When prepared properly, shortbread is the perfect comforting old-fashioned treat. The best shortbread is tender and just firm enough so that it doesn’t fall apart when you take a bite. It should have a delightful buttery flavor, enhanced by a bit of salt, and just sweet enough to satisfy a sugary craving. This is a simple confection, but because it contains so few ingredients, they all must be of high quality and combined properly. Like many baked goods, the environment will effect how dry or moist the dough becomes in the mixer. Traditional shortbread calls for no other moisture than that found in the butter. If, however, the dough seems too crumbly, add a bit of milk or water to it until it begins to come together in the bowl.
Even though shortbread’s ingredients are simple and few, sometimes it is worthwhile to adjust them a bit in an attempt to produce an even finer product. Part of the flour, for instance, can be replaced by another starch, such as rice or cornstarch (corn flour), both of which give shortbread a finer, more tender quality. The type of sugar used can vary, too. As in this recipe, typical granulated sugar is replaced with confectioners’ sugar, which makes for a finer, more delicate cookie, as well.
Bake the cookies plain, or brush them with a little egg white and sprinkle with coarse sugar. Either way, they will be a delicious addition to your cookie repertoire.
Makes about twenty-four 2 1/2-inch cookies
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon salt
About 1 large egg white (optional)
Coarse colored sugar for decorating (optional)
Combine the butter and sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium speed until smooth.
Whisk together the flour, cornstarch, and salt in a medium bowl. Reduce the mixing speed to low and gradually add the flour mixture to the butter, mixing just until the dough begins to form crumbly clumps. If the dough appears too dry, add some water or milk, about 1 teaspoon at a time, until the dough is just moist enough to hold together. Transfer the dough to sheet of plastic wrap, shape into a disc, and set in the refrigerator to chill for about 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper.
If the dough is too firm to roll, allow it to sit out at room temperature for a few minutes until it’s pliable enough to work. Roll the dough on a lightly floured work surface to about 1/4 inch thick and cut into desired shapes. Arrange on the baking sheets and set in the freezer or refrigerator to chill until firm, about 15 minutes.
If desired, brush the edges of the chilled cookies with egg white and dip in colored sugar. Arrange again on the baking sheets and bake until very light golden brown and firm, about 15 minutes. Set on wire racks to cool on the pans for about 3 minutes before transferring to the racks to cool completely.