Confessions of a Shortbread Snob
When it comes to shortbread I’ve always been a purist. Classic shortbread contains only butter, flour, sugar and salt, and when properly prepared in the appropriate proportions is the ultimate perfect butter cookie. With no additional ingredients or other embellishments, like chocolate or nuts, to detract from the wonderful texture and buttery flavor of this simple cookie, shortbread is nothing more and nothing less than pure sweet butter encased in perfectly textured crumbs.
With such prejudices firmly entrenched in my palate, I would snort in derision whenever I would come across a recipe for some sort of glorified version of shortbread, pass it by, and continue to make my perfect classic shortbread cookies each holiday season. In short, I was a shortbread snob.
Then suddenly there I was, once again presented with my thrice-annual challenge to make birthday cakes or cookies for vegetarians
who did not consume eggs. Over the years I had gotten pretty good at it, but I don’t like to repeat the same treats so I’m always looking for something new. Shortbread is a good choice, as it is eggless, but I had already made my classic shortbread for this crowd. I was running out of ideas.
I came across a recipe for Italian Shortbread with Almonds and Jam. The word “Italian” in the recipe’s name drew my attention, as I am part Italian and somewhat of an Italophile. On reading the details of the recipe I saw nothing particularly Italian about it, but it sounded very appealing and appeared easy to make. I decided, just this one time, to violate my shortbread standards and give this recipe a try.
Unlike my classic recipe where the dough is carefully mixed by hand (literally with hands), this recipe uses a standing mixer, so it came together quickly. As it baked, the kitchen was filled with the wonderful aromas of butter and toasted almonds.
The first bite revealed the same wonderful crumbly melt-in-the-mouth texture and rich buttery taste as my classic shortbread. The flavor combination of apricot and butter was very special and reminded me of the buttery peach yeast kuchen my German grandfather used to make. The crispy toasted almonds on top added another layer of crunchy texture and nutty flavor.
Thanks to this excellent variation on shortbread, I am now a repented shortbread snob.Italian Shortbread with Almonds and Jam
Adapted from From Mediterranean Flavors, California Style
by Cindy Mushet
Yield – 6 – 8 servings
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon pure almond extract
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup apricot jam or other not-too-sweet jam
1/3 cup sliced almonds
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and set the rack in the middle of the oven. Have ready a 9-inch ungreased springform pan or a 9 inch pie pan or cake pan.
Beat the butter and sugar on medium speed in a standing mixer for 3 to 4 minutes until very light, scraping down the sides of the bowl and the paddle from time to time. Add the almond extract and beat on medium speed for 30 more seconds to blend.
In a small bowl whisk the flour and salt together. Add to the butter mixture and beat on low speed to combine, just until the dough is thoroughly blended, 30 to 40 seconds. The dough will be stiff. Remove ½ cup of dough and set it on a small plate in a thin layer; place it in the freezer.
Press the remaining dough into the pan evenly – it can be a little higher at the edges, but the center shouldn’t be elevated. Spread the jam evenly over the dough to within an inch of the edge. Retrieve the remaining dough from the freezer and crumble it over the jam. Sprinkle the almonds evenly over the top.
Bake the shortbread for 40 to 50 minutes, or until golden brown. Remove from the oven and let cool completely on a rack. If a springform pan was used, stand the pan on a heavy can to remove the sides (the rim will just fall away). If a cake or pie pan was used, cover it with a flat plate, turn it over to release the shortbread on to the plate, and repeat using a small cutting board so shortbread is face up.
Cut the shortbread into serving sized triangles.