Perfect Shortbread: the Art and Science of Baking

Contrary to popular belief, I did not grow up in a Scottish family with an old family recipe for shortbread. Initially, shortbread appeared easy to me. How difficult could it be to throw together butter, sugar, and flour to create a tasty cookie?

It isn’t difficult. But, there is some science involved and I’m here to tell you about the science and history of shortbread. Imagine that, a literature and creative writing nerd teaching science…I’m spewing coffee out my nose at the silliness of it all as I write. This article concentrates on the science of shortbread in unscientific language. My hope is that the insights gleaned from hours of trial and error will be of use to all novice bakers.

Initially I was drawn to baking because it’s an exact science. You follow the recipe to the T and you get a perfect baked good, right? In the beginning, I could bake a perfect baguette if I followed the directions, but heaven help me if I had to be creative with spices and seasonings for a meal. When I first started cooking, I never understood how people tasted their work and just intuitively knew what it needed. Thus, I was drawn to baking. For this cooking novice, it felt more exact and scientific than the creative art of throwing together a meal from my imagination.

Originally Vermont Shortbread Company started out as a seasonal business out of my own kitchen. Back in the mid-90s, I didn’t even own a Kitchen-Aid mixer. I mixed the dough by hand. And anyone who knows shortbread, can attest to the fact that the dough is very heavy with no liquid ingredients. Back in those days I had forearms the size of tree trunks from all that hand mixing. The good thing was I learned exactly what consistency the dough had to be to make the best shortbread. I learned exactly how much handling the dough could take before it became overworked and made a tough shortbread round. I learned not only by looking, but by feeling and of course, tasting.

As the business grew and people realized that shortbread was a perfect year round gift for any occasion the call to bake during the warmer months became apparent. However, summer shortbread did not always look as nice as winter shortbread. Most people didn’t notice, but having baked thousands of rounds by hand, I was not satisfied with my summer shortbread. It took me a couple years to realize there were four factors at work here contributing to the texture, color, and taste of the final shortbread product: humidity, oven hot spots, butter temperature, and mixing time.

Humidity:

I don’t know the chemistry behind this, but I can tell you that it’s much harder to create a perfect shortbread round when the weather is humid. Perhaps the moisture makes the flour less fluffy…I don’t know. I can only tell you that humid-weather shortbread is not as pretty, golden, and tasty as cold weather shortbread. For this reason, when I built my commercial bakery, I installed dehumidifiers in the bakery. So now, no matter what the season, we produce a perfect shortbread every time.

Oven hot spots:

When I began baking shortbread out of my home kitchen in the 90s, I had only a small household Whirlpool electric oven. I could only bake three 8″ rounds at a time and the production was slooooooow. I hate cooking with electric and believe that the best cooks use gas, however, I have to hand it to that little oven that served me well for nearly a decade. All ovens have spots that are hotter than others. I intimately learned where all my oven’s hot spots were and with each batch of shortbread shifted the position of each pan halfway through the baking time to ensure even browning of my product every time. The Whirlpool electric model was retired to appliance heaven in 2005. Now with my commercial oven (a big Imperial gas model), I can bake up to forty 8″ rounds at a time in an environment with better convection (air flow around the items). Still, I shift the pans around in the middle of the baking period as I learn where this new oven’s hot spots are.

Butter temperature:

When I began baking shortbread, I liked to remove the butter from the fridge a couple hours before I planned to use it so that it would be soft. Remember, I was mixing by hand and wanted to make it as easy as possible. When I began baking summer shortbread, however, the butter became runny and began separating. This did not make for a good texture in the final product. I don’t know how to explain this scientifically; I can only tell you how it felt to me. The final product was dense and too doughy. What I really wanted was a crisp golden flakiness on the outside with a little bit of chewiness on the inside. I learned that if I was going to bake in the summer I had to use butter almost directly from the fridge. If the butter got too soft, I had to toss it in the garbage and start over. That’s when I bought my first mixer with a dough hook to make the job of mixing hard butter easier. Butter directly from the fridge, not too hard, not too soft is the only way to make perfect shortbread. Again, I just had to learn by feeling my way how long to let the butter sit on the counter before it was perfect. Longer in the winter, shorter in the summer.

Mixing time:

Any dough mixed too long or not enough affects the final product. With shortbread, you first cream the sugar and butter together. That’s the easy part. The tricky part is knowing how to incorporate the flour. I like to do it a pound at a time (remember I am now baking in pounds of flour, sugar, and butter rather than cups). Once the dough is completely incorporated and forms a ball with no bits of flour on the side of the mixing bowl, I know it’s ready for baking. Now, when I got Trixie (my commercial mixer), I had to relearn the timing all over. Trixie can mix bricks. My hands and my old Kitchen-Aid could not. Therefore mixing time is much shorter now. Shortbread dough (as with any dough) becomes tough the more you mix it. The trick, which I learned by trial and error, is to find the exact timing for your dough. I am not an expert on all dough, but I’ve perfected shortbread dough.

You know, the funny thing about all of this learning how to make the perfect shortbread is that I never had any real training. Now that I’ve hired a professional baker, she’s taught me a few things about making the process more efficient and making the final product more tasty and beautiful. When I think about it, that’s pretty much how I learn: just doing it over and over.

When science and our imaginations work together, we create food art. With the holidays quickly approaching, this scientist and dreamer must retreat to the bakery to create new masterpieces. I hope that this essay provides you with creative insights for your own dough (shortbread or otherwise) and a little peek inside the art and science of perfect dough from a little Vermont company that handcrafts every item with love, imagination, and tender care (with a little science thrown in).

Copyright 2006 Ann Zuccardy, Vermont Shortbread Company. All rights reserved.

Chocolate – The Perfect Food Gift

Are you a chocolate lover? Do you enjoy giving chocolate gifts to others?
Are you always looking for a new and unique chocolate treat to add to your
list of favorite deserts? Do you enjoy finding delicious chocolate recipes
to make for family and friends?

Chocolate or (kah kow) was discovered 2,000 years ago in the tropical rain
forests of the Americas. Over various cultures and time, it evolved into
what we know chocolate to be today. Spain got it’s first look at chocolate
when Colombus returned from America. He brought back dark brown cocoa
beans. The Aztec Indians called chocolate “food of the Gods.” Emperor
Montezuma served the Spaniards warm liquid chocolate in golden goblets. The
Spaniards, however, thought the drink to be bitter so they added cane sugar.

Today, centuries later, we still love chocolate. There are innumerable
recipes and chocolate products to be indulged in. Some of the ways that we
can share chocolate gifts with other chocolate lover’s is the following:

1. Romance: Anniversaries, Valentine’s Day or a romantic date can be
enhanced by decadent chocolate. Chocolate evokes romance.

2. Holidays: Depending on size, chocolate gifts can either be a main gift
for a holiday or an addition to a main gift. Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and
Mother’s Day are some of the best holidays for chocolate gifts. Chocolate
is often thought of as a traditional gift on many occasions.

3. Business Gifts: Companies show their employees appreciation for faithful
service by giving gifts. Chocolate is a wonderful way to say “thank you”.

4. Food gift baskets: Mortgage companies, car dealerships, Realtors,
insurance companies, jewelry stores, home builders, etc., often use food
gift baskets to thank their clients or customers for their business.

Some great chocolate gifts you could give are:

Strawberries dipped in chocolate Vanilla Ice Cream covered in Chocolate
Syrup Chocolate Mouses Torte Rich Chocolate Cake English Toffee Fluffy
creamy chocolate pie Chocolate dipped in nuts Chocolate, chocolate chip cookies
Truffles Black and white cookiesChocolate Chip Zucchini Bread Chocolate Cheesecake

The following is a delicious and easy recipe that your friends and family
will love.

Fudgy Brownies

½ C. Butter 2 Eggs

½ C. Partially-Dutch Cocoa 1 tsp. Vanilla

1 C. Sugar ½ C. Flour

1/4 tsp. Salt

Dalliene Johnson

Salt Lake City, Utah

Preheat oven to 350. Grease a 8″X8″ pan. In a medium saucepan, melt the
butter. Remove melted butter from heat; add cocoa and stir until well
blended. Add sugar and mix well. Add eggs, one at a time, and beat well.
Stir in vanilla, flour and salt. Do not over beat. Spread in the prepared
pan and bake 25 to 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes
out clean.

Chocolate is appropriate for any occasion. It is rich and elegant for
weddings, a reward for a job well done or a great desert after a delicious
dinner. For other fantastic chocolate gift ideas visit:

[http://www.terribluegooseboutique.com]

The Paleo Recipe Book and How It Will Change Your Life

I’ve tried it all the tricks in the book to lose weight and get healthy. I’ve done Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, and even the Subway diet. Somehow, none of these diets worked for me until I found out about the Paleo diet or more specifically the Paleo Recipe Book.

This diet is like nothing else I have ever done before and if I had not tried all the other tricks and gimmicks out there to get healthy, I probably never would have considered the Paleo lifestyle. Let me save you some hard ache and tell you that this recipe book will legitimately change your life or at the very least your eating habits.

The Paleo diet is the sole idea that in order to be happy and healthy, you must look at what you’re consuming on a daily bases. Let’s take a look at your diet, are there any natural foods in your daily regimen? Now, by natural I don’t mean green beans from a can or a strawberry flavored smoothie from McDonald’s. I mean natural as in pure, fresh, and raw foods that are not processed and good for you.

Now, I don’t want you to think that all that you eat on this diet is raw carrots and leaves. The Paleo Recipe Book has made it so incredibly easy for busy people to make tasty, delicious and easy meals for any time of the day. Some examples of the great recipes provided are:

Paleo Pizza,
Spaghetti,
Waldorf Salad,
Apple and Fennel Salad,
Sweet Potato Chips,
Double Chocolate Chip Cookies and much much more!

You’re probably thinking, damn, this seems almost to good to be true! Let me give you a straight and simple answer, this is real and it is just that simple. I have been able to eat the same great foods that I ate before and now I don’t have even the smallest feeling of guilt. By taking out the unnecessary harmful preservatives, trans-fats, and sugars, I have been able to live a much healthier lifestyle then before I started the Paleo diet.

However, I don’t want you to think that this is just a “results vary” kind of diet and that you are most likely not going to make any progress with your health and weight. Sure, some people may take a few extra weeks to start seeing results but you WILL see results and that is all that matters.

Matt from Chula Vista California said, “I was kind of leery at first, not really knowing if I was going to get a really good cookbook, or a collection of recipes with weird ingredients that I would never use. Much to my surprise, I got an excellent cookbook that I use all the time. Such great recipes as Moroccan Chicken, Salmon Fish Cakes, Omelet Muffins, BBQ Grilled Lamb Kebobs, just to name a few that I’ve tried & loved. Simply put, if you’re going to ditch the SAD diet & get back to a more natural way of eating, then the ‘Paleo Recipe Book’ is a must have!”

There are hundreds of testimonials out there besides Matt’s and mine. Are you ready to change your life? Are you ready to be happy? If you’re ready to make one of the best decisions in your life, follow the link below to learn more about how to get the Paleo Recipe Book for yourself!