I never thought I'd be one of those bloggers, the kind that post gimmicky heart-shaped or red velvet creations to mark the otherwise utterly meaningless fourteenth of February. To be honest, these were made a couple of weeks ago, and they just happen to be heart-shaped, because I thought they'd make more interesting photos than simple rounds. But ignore that if you're a hopeless romantic: these would also make a lovely gift for your Valentine. Or your colleagues, as in my case. Or your friends. Or your mum. Shortbread doesn't make distinctions. Shortbread is always loving.Read More
Not content with the simple pleasure offered by a biscuit and a cup of tea, I have been experimenting with a very British method of gilding the lily: baking tea into the biscuit itself. It’s hardly an unprecedented move: just think of the humble Rich Tea biscuit, beloved by millions for its milky blandness and its perfectly calibrated texture, designed for dunking into a soul-soothing cuppa in the middle of the afternoon. I’m not sure if there is actually any tea to be found in the Rich Tea, but I’ve also come across excellent versions of Earl Grey shortbread, where crumbly butteriness blends perfectly with the refreshing snap of bergamot. Shortbread is the ideal foil for assertive tea flavours; comforting, rich, dangerously moreish, it can take a heavy-handed scattering of tea leaves through the mix.Read More
While I love baking, there are definitely qualifications I have to make to that statement. I wouldn't consider myself an all-round baking lover. There are some things I just don't have time for in the kitchen. One: any form of fussy dairy-based confection, like a mousse, bavarois, parfait (the exception being ice cream, which I love to make). Two: most things involving chocolate, like ganache or tempering - I don't have the patience and I don't like chocolate enough to make it worthwhile. Three: making things like puff pastry from scratch. Four: individual things in moulds that have to set. Five: sugarwork - fancy caramels or spun sugar. These things just don't appeal to me in the same way that making a beautiful big cake does, or a rustic crumble or pudding.
Until yesterday, I would extend that qualification to biscuits too.
I used to love baking biscuits as a child. Specifically, one type of biscuit, which I believe used to be termed an 'Aztec biscuit' in our family. A quick google of the term, however, turns up something totally different to the biscuit I am thinking of. These were a bit like flapjacks in circular form: a heady mixture of butter, oats and golden syrup, studded with raisins and baked until they spread out deliciously in a kind of brandy snap pattern. I would eat them hot from the oven while they were still gloriously pliable, draping gently over each other on the cooling rack, their bumpy surface glistening invitingly.
I'm pretty sure I used to eat about ten in a single go as a child. Sometimes I want to go back in time, find my seven year-old self and shake her by the shoulders, crying 'DON'T YOU KNOW HOW LUCKY YOU ARE TO BE COMPLETELY IGNORANT OF THE ENTIRE CONCEPT OF CALORIES?'
Neurotic waistline issues aside, I just don't eat very many biscuits these days. I have a total weakness for Hobnobs and Digestives, but I'm generally pretty good with willpower at not letting myself near these things. The simple reason being I know I won't stop; they're just too addictive and I will eat half a packet and then hate myself and want to curl up into a small ball, weeping with frantic abandon and clawing at my midriff.
Perhaps it's for this reason that I haven't baked biscuits in years, or perhaps it's just because I would often much rather bake a cake. I feel like you get more reward from a cake; it's more squidgy, moist, gooey, buttery. Biscuits often seem unnecessarily fiddly. I never seem to get the proportions right, and they either spread out and conjoin like some massive alien amoeba or are so small that they dry out before they're cooked.
Except for these ones, where you basically throw some things (okay, mostly butter) into a mixer, beat it up for a little while, roll it into two logs, chill and then slice when ready to bake. They're probably the easiest biscuits in the world, and are one of those great recipes where the effort to reward ratio is vastly skewed in favour of the latter. Plus they don't spread out much during cooking, so there's no risk of making one giant, tentacled shortbread monster.
I was inspired to make these by the acquisition of an exciting new ingredient from JustIngredients: orange peel powder. This is, as you'd imagine, dried orange peel that has been ground to a pretty sandy-coloured powder. It has a deep musky aroma reminiscent of potpourri, much more savoury and earthy than the fresh snap of grated orange zest. I've never come across such a thing before, and have already written an exciting little spider diagram in my recipe notebook of all my ideas for it. (I'm not painting the best picture of myself in this post, am I?)
However, for some reason, my mind immediately landed on shortbread. The inclusion of citrus aromas in shortbread is a wonderful thing - that melt-in-the-mouth buttery texture with the perfume of lemon or orange is a fabulous combination. I also decided to add some cardamom, because recent kitchen experimentation (such as this treacle tart) inspired by my travels in the middle east has led me to believe that anything sweet is hugely benefited from the addition of a few ground cardamom pods.
These shortbread biscuits are gorgeous. They have the most wonderful light, almost powdery texture, turning to buttery deliciousness as soon as you take a bite. There's a subtle perfume of cardamom and an earthy orange flavour, but neither is too overpowering: this is still shortbread, at its core. They're incredibly easy to make, and there's something deeply satisfying about slicing a chilled log of golden dough into pieces that will soon become crunchy buttery morsels of joy. An added bonus is that you can keep the dough in the fridge or freezer until you need it, then just slice and bake - almost instant home-made shortbread, for when you want to impress people (and I feel we should try and impress people in life more often).
Unfortunately, they're possibly even more moreish than Aztec biscuits, and the recipe makes about fifty. You have been warned.
Orange and cardamom shortbread biscuits (makes around 50):
250g butter, at room temperature
100g caster sugar
7 cardamom pods, husks removed and seeds ground to a powder
2 tsp orange peel powder, plus more for sprinkling (or zest of 1 orange)
250g plain flour, sifted
130g cornflour, sifted
Using an electric mixer or hand whisk (or a wooden spoon and some serious muscle!) beat the butter with the sugar until light and fluffy. Add the cardamom and orange peel powder/zest. Gradually add the flours, mixing between each addition, until you have a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead until it just comes together.
Divide the dough into two pieces. Roll each into a log shape, about 1.5-2 inches in diameter. Wrap these in clingfilm and chill for at least half an hour in the fridge.
When ready to bake, pre-heat the oven to 160C. Slice the logs of dough into circles about 5mm wide, then arrange these on a baking sheet lined with non-stick parchment. Sprinkle a little orange peel powder over each one (skip this part if you used zest), then bake for 15-25 minutes until they have just turned golden (watch them closely - they can go from raw to burnt very quickly).
Remove, leave to cool, then eat.
"Granny made some shortbread for you."
Six simple words, yet the joy they promise is boundless. I lift the lid of the gaudy plastic ice-cream tub, so incongruously matched to its sublime contents. I pull back the corner of the kitchen paper to reveal wedges of golden, burnished biscuit, thickly dusted with a snowy layer of sugar. I inhale the sweet, musty fragrance of butter, flour and sugar, picking at a stray crumb before extracting my chosen piece, always going for the largest in the box despite knowing it's inevitable I'll come back for a second. And a third.
I'm not alone, I'm sure, in possessing childhood memories of my granny that revolve around food. They're perhaps less conventional than some. I don't, for instance, fondly recall tugging at her apron strings as she showed me how to whip up a fabulous sponge cake, or licking the cake bowl after she'd finished. I don't recall a bubbling pot of jam, stew or soup on the stove, and the condensation it produced at the windows in winter.
I do, however, recall very vividly the mini rotisserie attachment on her cooker, that allowed a chicken to be spit-roasted to succulent perfection. I remember the little crisp crackers she would put in a bowl when the grown-ups had their evening drinks - I always called them 'stars' even though they came in all sorts of shapes - diamonds, circles, and (obviously - there was some logic to this) actual stars. I would nibble the points off the stars until only the mutilated centre remained, like a tragic soggy starfish that's been cruelly mauled by a hungry shark.
I remember breakfast every day in her lovely light conservatory, where we were spoilt for choice, totally different to our usual standard bowl of cereal at home. There were tinned grapefruit segments, swimming in their cloudy tart juice. Being a picky child and totally unconcerned about my vitamin intake, I naturally ignored these. They were for the grown-ups. There were boxes of bran flakes, my favourite cereal back then. I remember watching someone put sugar from the sugar bowl onto their bran flakes, and remember trying it and being distinctly unimpressed with the results. Even as a child, I wasn't into sugary cereals. There was a toaster waiting to hungrily accept crumbly slices of soda bread, which until very recently I always referred to as 'Granny's bread', so strong was the mental association.
I remember a warm, gooey apple cake she once made, served with lashings of vanilla ice cream that melted and soaked creamily into the sweet, tender crumb. I think I remember she had one of those fancy dinner party serving cabinets that keeps the food warm while you bring it to the table. She made excellent roast potatoes, and I know now that she makes a wonderful coffee cake, but my childhood self was unlikely to take a bite of that weird creation, so its sumptuousness would have to wait a good decade to make its way into my life.
It's a bit of a cliché to go on about how great a cook one's granny is (come on Britain, 'fess up - surely there must be some culinarily-challenged grannies out there; I refuse to believe they're all paragons of kitchen perfection, daintily arranged in spotless aprons churning out Victoria sponges for their adoring grandchildren), but in my case it is just plain factual. Perhaps it's something to do with the fact that she spent a lot of time living in various locations in Asia when she was younger, absorbing recipes and cooking tips by some sort of osmotic process.
I was lucky enough to read through her recipe book recently, and it's a fascinating mish-mash of English and Asian, with sweet-and-sour fish sitting happily alongside jellied ox tongue, lemon meringue pie, and blackcurrant bake. There's a recipe simply titled 'Mohammed's bread', named after the family cook when she was living abroad (I forget where, but I think perhaps Calcutta). The pages are crinkled and the handwriting has faded, slightly, but it's a fascinating treasure-trove of memories and inspiration, one that I hope to cook from one day.
But when I think of my granny and food, one thing will stand out for me every time. Her shortbread.
She knows how much I love it; so much so that every time she comes to visit, she can be found earnestly pounding butter, flour, sugar and semolina together in a bowl with a wooden spoon, to provide me with my favourite treat. Sometimes she has to produce more than one batch in a very short space of time, such is the speed with which it's devoured.
How to describe the sheer simple beauty of a piece of granny's shortbread?
For a start, it's nothing like that stuff you get in a tartan packet masquerading as shortbread. That stuff is often too sweet, too bland, too mass-produced. This is the real deal. It has a hefty amount of butter and sugar. That's why it tastes so good. You mix them together with a wooden spoon until they are soft and creamy.
It has semolina, which gives it this amazing crunch. You fold that in after, along with the flour. That's literally it. Then you press it firmly into a greased tin, prick it all over with a fork to stop it puffing up in the oven, and bake it for around an hour at a low temperature. It's somehow satisfyingly crunchy and crumbly, yet melt-in-the-mouth buttery and sweet.
Granny dusts it with a thick layer of caster sugar while it's still in the tin, which gives it even more crunch when you come to take a bite.
Think of how good the buttery topping of a crumble tastes, or the crispy pastry bits around the edge of a fruit pie. This is how the shortbread tastes. Crispy, crunchy, rich, buttery. It's just unbelievably good. Better than any biscuit you will ever make or buy, I'd wager. So simple, yet so perfect.
I am physically incapable of having just one piece. In fact, I reckon I could eat the whole tin in one go. I normally eat this stuff in three-piece portions, simply swept away by the sugary rush into eating more and more. It's addictive.
I think granny is always amazed that I rave about her shortbread so much. Every time I do, she laughs and tells me "It's just Delia!" There's no grand family secret recipe behind this post, nothing in granny's carefully-written recipe book; simply the work of the good old Delia Smith.
What I don't think she understands is that for me, it's not about where the recipe came from, or who wrote it. It's about the fact that granny has made the shortbread with me in mind, knowing how much I love and adore this irresistible combination of ingredients. That, for me, is special, and is the reason why this shortbread will always have a special place in my heart, as a reminder of my lovely granny.
That, and the fact that it tastes incredible, of course.
Should you also want to replicate the perfection that is granny's shortbread, the recipe is here, on Delia's website.