Jan 25, 2015

On Shortbread

This morning a malaise struck, and while I took care of myself with herbal tea and minerals, I yearned for some old, familiar comfort. When I'm terribly sick, bone broth and pillows are my usual choice of nurturing, but today's odd ache called for a spell of baking.

There is something about a warm kitchen and the scent of a sweet creation being conjured up, that soothes me. I have many happy memories of helping my mother bake, or being in my grandmother's kitchen while she whirled about.

Today I pulled out my grandmother's shortbread recipe, written in my mother's hand - well used and loved.  It's a simple recipe, usually made from memory, and often only at Christmastime.  I don't know why the family only makes it once a year. I spoke with my aunt tonight and she gasped at my making it. "All that butter" were her exact words.

Should you too decide to toss your cares about butter to the wind, here is my grandmother's simple recipe:

1 cup of butter, softened
1/2 cup of fruit sugar
2 cups of unbleached flour

English, Scottish, and Irish shortbread are similar. There are untold variations, not just from people to people, but even among family members. All involve butter, sugar, flour. You can use the exceptional Irish butter if you can find it, or true Amish butter, but good-quality, regular butter is perfect too. If your butter is unsalted, add a pinch of salt to the recipe.

We use "fruit" or "berry" sugar which is simply a finer grade of sugar than regular granulated. Regular sugar works too, or you can pulse it in a food processor a few times to make it a bit more fine. Scottish shortbread sometimes calls for brown sugar.

Cream butter with sugar and then add flour 1/2-1 cup at a time, kneading with your hands until the dough starts to crack.

Roll the dough and place in a pan or a cookie mold, or roll into balls and flatten - whatever rocks your shortbread socks.

Cookies - bake 350 degrees for approx 12 minutes
Bars - bake 350 degrees for approx 20 minutes

I am told that it's all about the hand-kneading, with shortbread.  Once I've got my butter and sugar together (I use a pastry cutter) I get in there.  In the pictures below, the top-right photo is the dough as I am adding flour. It gets a bit crumbly at first - keep kneading!

The picture on the left shows the dough "cracking." Again, it depends on which family member you ask, but kneading takes 5-10 minutes or until you are foolishly bored. I spent the time thinking of my grandmother - I'm sure that is why the cookies taste so good.

I opted for the quickie-cookie route, but you can do whatever you like when the dough is ready. It is more traditional to press the dough into a pan or roll it out, and carve it into bars.

I'm a stickler when it comes to baking time. The perfect shortbread is slightly golden on the bottom - not brown. Don't overcook your shortbread - you want it to melt in your mouth when you eat it.

Today, January 25th, also happens to be Scotsman Robert Burns' birthday. Raise a glass of whisky then, or a cup of milk, and enjoy a bit a shortbread with me. We sung his "Auld Lang Syne" just over three weeks ago, and now let's leave off with his "Grace After Dinner."

O Thou, in whom we live and move,
Who mad'st the sea and shore,
Thy goodness constantly we prove,
And grateful would adore.

And if it please thee, Pow'r above,
Still grant us with such store;
The Friend we trust; the Fair we love;
And we desire no more.

Jan 14, 2015

These January Nights

What is worth a glance in January is so small, so fleeting, or so grand and impossible, that I seem to either rush by without notice, or stop and stare - and not so much in between.  The white that blankets us here in The Valley can bless an individual plant with an icy, crystalline dress, and at the same time turn a meadow into a vast sort of nothingness.  The endless hills to the north can blend, dull and white, into the low clouds or they can sparkle like evergreen-dotted fairytale castles in the sky when the sun breaks through to shine upon them. The views each day swing wildly from breathtaking to bland.

So too, are the first days-melting-into-weeks of the year. We've finished off or frozen the holiday leftovers and the decorations have come down, leaving everything a little more stark and uninspiring than the opulence of last month.  Yet there is still an excitement about starting a new year - a fresh calendar with 365 open spots for us to fill up with plans and dreams and celebrations.  There is hope for a year sprinkled with achievements and adventure.

I'm not quite ready to give up every last ornament and source of illumination. I need a small amount of festivity.  I like a bit of flickering light on these dark, cold January nights. I've kept back a tiny tree in a bottle - the most miniature Winter vignette.  And there are fir boughs here and there. Soon they will be picked clean for incense making and dreamy oil infusions. There are so many candles too, dancing shapes and shadows up the walls and on to the ceiling.

There is much to do during the day. Aside from the occasional date with the snow shovel, the daily offerings to the birds, and my local coffee shop to haunt, I've got plenty of year-end work to keep me head-down at the office.

The evenings are a different story. The days are lengthening, but the night still has its rule. It offers much time for cooking satisfying meals and gathering up blankets, books, and cats for a good long settling-in. There has been altar work too, and endless, steamy baths.

The rattles have made an appearance during meditation and a perfect little bell, gifted to me by a dear friend, is rung each night. There is so much quiet this time of year (however needed, appreciated) that to invite some moments of sound seems to me to encourage Winter along - not showing it the door just yet, but to let it know that while we are resting, we are also beginning to stir.

What stirs you on deep Winter evenings?  Are you venturing out, or staying in?  Does the new calendar send you bounding into the year ready to take anything on, or do you linger yet around the fire, letting your plans and dreams form as you gaze into your tea cup?

These January nights won't last for long - we are half through them already. I hope the remaining eves give you much pleasure or time for planning - whatever this first month of the year inspires.