September 24, 2013

Indian Summer Part 1: Petticoat Tails

I really should wait to share these petticoat tails until I finish my Indian summer post, but I just couldn't help myself. I just had to sneak in these crumbly shortbread wedges a wee bit early!

In the past the closest I had come to shortbread was those tinned butter cookies gifted around the holidays. Since we don't have any Scottish blood in our family, I suppose it's no surprise that I'm not familiar with shortbread. I decided to give it a go, however, because I wanted something subtle and slightly sweet to pair with other sweet things (fresh fruit, airy mousses, etc.). And shortbread turned out to be just what I I needed.

Petticoat tails are what you call shortbread when it's rolled out and cut into wedges. The shortbread can be pressed with the tines of a fork to mimick the ruffled hem of a lady's petticoats, but I love how the edges ruffle on their own. It's fun to think about women of yore, perhaps back to the time of Mary, Queen of Scotts, approaching simple kitchen science artistically. I think most cooks, whether consciously or subconsciouly, reflect and express their own millieus through the kitchen. I know that's certainly been the case for me!

Shortbread recipes are based on a 1:2:3 ratio--one part sugar to two parts fat (usually butter) to three parts flour. As I researched different shortbread recipes, I decided to borrow Cooking Light's inclusion of canola oil. It's a nice way to incorporate good-for-you plant-based fats, and the recipe developers claim that it additionally yields a more delicate cookie. 

That wonderful crumbly texture is a must for shortbread. In fact the word short was used centuries ago to describe something "easily crumbled", hence short (crumbly) bread. Turns out we still have a few words connected to that crumby meaning, like shortening and shortcake. What differentiates shortbread from shortcake is the lack of a leavening agent. No baking powder or baking soda here! 

I wanted something thinner than the typical shortbread, so I rolled my dough to about 1/4" thickness. You may have to increase your baking time if you decide to go thicker. No matter the shape and thickness, though, parchment is a must. You don't want dark, crispy shortbread, so err on the side of underbaking when in doubt. Even if it looks too light when you first take it out, remember that cookies typically darken as they cool to room temperature. 

I'd also recommend using a light metal pan. If you're stuck with pans darkened from decades of use, you may want to drop your oven to 325°, keeping a close eye on it as it bakes. Darkened pans tend to leave cookie bottoms overly dark and crisp, almost burnt. 

This recipe is quite simple in execution and uses ingredients you probably already have on hand. Both the wedges and the crumbs are a great accompaniment for other desserts, but you may just nibble on more than you expect as is! No need to trim edges from the rolled out dough--the edge variation means that each shortbread wedge will be unique.

Petticoat Tails

   2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
   1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup canola oil
1/2 cup sugar
   2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350°.

Combine flour, cornstarch, and salt in a large bowl.

Beat butter at medium speed for 2 minutes or until light and fluffy. Add oil; beat 3 more minutes or until well blended. Gradually add sugar, beating well; incorporate vanilla. Reduce mixer to low speed and gradually add flour mixture, beating just until blended. Cover dough with plastic wrap and transfer mixing bowl to refrigerator. Refrigerate 15 to 30 minutes.

Remove bowl from refrigerator and let stand at room temperature for 5 minutes. Transfer dough to a long piece of plastic wrap. Cover with a second long piece of plastic wrap, and press down lightly to form dough into a thick disk. Roll dough between sheets of plastic wrap into a 10" circle about 1/4" thick.

Gently peel back top layer of plastic wrap and quickly flop dough onto a large sheet of parchment paper. Remove remaining piece of plastic wrap, and transfer shortbread circle to a 12" pizza plate. Bake at 350° for 10 minutes or until edges are lightly browned. Remove from oven and carefully transfer shortbread from the pizza plate to a cooking rack or countertop, holding the parchment paper tightly to keep the shortbread from cracking. Once cool enough to handle (less than 5 minutes), gently score the shortbread into 16 wedges using a long sharp knife; cool completely.

References and inspiration for my Petticoat Tails

Shortbread article from Wikipedia
Cooking Light's Vanilla Bean Shortbread recipe (2009)
Entry for shortening at the Online Etymology Dictionary
The Secret To Perfectly Browned Cookies by King Arthur Flour blogger PJ Hamel (2013 July 10)

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