Last week I was asked to make a big batch of shortbread.
A simple task, you would imagine, and not one I would normally balk at. Except that the audience for my biscuits were members of my wife's extended family, who are Northern Irish and shortbread is in their DNA. They could give Scottish grannies a good run for their money, believe me!
They have recipes from their mothers, and their mothers mothers’, so for a Geordie upstart- and a bloke at that - to infiltrate the flour, butter and sugared halls of traditional Northern Irish baking was a daunting task indeed.
But always up for a challenge and feeling as pressurised as Donald Trumps barber, I embarked on what felt like an impossible mission.
Not being from a shortbread making family myself, I had no secret hand-me-down recipe to work from. But I knew what I wanted - a buttery, crumbly biscuit that melts in the mouth but still has that little bit of snap when you break it.
For such a simple biscuit with only three or four ingredients, there are so many varying recipes with added ingredients like rice flour, semolina and cornflour, which all give different texture and taste to the finished result.
The one constant is good quality butter, the best you can get, as this is the overriding taste you want from your shortbread. I don't care what someone’s Great Auntie Gertrude says, there is no margarine here!
After trying a few recipes I settled on this version from Scottish cook and food writer Sue Lawrence, that gave me the balance I was after.
The recipe uses cornflour along with plain flour, butter and sugar, which produces a lovely combination of short, buttery biscuit that doesn't fall to pieces when you bite into it but still melts in the mouth.
I thought it was good enough (it had to be) for its debut at the family gathering, but I still took the precaution of hiding in a dark corner in case it was booed off stage.
Fortunately, I can tell you that an encore was requested and I am still a member of the family, thank goodness.
I’m now going to ring Donald’s barber and tell him he’s got it easy! Pressure - hah!
225g salted butter, softened
100g golden caster sugar
225g plain flour
METHOD I use a food mixer to mix the ingredients (my hot hands are a baker’s curse), and I don’t want to melt the butter.
Put the softened butter and golden caster sugar in the mixer bowl and cream together with the paddle attachment until light and fluffy, about 4-5 minutes. You can do this with a wooden spoon for about 10 minutes if you have the strength.
Sift the flour and cornflour together and add to the butter and sugar. Blend everything together very slowly with the paddle until just combined. My mixer has a folding action on it which is ideal for this. The important thing is not to over process.
Tip the soft dough onto a lightly floured surface and bring together gently to a smooth dough. You can either pat the dough down to your desired thickness or (as I do) lightly roll with a rolling pin to about 10-12mm thickness.
Press out 6cm circles of dough (you can make them any size you want) and carefully place on a baking tray covered with parchment. Prick each biscuit with a fork if you want to make a pattern, then put uncovered in the fridge for about half an hour to firm up.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 150°C/140°C fan.
Put the chilled biscuits into the oven and bake for 35 minutes (depending on your oven) until a very pale golden colour. As soon as they are starting to colour at the edges take them out.
Dredge some sugar over while they are warm, then leave to cool on a rack.
Enjoy with a cup of tea or even piled with whipped cream and a handful of berries for a quick dessert.