moment. Have you ever used premium butter in shortbread? The kind of butter that's a couple of percentage points higher in fat than regular butter? It's substantially more expensive than its lesser companions, but the difference it makes in a cookie like this is immediately apparent. In part because it contains less moisture than typical butters, it has not only a positive flavor impact but it also affects texture in certain baked goods, too. Fellow bakers, from the flavor standpoint alone shortbread is made for this stuff. Made for it. If you never use this kind of butter for anything else, at least try it once in shortbread.
I used Plugra, a domestically-made "European style" butter that, though obscenely expensive (in my neck of the woods it's over seven dollars a pound), is extravagantly buttery. Peel back the gold paper wrapping on a brick of this stuff and you'll see just what I mean. It feels especially slippery, and it smells . . . well . . . sort of clean and unadulterated. If butter can be lustrous, this is lustrous indeed. It's probably what the best homemade butter tasted like two hundred years ago, back when cows munched freely on untainted grass, and napped peacefully beneath big shady oak trees. So, if you've never tried any of the fancy high-fat butters on the market (and there are several brands to be found these days), you might want to consider saving your pennies and, just once, giving it a go.
About this recipe . . .
The sum and substance of this recipe is from pastry chef Karen DeMasco's gorgeous book, The Craft of Baking. The adaptations I made to it included doubling the recipe; adding in chopped, dried, Michigan cherries (of course from Michigan, where else?); pressing the dough thickly into two tart pans instead of chilling it, rolling it out, and cutting it with a cookie cutter; and, also, I didn't follow DeMasco's advice to stick the hull of the split vanilla bean in with the dough as it mixed (for some reason that concept didn't appeal to me at the time I was making this, though I have nothing against it in principle). And I reworded the instructions somewhat, as usual.
To gild the lily . . . or not . . .
I did follow DeMasco's suggestion to sprinkle the shortbread with demarara sugar (natural brown sugar produced from the "first crystallization" of sugar cane) prior to baking, but in the future I think I might do without a sugar topping altogether, or use coarse white sugar instead. I say this because the addition of the brown sugar flavor was truly unnecessary to this particular cookie.
Though I love the moist heaviness and unadulterated flavor of demarara crystals in general, the sugar was superfluous here. It was gilding the lily. And, as I said before, this shortbread cookie stands perfectly well on its own. So there.
Cornmeal Shortbread Cookies with Sweet Dried Cherries
(For a printable version of this recipe, click here!)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Have ready two ungreased tart pans with removable bottoms, each approximately 9 inches in size.
1 and 3/4 cup All Purpose flour, unbleached
1 cup yellow cornmeal, coarsely or finely ground, as you prefer
1 tsp. kosher salt (I think this makes a difference in this recipe, so do use kosher if you have it.)
1 cup plus 3 Tbsp. of unsalted butter (I used Plugra, a high quality, higher-fat butter; I recommend you try this or something similar, though I have no doubt this shortbread is good even with regular unsalted butter.)
1 cup confectioners' sugar, not sifted
1/2 cup of chopped sweet dried cherries
Seeds scraped from 1/2 of a whole vanilla bean
4 Tbsp. demarara, or coarse white, sugar, if you like (I used the demarara, but as noted in the post, I think next time I'd prefer coarse white sugar instead.)
In a medium size bowl, whisk together the flour, cornmeal, and kosher salt.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, using the paddle, combine the butter, sugar, and vanilla seeds for just a minute or so on low speed.
While the mixer is still on low, add in the flour mixture in two additions, then toss in the chopped cherries. Again mix just until the ingredients are combined. Don't over-mix or let the dough get too warm. (If the dough does seem warm and extremely soft, put it in the fridge for a few minutes to chill.)
Divide the dough in half and, with your hands, press the dough smoothly and evenly into the tart pans. Using the tines of a dinner fork, divide the dough into slender wedges, like a pie, pressing the tines down to the bottom of the pan.
Set the tart pans on top of a flat baking sheet, and place the sheet on the middle rack of your preheated 350 oven. Check the shortbread after 15 to 20 minutes; if it appears to be browning too quickly, cover it lightly with foil. Bake until the top is lightly golden, however long that takes, perhaps 10 more minutes.
Let each shortbread cool in its pan for about five minutes, then remove it from the pan and put it on a cutting surface. With a thin sharp knife, slice it while still warm. If you wait until it's cool, it could crack apart when you attempt to slice it.
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