Inspired by numerous sources, but mostly the deep golden orbs on my backyard lemon tree and a winter-blues-banishing post from Hannah at Inherit the Spoon, this post had to be about shortbread. This is a cookie of the most basic sort, crisp and sandy, with only the three essentials: flour, butter, and sugar. No leavening to worry about, no eggs to tussle with (incidentally, do you know how hard it is to crack eggs without making a mess when you’ve sliced the tip of your thumb and it’s therefore awkwardly bandaged?), just the base, the sweetener, and the fat.
These are, as Ruhlman points out in Ratio, an “adult” sort of cookie. Dry, unadorned, plain, but equally ideal for a dunk in tea or chocolate ganache, and amenable to all sorts of attempts to “play dress-up,” which makes them not just easy and tasty, but suitable for kids-at-heart.
Recently I’ve become obsessed with the combination of lemon and ginger. Hannah’s citrus shortbread and my tree with its laboring, weighty boughs all but begged me to try this combination. When a quick web search turned up only recipes featuring one or the other, I knew I had to insist on their marriage in my version.
Then insanity struck. I got the ridiculous notion that I wanted to create a hazelnut “crust” for these cookies. Yes, that’s right, I decided to add a crust to a cookie that is commonly used itself as a crust. I’m not sure where this idea came from, although if I must place blame it’s going to be on my sister, who commented at Thanksgiving that I should pursue the lemon-ginger-hazelnut flavor combo because it sounded so outstanding. So really, R., these are for you.
I scoured multiple recipes to put this dough together, checking the likes of Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, Paula Deen (who I was surprised doesn’t have more sweet versions), and of course Deb Perelman. But with the exception of a few technique ideas, I came back to Ruhlman’s basic 1-2-3 cookie dough as my backbone (1 part sugar, 2 parts fat, 3 parts flour).
The butter, I decided, needed to be browned (another recent obsession). This would add depth and nuttiness in case the crazy hazelnut idea didn’t work out. The ginger would be candied and minced into a sticky pile, and the lemon would be zested into mild spritzy confetti. This made for a dough that, while delicious, was perhaps not the easiest to work with – I refrigerated it too long and was then impatient to roll it out, so there were cracks. I rolled it quite thin, which made the cracking worse, and created a painfully delicate cookie. The chunks of ginger, too sticky to mince very finely, stood up like carbuncles through the buttery dough and made slicing difficult.
The hazelnuts I pulverized in the food processor with some ground ginger (in case the candied chunks didn’t come through) and a healthy sprinkling of turbinado sugar. Faced with a bread board of delicate cookies on one side and a pie plate full of hazelnut crumbs on the other, I almost opted to forget the whole “crust” idea altogether, but I’m glad I didn’t. You can transfer crumbs to cookie in a number of ways, including pressing the cookie into the crumbs, which I don’t recommend (they adhere only reluctantly and the raw dough tends to break), or mounding crumbs on top of the cookies and pressing them in with a rolling pin, which I do recommend. Then you can gently lift the cookie and flip it quickly and firmly onto a parchment lined baking sheet so the hazelnut layer is on the bottom. The crumbs will try to scatter. Don’t let them! Press the cookie down lightly but firmly back into the crumbs, and they will adhere as they bake.
When they came out of the oven, they were too soft to move. They needed a good five minutes alone on their baking sheet, undisturbed, to cool and crisp. But once crisp, they were perfectly sandy and satisfying, tasting of – I can’t think of a better description – powdered butter. At first I couldn’t detect the ginger or lemon, aside from the now chewy bits of candy distributed through the dough, but a day later, and then two days later, the more delicate flavors started to shine past the overwhelming richness of the brown butter. The hazelnuts, with their earthy crunch, were perfect the whole time. You could probably mix the nut crumbs in with the rest of the ingredients and save yourself a bit of time and frustration, but I loved the way they looked as a crisp layer on the bottom. Cookies with their own crust. Glorious. My sister got to taste them during an unexpected visit, and pronounced them delicious. The lemon-ginger-hazelnut trifecta is a triumph. And the leftover ginger-spiked hazelnut crumbs make an excellent topping for oatmeal.
Lemon Ginger Shortbread with Hazelnut “Crust”
8 oz. butter (1 cup, or 2 sticks)
4 oz. sugar (1/2 cup + 1 TB)
12 oz. flour (2 – 2½ cups)
½ cup chopped candied ginger
Rind from 1 lemon, finely chopped (some pith is okay) (about ¼ cup)
1 cup hazelnuts
1 TB ground ginger
2 TB raw sugar, like turbinado or demerrara
Melt the butter in a small saucepan, swirling gently on occasion, over medium to medium-low heat. Once melted, the butter will foam up, then clear slightly, and then the magic: the solids will sink to the bottom of the pan and begin to brown slightly. At this point, turn off the heat. You want this beautiful browning, but you don’t want those solids to burn. There is only a small window between browning and burning, so watch carefully as the butter reaches this stage.
Pour the melted butter and browned bits (which you may have to scrape off the bottom of the pan) into the bowl you will use to make the cookies. I used my stand mixer bowl. Stow it in the fridge for 10-15 minutes, or until the butter gets sludgy.
When the butter has solidified a bit, pull it back out and add the sugar, then cream (or goo) well until everything is incorporated and has become a beautiful flecked mixture the rough consistency of frosting.
Add the flour and mix until crumbly.
Add the lemon zest and the ginger and mix again. First the dough will become large crumbs, then come together into something more like wet sand. This takes a minute or two. If it isn’t coming together right away, don’t worry. The wet sugar and butter mixture needs some time to moisten the flour.
Once the dough is the consistency of wet, packable sand, dump it out of the bowl onto a sheet of plastic wrap. Using the plastic wrap to help you, shape the dough into a rectangle of 5×8 inches or so, wrap up securely, and refrigerate for about 30 minutes.
While the dough chills, pulverize the hazelnuts, ground ginger, and raw sugar crystals in a food processor (or chop finely with a sharp knife) until some of the hazelnuts are reduced to powder and some remain in very small bits. Don’t overprocess – you don’t want this to turn into nut butter. Stop before it becomes moist.
When your dough has had a chance to chill, unwrap it onto a floured board and roll or press out to about ¼ inch thick. This takes a bit of patience, especially if you, like me, let it chill for too long and try to roll it out before it’s ready. Cold rolling results in cracking. Just relax, let the dough warm up a tiny bit, and roll gently with a floured rolling pin, patching cracks as you go. This would also be a good time to preheat your oven to 350F.
Once you’ve achieved even thickness (minus the odd tall chunk of ginger), use a pizza cutter to trim off uneven edges, and slice the remaining rectangle into smaller rectangles the size of your choosing. Mine were probably about 1×3 inches, which seemed like a nice sized cookie.
Now it’s time to add the hazelnut crust. As noted above, you can do this in a number of ways. You can, if you wish, lift the cookies, place them into a dish of crumbs, and press down, hoping for adherence without breaking the cookie itself. This method requires almost excruciating gentleness. You can also press handfuls of the hazelnut crumbs down on top of the cookies on the board, applying firm but gentle pressure, and then lift the cookies one at a time and invert them onto a parchment lined baking sheet. As you flip, some of the hazelnut crumbs will loosen. That’s okay. Just get your cookie settled on the baking sheet and then press down again gently but firmly to re-stick the crumbs. They will adhere better as they bake.
Once you have a full baking sheet (mine each fit 15-18 cookies in various arrangements), pierce the cookies gently with a fork to achieve that pricked look so popular in shortbread, and bake for 18 minutes. The cookies will become lightly golden all over, and the hazelnut crumbs will darken and get a bit toasty.
At 18 minutes, take them out of the oven, set the baking sheet on a cooking rack, and walk away. The cookies need 4-5 minutes to set before you try to move them. They are much too soft at their moment of emergence to transport intact. As they cool, they will deflate and crisp up a bit, and you can move them to a cooling rack or a marble countertop or surface of your choice.
You can certainly eat these warm, but I liked them better completely cooled. In fact, I liked them better the next day, once the flavors had melded and developed.
Stored in an airtight container, these keep deliciously for over a week. They even, wrapped carefully, stay crisp and fresh through the mail.
This recipe probably made about 3 dozen cookies, and could have made more if I had eaten less of the dough scraps. I, alas, didn’t make a count before I started sampling, which is always a tasty, tasty mistake.
When it rains in Los Angeles, the whole atmosphere of the city changes. The earth sighs acceptance and glee, and the ordinary dustiness of every other person’s front yard glimmers with emerald slickness: life! Reprieve from the desert we pretend we haven’t built over! The roads become jagged, glistering, tar and oil stained slip’n’slides on which people drive either too slowly – avoiding disaster through excess caution – or too quickly – rushing to get off the highways as soon as possible. The sky is unused to gray billows here, or at least it seems that way.
But for me, the end of this week felt like home. It was a strange mix of homesickness and invigoration. I am accustomed to working in this climate. It feels natural. Habitual. My fingers and my brain and my skin – they fit into this overcast world.
Seeking the comfort of familiarity, I decided to leave yeast alone for this week and fall back on something I know: biscuits. Butter. Flour. Buttermilk. Salt. Baking powder. The blessed fundamentals. But I know the fundamentals. I wanted more.
In Ratio, Ruhlman calls these Chicago biscuits because their ratio 3-1-2 is Chicago’s area code. 3 parts flour, 1 part fat, 2 parts liquid. I’m calling them Uncommon because their pairing – brown sugar and extra sharp cheddar cheese – might not be anyone’s first inclination. It made sense to me, though, if you reinsert the missing link of apple pie in the middle. Cheese and apples are perfect. Brown sugar and apples are perfect. What would happen if you took the apples out of the equation and left the savory richness of cheese chewing against the molasses-deep hum of brown sugar? They are also Uncommon because they take a little extra time (almost 3 hours from start to finish) and produce a slightly different product than your ordinary dinner biscuit.
Adapted, obviously, from Ruhlman’s Ratio 312 Biscuits.
scant 2 cups flour (9 oz)
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking powder
2 TB brown sugar
6 TB butter (3 oz)
½ cup ¼-inch chunks of cheddar cheese, the sharper the better
¾ cups buttermilk (6 oz)
In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking powder, and brown sugar.
Using a pastry blender or your fingers, cut in the butter until it is incorporated throughout in chunks the size of small peas.
Add the cheddar cheese and buttermilk and mix to combine into a rough, sticky dough. I find using a fork works well for this step.
Here’s where things change up a bit. Instead of rolling this out and cutting rounds, stretch a piece of plastic wrap across your counter and dump the dough onto it. Using the plastic wrap, form the dough into a rectangle of approximately 4×6 inches. Mine was bigger because I am impatient. This didn’t seem to have dire consequences. Once the dough is shaped, wrap it in the plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
After an hour, the butter has firmed up again and the dough has relaxed. Pull it out and free it from the plastic, plopping it carefully onto a well floured board. It’s a very sticky dough, so flour your rolling pin and the top of the dough itself well to avoid irritation. Roll the dough out until it is three times its original size, maintaining the rectangular shape. Fold it into thirds, press down well, and then roll it out again. Fold it into thirds for a second time. I did mine in the opposite direction of the first fold, which was probably wrong, but again, produced no discernible taste consequences. Press down firmly, wrap up the dough in plastic wrap again, and put it back into the fridge for another hour.
While it chills, here’s what’s happening with all this bother: you are creating something akin to one of those biscuits that comes out of the tube. You know, the cardboard tube you anxiously peel the wrapper from to reveal a twisting seam, then judiciously smack on the edge of the counter until it pops and dough appears in great bulges? Those biscuits are composed of dozens of flaky layers, and that’s what you are doing by folding and rolling and folding and rolling. You are, Ruhlman notes, following a similar procedure to that used for making puff pastry, except in our case the butter is irregularly placed, which results in craggy puffs, whereas puff pastry requires a smooth, even layer of butter in between each floury fold to reach its incredible signature height.
With another hour gone, liberate the dough from fridge and plastic, return it to your well floured board, and repeat the procedure: roll out, fold in thirds, roll out, fold in thirds again. At this point, you should also preheat the oven to 400F.
You’ve now folded your dough a total of four times, which means you’ve made twelve layers. Now, roll it out to ½ inch thick and cut it into 6 pieces. You could do rounds with a biscuit cutter, but it seems easier and less wasteful to just trim up the edges (which you could roll into a homely little extra biscuit to taste on the sly) and then cut into squares.
Pop these onto a greased baking sheet and into the oven for 20-25 minutes. They will emerge lightly golden on top, with cheese oozing out from between the layers to form crispy lacy edges against the cookie sheet.
We ate these as an accompaniment to a honey mustard roasted acorn squash and chicken apple sausages. I know, I had to get the apple back in there somehow. My assessment? They were delightful. The exterior was flaky and crisp, and I was impressed by how the layers really did make a difference in the texture of the biscuit: they were moist and chewy and distinct. The cheese wasn’t as noticeable as I’d thought it would be, though the crispy edge bits were lovely – much like the lacy brulée that adorns the outside edges of a good cheese bagel. At first I thought I couldn’t taste the brown sugar at all, but as I took my third and fourth bite, gasping around the steam, I realized that the complex lingering warmth at the end of each bite was probably the effect of the brown sugar. It carried the depth and richness of a caramel without being sweet.
So the verdict is: if you need biscuits to go with a weekday meal, these are probably not the ones for you. It’s asking a bit much to devote three hours to six biscuits, when you could just roll, cut, and bake the same ingredients straight from the mixing bowl. But if you are planning for something special, or if you were thinking of baking bread anyway and are willing to replace rise time with refrigeration time, try these instead. The layers are really remarkable, they stay warm for some time, they are all kinds of tasty, and they would reheat – I suspect – very well in a toaster oven, though they are best on the day they are made. But you probably won’t have any left over, so that’s an issue barely worth discussing.
I hope you are warm and well, wherever you are.
Okay, 2013, here we go.
This year, I have a few changes to announce. First, you may have noticed that we’re at a new address. Update your bookmarks, if I’m lucky enough to be there, to http://blackberryeating.com. As I understand it, the old address will still work, it will just redirect you here. As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been wanted to upgrade to an address that makes more sense for what I’m doing here. Blackberries, their mystery and decadence, remind me of all that is good about food: what is sweet, what is juicy, what is challenging, what is delicate, what is persnickety and strong. The Galway Kinnell poem from which the title of this blog is taken celebrates juxtaposition and excess, likens these jeweled fruits to words and the consumption of those fruits to the search for meaning and significance. This is a little piece of significance for me – this collection of words thrust with crossed fingers and squinted eyes out across the internet – and so I wanted to make it more connected, more applicable, but really, more mine.
Who ever thought so much consideration could go into a new address?
With the Bittman project over and a new address settled, it’s time to submerge myself in a new challenge. As you know if you’ve been reading for a while, dough – particularly pie dough and yeasted dough – is one of my big fears. What if it doesn’t rise? What if it crumbles apart? What if it tears or burns or collapses or comes out tough or doesn’t bake right? What if it’s (gasp) imperfect?
I decided I need to get over this.
This year, each week, I will make something out of dough. It might be pie crust. It might be cookies. It might be pizza or foccaccia or flatbread. It might, as terrifying as this is to me, be a real, honest-to-goodness loaf of bread, bloomed and kneaded, baked until crusty in a loaf pan. I have a crazy notion that I want homemade bagels. I have a yen to make doughnuts, and not just cake doughnuts, but the beautiful puff and chewy crumb of a good yeasted twist.
I don’t – and this is important to note – promise absolute success. You’re going to see what crumbles along the way. You’re going to see the scraps and scrapes and disasters I produce. I think this is an important part of learning, and that’s part of what this blog is for me.
I have a few guides in this project, one hoped for and long awaited, one unexpected but delightful. From my in-laws, I received Michael Ruhlman’s genius book Ratio. This isn’t a cookbook. It’s more than that. It’s more exciting, it’s more foundational, and ultimately, I think, it’s more useful. It doesn’t tell you how to make cherry pie, it tells you the essential equation of pie dough. Three parts flour, two parts fat, one part water. That will always equal pie dough. Suddenly, you can use any kind of flour – more than one kind, if you want. You can use lard instead of butter. You can make one pie or you can make thirty-five pies, and you don’t have to think as hard about multiplying or adding or fractioning. You have a ratio, and it is always going to work.
That’s the theory. And I believe it, but I haven’t tried it out just yet.
From my parents, I received a bread machine. I’ve never used a bread machine before, and while my immediate thought is that to really master dough, I will also have to make it by hand so I understand the kneading and the cycles of rising, and so I will come to know the feeling of the right kind of stretch and the windowpane test and the knowledge beneath my fingers that yes, this is bread, having a machine help me along the way is going to be nice. The idea of dumping, in pajamas at 10pm, a series of ingredients into a pan, plugging in a machine, and telling it I want a fresh, hot loaf of bread at 7am, delights and astounds me. I want to understand, but I also want the magic.
So that’s the plan. If all goes well, it will mean more of this:
It may even mean some of this:
I don’t expect it will mean all dough, all the time, just as the past two years were not exclusively Bittman concoctions. If something amazing comes along that doesn’t involve flour or eggs or butter, I will still report on it. But the goal this year – the resolution, if you will – is to conquer this dough thing. I want to have conversations with you about it. I want your feedback and advice and experiences. And I hope you enjoy.
Last week I tallied up what remained on my Bittman Sides project and discovered, through careful calculations that included pointing to my calendar and counting on my fingers, that if I make two selections from the list every week, I will be finished with the whole thing at the end of the year. And I mean the end. The very last week. Ambitious, yes? I decided I could do it.
Guess how many I made this week?
So I’m not starting out well with this, but I’m going to try anyway. I’m years overdue from my original goal anyway. And in my own kind of backwards reverse engineering, I try to make up for this how? By posting twice in one week. So it goes, I suppose…
87. Combine 2 cups whole wheat flour with 2 cups white flour and 1 teaspoon each baking powder, baking soda and salt in a food processor. Pour in 1½ cups buttermilk or thin yogurt, and pulse until a ball is formed. Knead for a minute (fold in ½ cup raisins or currants if you like), shape into a round loaf, slash the top in a few places and bake on a greased sheet for about 45 minutes, or until the bottom sounds hollow when you thump it.
I’ve tried bread in the food processor before and it didn’t go very well (what does “when the dough is shaggy” mean anyway?), but I was willing to give this a shot. It looked like a basic Irish soda bread recipe, and though I’ve never put that in the food processor, I have made it with success on multiple occasions. So, I pulled down my food processor, opened my pantry, and collected
2 cups wheat flour
2 cups white flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ cup Greek yogurt whisked with 1 cup whole milk (I had neither buttermilk nor thin yogurt – this seemed like a happy medium)
½ cup craisins
I followed Bittman’s directions to near disaster. Either my food processor is too small, or this method isn’t all that reliable, because the dough never formed a ball. Half of it just clumped into a solid mass in one side of the processor bowl and refused to budge. I said some words in the quiet of my own brain and then held my breath while I tumbled the half-mixed contents out onto a floured board.
This is certainly not a ball. But I sprinkled on half a cup of craisins and started kneading anyway, trying to ignore the hateful feel of dry dough on my hands. After a minute or two I determined that things were just not coming together.
Flour-streaked hands reached into the refrigerator and pulled out the milk, dribbled a few tablespoons into a hollow in the dough, and tried again. This time, things started to stick, to smooth, to pull into a ball. I patched, I patted, I pushed and knuckled, and finally plopped one of the homeliest loaves ever made onto a greased baking sheet. Slashed, scored, and enclosed in a warm oven, and I’d done all I could.
Bittman didn’t specify a temperature, but I estimated 375F and returned to grading papers for the better part of an hour. The timer’s buzz 45 minutes later called me back to a crusty, mottled, flour-speckled loaf that sounded empty when I thumped the bottom, and smelled like humble sour sweetness.
I waited a few hours to try some. When I cut into it, my knife scraping through the crust and scattering crumbly bits across the board, the interior was dense and moist and still just warm.
It tasted good. A bit heavy, from the whole wheat flour, and not suitable for eating in large chunks like the one I’d carved off for myself. But the craisins added a welcome punch, and I think if I’d used all buttermilk instead of my odd mixture of milk and yogurt, the tang would have come through and broken some of the one-note density of the texture. This would be good, I suspect, toasted and buttered, or maybe – if you’re the daring type – transformed into French toast. It might also be good made with 3 cups of white and 1 cup of wheat flour, rather than equal parts.
Both N. and I have some Irish blood, and although it doesn’t show too often (unless you count his beard and my very occasional temper), by strange coincidence we ended up eating this bread as part of an accidentally, avant-garde-ly “Irish” dinner: pan fried gnocchi and sauteed cabbage. Potatoes, cabbage, and Irish soda bread. If only we’d had corned beef, I told N., and a horseradish sauce to moisten it.
But here’s the good news: smeared with cream cheese, the bread was tasty and chewy and wholesome, with bright pops of cranberry sweetness here and there. Shallow fried in a mixture of butter and olive oil, the gnocchi were amazing. Tongue searingly hot, their exteriors crisped and browned like the perfect roasted potato. Their interiors remained soft and creamy and rich, but the contrast of crusty brown outside to creamy chewy perfection inside was unbelievable. I could eat these every day. I could eat them for every meal. Fried and rolled, still blisteringly hot, in cinnamon sugar, I would scarf these for breakfast alongside a glass of milk like tiny churros. Tossed with pesto or roasted red pepper sauce, I would gulp them for lunch. Folded into a mornay sauce with too much extra cheese, I would sub these for pasta in a beautiful perversion of oven-baked macaroni and cheese. And well salted and perhaps tossed in garlic powder or red pepper flakes, I would happily substitute these for popcorn during a movie. I might be obsessed.
So with one Bittman down for the week and an intense regimen in store for the rest of the year, it turns out I’m more interested in fried potatoes. And I’m tempted to ask: who wouldn’t be? But then I wonder… is that just the Irish in me talking?