Christmas in the Dalgleish family is tradition taken to the extreme of ritual. The tree goes up the first Saturday after December first, never sooner, never later. Uncle John always comes around to scope what the kids are eating and try to sneak a bit. The dinner menu never changes: roast turkey with sage-and-onion stuffing, my dad's decadent whipped potatoes, my sister's green-bean casserole, all smothered in gravy. You must wear your paper crown and read your cheesy joke aloud. Dessert is a recipe handed down from my great-grandmother: light as a cloud and lemon-scented snow pudding, swathed in custard. My mother always bakes the same things, and they don't get made any other time of year: lemon squares, caramel-coated pretzels, chocolate truffles, oatmeal lace cookies, and shortbread.
It's shortbread that I remember making the most as a child, along with the sticky chocolate-coated palms that came from rolling truffles and then coating them in sprinkles. I vividly recall creaming square pounds of butter with brown sugar and flour, and then cutting them into myriad shapes to be topped with coloured sugar and baked. They were the first Christmas baking that my mother deemed me a good enough cook to attempt on my own when I was in university and she had to work in the days running up to the holiday. We played around with shortbread more than any other of our traditional Christmas treats: rolled out thin to be cut into shapes and baked until crisp, studded with dried cranberries and almonds to be sliced from logs, folded around chocolate kisses and baked in drops. We always seemed to be on the hunt for the ultimate recipe that would turn into our Platonic ideal of what shortbread should be. They all fell flat somehow: brown sugar made them too gritty, cornstarch made them too floury, icing sugar made them too sweet. And then, after all these years, I called my mother in a tizzy. Mom: I think I might have found it.
This recipe comes to you adapted from Jennifer McLagan's Fat, a book which I love to pore (and drool) over. I couldn't help but think that a book with a whole chapter devoted to butter would have a good shortbread recipe, and I was right. It helps that McLagan is an evocatively Scottish surname. I had to make a few adjustments, of course, and I think what I've come up with is going to be the shortbread recipe I stick with for a long time. It is flaky beyond flaky, tender and crumbly, with gorgeous buttery flavour offset by the crunch and contrast of a bit of fleur de sel. Unlike McLagan, I only ever bake with salted butter—horror of horrors—but in this case, I don't add any additional salt to the dough for all the more contrast with the slightly salty topping. And did I mention that it's a breeze to throw together, and only needs one bowl? This is the shortbread of my dreams.
1 ½ cups cold salted butter, cut into 1 cm cubes and placed into a large bowl
1 teaspoon softened butter, for greasing
¾ cup granulated sugar
2 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup rice flour
Zest of 1 lemon or 1 orange, optional
Fleur de sel and coarse Demerara sugar, for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 300˚F and grease an 11" fluted tart tin with a removable base, making sure to evenly coat the lovely ridges so that nothing sticks.
Measure the dry ingredients, minus the fleur de sel and Demerara sugar and including the optional lemon or orange zest, into the large bowl that contains your cubes of butter. I like it plain, the better to taste the holy trinity of butter-sugar-salt, but some people like things jazzy. If you're going the lemon route, you might also want to add some finely-finely minced fresh rosemary to the mix.
With the pads of your thumbs rubbing against the tips of your fingers, rub the butter into the flour mixture until everything is thoroughly combined and the mixture resembles large-flake oatmeal. Make sure that you don't miss any flour at the bottom of the bowl—I often do. You can also do the combining in a stand mixer on low speed, but it's just as easy by hand.
Pour the buttery rubble into your prepared tart tin, and begin evenly pressing it into the bottom and sides. Pay particular attention to the edges—make sure the dough is pressed evenly into the flutes and that you flatten down the top of each one so that the edges are neat and even. When you're done, your tart tin will be covered in a smooth layer of shortbread dough.
Sprinkle over a few pinches of fleur de sel and a few fat pinches of Demerara sugar; press lightly on the topping with the palm of your hand or the back of a spoon to make it adhere to the dough.
Put your tin into the freezer for a moment while you rummage for a fork. Remove the filled tin from the freezer and proceed to prick the dough all over so that it won't puff up and bubble unbecomingly.
Slide your tin into the oven and set the timer for 35 minutes. Your shortbread may be done then, or it may need more time. You'll know it's done when the edges are darkly golden and the centre is just firm.
Cool completely on the counter, and when it is cool, slip off the outer ring of the tin, set the shortbread onto a large platter or cutting board, and slice neatly into 16 wedges. If you're a good Scot like me, serve with a cuppa. You might try sneaking a dip—it's divine.
Adapted from Jennifer McLagan's Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes (Ten Speed Press, 2008).