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Shortbread cookies: Make the perfect batch

Shortbreads are one of my favourite cookies. Scottish in origin, this rich, tender and crumbly straw colored biscuit (cookie) was once only served during Christmas and New Year's Eve (Hogmanay). In its most basic form, shortbreads are made with just four ingredients, butter, sugar, vanilla extract, and flour.

While today they are made in various shapes and sizes, at one time the dough was baked in a round mould and then cut into wedges that were given the name "petticoat tails". This name refers to the shape of the shortbread wedges which was similar to the bell-hoop petticoats worn by court ladies in the 12th century.  

The secret to making a good shortbread is to use a high quality butter and pure vanilla extract. Butter in the States is graded according to flavor, color, texture, aroma and body and one easy way to tell the quality of the butter is by the letter code or numerical number listed on the butter's package.

The highest grade is AA (93 score), then A (92 score), followed by B (90 score). Buying vanilla extract can also be a challenge as there are so many choices.

The first thing to do is to make sure that it is labeled "pure".

The best I have found, although it is quite expensive, is Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract that can be found in specialty food stores and on line.

If your budget doesn't allow this expenditure or you cannot find it, don't worry, there are quality brands to be found in your local grocery store. Just stay away from the ones labeled "imitation" vanilla extracts as they are made with synthetic vanilla (from glycoside found in the sapwood of certain conifers or from coal extracts) and leave a bitter aftertaste.

Shortbread dough is so versatile. Once you have made the basic shortbread batter, you can add about 1/2 cup (90 grams) of chocolate chips to make chocolate chip shortbread, or add 1 tablespoon of instant espresso powder for a coffee favour. All it takes to have a cinnamon flavored shortbread is to add 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, or 1 tablespoon of finely chopped orange or lemon zest will give you a nice citrus flavoured shortbread. The texture of shortbread can also be changed by replacing 1/4 cup (35 grams) of the all purpose flour with rice flour which gives the shortbread a slightly crunchy texture. Or, for a more delicate tasting shortbread, with a melt-in-your-mouth texture, replace 1/2 cup (65 grams) of the all purpose flour with cornstarch (corn flour).

Shortbreads can also be cut into various shapes and sizes using your favourite cookie cutter. They can also be baked in a tart pan, or baked in a rectangular pan and then cut into shortbread "fingers". If you like, dip the ends of the baked shortbread in melted chocolate as we have done here. Royal shortbread is the name given when one end of the baked shortbread is dipped into melted chocolate.



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