Shortbread

Simple shortbread makes a sweet treat or a great gift.

I suspect you’ll be spending time enough in the kitchen over Christmas, so in the run-up I always think it’s important to keep things simple. You still need the occasional sweet treat, of course: it just doesn’t have to be the most complicated thing you ever attempted.

This week’s shortbread uses only three basic ingredients: butter, sugar and flour. The great thing about base recipes like this is that it’s up to your imagination what direction you take them in. If I were making shortbread in the summer, I might add lime zest or lemon zest because you crave fresh flavours. In the winter, I might add vanilla or orange zest and cardamom, which feels more Christmassy somehow. If you want something you can make as a gift, you can dip half of each biscuit in melted chocolate (just leave them on a piece of baking paper at room temperature to set). If my nephews and nieces are over I like to get in lots of different coloured fondants or squeezy tubes of coloured icing. Then they decorate them. Admittedly, most of the biscuits get eaten, but if you’re lucky you’ll end up with a few manhandled biscuits as presents for their mums and dads.

Most shortbread recipes call on you to press the dough into a tin, which you score and break into pieces once it’s cooked. I prefer to roll the dough and cut out individual biscuits because they are less likely to break apart. Also, my family have to have equal-sized pieces to avoid any arguments, and this way I can make sure they are all the same size. You could use a cutter if you like, but after extensive research, my husband, Abdal, has decreed that 3 x 1in rectangles are the perfect size for a man-sized biscuit you can dip in your tea without any danger of it falling apart.

You don’t have to be that precise of course. I’m not suggesting you need to get out a tape measure. That really would be a bit sad. You see people doing it on Bake Off, but that’s competitive baking. That said, I confess I do have a spirit level for when I want the top of a cake to be perfectly straight and level – like when I made the Queen’s birthday cake. I have a cross marked on my worktop where it is most even, so when I’m lining a cake or covering it with fondant, that’s where the cake stand goes. Then I’ll use the spirit level to make sure I’m cutting the top absolutely level. I try to hide it from the children because I don’t want to appear a perfectionist in front of them – baking’s supposed to be fun, and the last thing I need is to pay for their therapy in ten years’ time. So when they ask why there’s a spirit level in there, I say, “Ask your dad. He must have left it in there.” As lies go, that’s not too naughty, is it?

Vanilla or cardamom and orange shortbread
Makes about 40

250g unsalted butter
110g caster sugar (plus extra for sprinkling)
1 tbsp vanilla bean paste or zest of 1 orange and ¼ tsp ground cardamom
360g plain flour, sifted

1 Heat the oven to 190C/Gas 5. Line 2 baking trays with baking paper.
2 In a mixer, beat together the butter and sugar until the mixture is smooth and very pale, almost white in colour.
3 Add the vanilla bean paste or zest and cardamom. Give it a quick mix and then add the flour. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, mix until all the flour has been incorporated.
4 Place the dough on a very lightly floured work surface and bring the dough together into a mound and flatten slightly. Wrap in clingfilm and chill in the fridge for 15 minutes.
5 Roll out the dough to about the thickness of 1cm and cut into rectangles about 3 x 1in. Place each piece on the trays. Prick the dough all over using a fork, sprinkle with a little caster sugar and bake for 15-20 minutes. (If you are baking one tray at a time be sure to place the other in the fridge while you wait.)
6 Once done, leave on a baking tray to cool.

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