Good morning to my dear Jungle Red authors and readers. It's Julia's week and I love her generosity sharing her space with me. SO many lovely JRW books are available right now. This community has introduced me to some funny, scary, sexy, delicious stories. What to read first? Maybe this is the best of times? Still what could be better than a delicious cooking tale? Pour yourself a cup of whatever cheers and here's my story of how I became a 'successful' baker during COVID-19. Those of us with Scots blood know that our national instinct is to pinch pennies till they squeal. But how does this skill fit with learning to bake shortbread? Well if you're sitting comfortably, I'll begin.
I don't consider myself a baker, not in the true sense of the word. I am impatient, and not always as careful with reading and following instructions as I might. Setting up as a caterer meant that baking would be as important a skill as offering food for sale. One must retool one's attitude as well as ones skills.
So I taught myself how to successfully make pastry. Short crust, suet pastry (an English speciality), and queen of them all, puff pastry. Yes, I mastered them by following recipes from Julia Child, Rosemary Spry, and other cookery leaders in the '60's and '70's. Julia Child has the best, most simple puff pastry method ever. I mastered the techniques turning out pies sweet and savory, rolls and cookies which were very popular served with a lemon or chocolate mousse. A second big gift of gratitude goes to Julia Child for her chocolate mousse cake from "Julia Child andCompany"*, her television show. I never saw the TV shows but the two books are cooking goldmines, and I own two copies of each.
Now, many years later, retired from catering with cooking restricted to family and friends, I very seldom make those dishes. However the pandemic has given me two gifts; time and baking supply shortages. These may not sound like gifts but it's straw to gold, or retooling my focus to delicious effect.
As the news from abroad on COVID-19 got worse in early February, it made sense to stock up on flour and sugar among other staples. Then I could, with help of Mark Bittman or Jacques Pepin, bake a loaf if push came to shove. My main fun was reading the recipes in the New York Times and watching Jacque Pepin's videos. Imagine my delight when I came across a simple version of shortbread from Melissa Clark. Store bought shortbread is pricey, we weren't going to the supermarket, and it's Victor's fav, so I was hoping this version might be the one. I had researched shortbread recipes, baked, failed more times than I had good outcomes, but here was the gold standard recipe. This shortbread technique was apparently created by a NYC baker. However, Nate Chasse of Sweet and Savory Bakery here in Maine, who trained at the CIA, confirmed that resting the dough overnight is the key. I have added two simple Hacks that work.
The actual recipe is simple:
Line an 8"x9" baking pan with parchment paper. I do this by measuring the base of the pan and cutting a rectangle which is two inches wider than the measurement on each side.
Snip each corner to fit, then place the paper back on your counter.
Melt (1/2#) or 2 sticks of butter and cool.
1/4C corn starch or rice flour,
Mix dry ingredients together briefly. (I use a hand held mixer on low).
Pour in the butter, and combine all quickly.
Place the ball of dough on the parchment paper, then both lightly but swiftly roll and pat the dough to fit the outline of the pan.
Carefully lift the paper and dough into the pan.
With wet fingers work dough into the corners and check for evenness.
Place in a plastic bag or cover with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator over night or for at least two - four hours.
Remove pan from plastic wrap or bag
Bake for twenty minutes reverse pan and bake for another 15-25 minutes till very pale gold. Remove from the oven, allow to rest for a couple of minutes, then carefully lift out the paper onto a baking rack to cool, and after five minutes or so cut into squares or fingers. Time to ENJOY!
The last time I made shortbread I doubled the recipe, put half into the baking pan and rolled out the other half on parchment but placed it on a cookie sheet. No squared corners but it baked just as well.
I found that parchment paper washes well. I use my sheet four to six times before discarding. Lay on the counter next to your sink, use a soapy sponge to clean off crumbs, then rinse soap off and lay out to dry.
*pub: Alfred A. Kopf
JULIA: There you have it, dear readers! Has staying at home forced you to spin straw to gold by sharpening one skill or another?