Shortbread is typically thought of as having a short season--it makes its appearance at Christmas time, right? It blends in with all the other buttery holiday treats, a perennial favorite occupying its customary place on the cookie platter. I'd wager that most people who make it at all only make it at Christmas. But that's too bad because shortbread is not only delicious, it's incredibly easy and quick to make, and it comes in more than just one flavor and variety. It really works pretty well as an accompaniment to a little dish of ice cream or sorbet, and it's also nice alongside fresh fruit. And, let's not forget how perfectly it compliments a simple cup of coffee or tea. Sometimes it's just the ticket. Another aspect of shortbread one can appreciate is its general neatness. Its dough isn't gloppy or sloppy. It doesn't require scoops or cutters. In fact, I like making it in tart pans best. You get that cute scalloped edge, you can make very small batches if you prefer, and it's easy to divide the portions even before the dough has been baked. It's practically burn-proof because it bakes on such a low temperature (300 degrees). Almost impossible to screw up!
I love the usual white shortbread, but my affection doesn't stop there. Have you ever tried brown sugar shortbread? Some recipes refer to it as butterscotch, but by either name that rich caramel taste is mellow and delectable. I suppose because of the added moisture inherent in brown sugar, the cookies come out less crunchy than you might expect. In fact, the batch I made yesterday has a nice, tender, chewy aspect and the flavor obviously deepened overnight. Yum.
The recipe below yields three 9" tart pans worth of shortbread; you can always freeze any cookies you don't want lying around to tempt you. That's yet another good thing about shortbread--it stores like a champ. Go ahead, give it a whirl!
BROWN SUGAR SHORTBREAD
Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Have ready three 9" tart pans (or you can use cake pans--this dough won't stick to them, so no need to grease, etc.)
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup vegetable shortening
1/2 granulated sugar
1 cup packed light brown sugar (or dark, if you're really into brown sugar)
4 1/2 cups AP flour, bleached
1 tsp. salt
In a large mixer bowl, beat the butter, shortening, and both sugars thoroughly (a couple of minutes).
In a small separate bowl, combine the flour and salt, then stir it into the butter and sugar mixture. Combine completely but use care not to overwork the dough (it will make the cookies rather tough if you do).
Divide the dough into three portions. Without compacting the dough too much, gently press each portion into one of your tart pans, urging dough into the scalloped sides so you'll have a nice clean edge.
With a thin sharp knife, carefully divide the dough into portions. Try not to make the cookies too large, as they are pretty rich. Using a fork, carefully pierce the dough here and there, down to the bottom of the pan; this helps the dough retain its nice shape by preventing it from puffing too much in the oven. Sprinkle a little granulated sugar evenly over the top, perhaps just a teaspoon or two for each tart pan.
Put the tart pans on a cookie sheet in the oven to help prevent the bottoms from getting too brown.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until they start to color nicely, but not too much (the longer you bake them the crunchier they'll be). Cool shortbread in the pans for about five minutes, then remove them from the pan to cool completely on a rack.
The cookies may be kind of soft towards the middle until they're cool. Use care not to break them when you finally cut them apart.
(Now I find myself contemplating other shortbread variations. Maybe coconut? Or chocolate sounds good . . . how about almond? Then again there's always lemon . . . what about mocha . . . hmm . . .)
Note as of August '09: When I originally posted this recipe, I accidentally listed the salt quantity needed as "2 tsp. salt" A reader just brought that mistake to my attention. I've since fixed the recipe to read "1 tsp. salt" My sincere apologies to anyone who made this recipe and wound up with inedible shortbread!