Friday, December 14, 2007

Short Work: Filling the Cookie Tins

With the plum puddings wrapped and waiting patiently in the cupboard for holiday dinner, it’s time to turn attention to cookie making. Not so long ago I used to make eight or ten kinds, packaging them in assortments of six of each, and gave them to friends and neighbors who appreciate such things. Hints, in the form of casual, reminiscent remarks about the prior year’s cookies, would start soon after Halloween each year, so the cookie making and giving became a tradition of my holiday kitchen.
I no longer live in the neighborhood of Great Expectations, and make fewer kinds each year now, but the holidays would not be the same without a plate of favorites on the sideboard throughout the season. As with everything else, I tend toward plain perfection in cookies, with a few special, labor-intensive items thrown in. These are not necessarily any better, just fancier and prettier. All good cookies are equal in my cookie jar.
Something so discrete, so absolutely stand-alone as a cookie, needs to be wonderful in its own right. What makes a cookie wonderful? Now that is a very difficult question to answer, because, as with children, each is different, and so can be wonderful in its own way. But perhaps every good cookie has a single dominant, quintessential characteristic: this one perfectly chewy, that one meltingly buttery, that one superbly spiced, another lightly crisp. Hence the beauty of the plate or tin of assorted homemade cookies: individual notes yield a symphony.
The notes matter, of course. Over the course of some 35 years of ruthless cookie recipe trials and criticism, I have found only a baker’s dozen or so of cookies that I consider worth making—and eating—over and over. A few, like the rugelach made with cream cheese pastry from Maida Heatter’s first cookie book, come straight out of books, and are sublime without a single adjustment. Others are recipes that I have found in my collection of old pamphlets and cookery books and fooled with to make work or make better, such as a chewy-soft ginger cookie that tastes like American history. And several, the best of all, are those that have been given to me by friends, strangers, coworkers, even employers. One is the best nut-coated, jam-filled thumbprint cookie I’ve ever tasted, given to me when I was 19 by a woman I cooked for at her mansion in Narragansett, RI, when her real cook refused to leave New York for the summer (I assume the recipe was that of this very cook). Another is an unusual filled cookie made with an oatmeal pastry that was one of numerous divine productions of the cook in my sorority house (her cinnamon rolls having never yet been exceeded). Others are the perfect vanilla cut-out tea cookie, a divine Florentine, a crisp brown-edge wafer, a soft, cakey iced orange cookie—and I don’t even like cakey cookies—and this authentic Scotch shortbread, straight from the mother land.
Jean MacKay’s Shortbread
Jean MacKay was the assistant in the production department at a publishing company where I worked in California in the 1970s. She dictated the ingredients and brief instructions to me in her lovely Scottish brogue, and I still have them on the same old index card. I have elaborated on the directions and proportions for clarity here, as the actual baking and amount of flour are crucial variables. You can halve the recipe or, as I often do, add finely chopped crystallized ginger to part or all of the dough. I consider this shortbread to be the ideal. Makes 32 pieces.
1 lb unsalted sweet butter, softened
1 cup sugar
1 cup sweet rice flour (see Note)
4 cups a-p flour (or less—see instructions)
½ cup finely minced fresh crystallized ginger (optional)
Preheat oven to 325 F.
In a food processor, cream the butter and sugar. Add the rice flour and pulse to combine. Gradually add the all-purpose flour, beating the dough until it is very soft but forms a clump on the blade. (Jean gave me this recipe before, if you can imagine such a thing, the advent of food processors; her instructions were to “knead well,” as for bread). I use a little less flour than the “about 4 cups” she told me, perhaps 3 ½ cups. If using, add the ginger and pulse to distribute. Divide the dough and pat out each portion evenly into a shortcake mold or pie plate, preferably a glazed porcelain or ceramic pan with a 7” bottom (this can be either an 8” or 9” pan, I’ve found); if you don’t have one, use metal rather than glass if possible.
Baking time is imprecise; Jean said “start checking after one-half hour,” and that is good advice, as you don’t want to over-bake, but the total time will more likely be 45-60 min, depending on pan material and size, and your oven. After 30 minutes it will probably still be heaving and white—not done. Look for a pale golden color and a light firmness to the touch. Remove to a rack and, while still quite warm, slice each into 16 pieces; use a small sharp knife and a short up-and-down rather than dragging motion. Let cool a little more, and sprinkle the tops with sugar. When completely cool, remove from the pans and try a piece; it should be rich and buttery, with a tender but firm, slightly crumbly, texture. Store in a tin or wrap and freeze.
Note: Sweet rice flour is available in Asian markets and occasionally in very well-stocked urban grocery stores. Jean said you could substitute Wondra® if you couldn’t find it, but I say no. Rice flour is important to getting the right balance between crispness and tenderness.


Gail said...

When I get my Little Compton Mornings emails, I get a gift. What a gem it is. You are a National Treasure right here in our own little town. It's delicious to read your blog. Thanks, Gail Lozier

Jane said...

And you are a treasure of a reader, Gail. Thank you so much.