Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Simple Pleasure of Shortbread

The holidays are a time when you, like me, probably pull out all the stops in the baked goods and dessert department. These might include an impressive assortment of highly decorated cookies, holiday cakes and homemade truffles and candies. For me, the 

dessert making frenzy generally culminates with the preparation of a special dessert for New Year’s Eve dinner, and then—just like that— I slam on the baking brakes. From here on my dessert endeavors are much more humble. One of my favorite simple treats to make 

in the New Year is shortbread. The dough comes together in minutes, and there’s no need to shape individual cookies—the shortbread is baked as a round and then cut in wedges after baking. I like to use some cornstarch to replace some of the flour, which 

makes for a meltingly tender crumb. A sprinkle of coarse sugar on top is a pretty finish and adds a bit of crunch. And, if you can’t seem to stifle your baking over-achiever instincts, you can always dip the tips of the shortbread wedges in chocolate for flavor and effect.

Vanilla-Scented Shortbread

Makes 24 cookies
Storage: In an airtight container at room temperature for up to a week.
Special Equipment: two 7 1/2-inch round fluted tart pans with removable bottoms or two 9-inch glass pie pans.

1 plump vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 teaspoons coarse sugar, for sprinkling

1. Position a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat to 300°F. Have two 7 1/2-inch fluted tart pans with removable bottoms or two 9-inch glass pie pans at hand.
2. Using a paring knife, scrape the tiny seeds of the vanilla bean into a small bowl and set aside.
3. Place the flour, cornstarch, and salt in the bowl of a food processor and pulse on and off until blended. Add the sugar, vanilla bean seeds, and orange zest and process a few seconds until blended. Scatter the butter cubes over the flour mixture and process in on/off pulses 6 to 7 times. Then process for another 6 seconds. The crumbs should be fine and powdery. Process for another 5 to 7 seconds, until the crumbs are clumpier and the dough holds together easily when pressed. Press the crumbs evenly and firmly into the tart pans (if you use the pie pans, press the dough only into the 7-inch flat bottom of the pans.) Press the back of a fork all around the edge of each pan, and sprinkle the shortbread with the coarse sugar. Bake the shortbread for 40 to 45 minutes, until it is just barely colored a creamy beige (don’t let it brown). Place the pans on a wire rack and let cool for 15 minutes.
4. Remove the rims of the pans (if you are using the tart pans), and cut each round into twelve wedges while it is still very warm.  Transfer the triangles to the wire rack and cool completely.