One night last week, I woke up at 4 am and couldn’t fall back asleep. I tried everything. I read the New Yorker by my bed — yes … I might live in Cambridge, but I still subscribe to the New Yorker, New York Magazine, the weekend New York Times … you get the picture. I listened to my flying piggy music box. This was a gift from my dear friend Lau who lives in London and here is the picture I sent her a few years ago when the little piggy and I lived in my very NY apartment.
I’ve tried to load the video so I can share the music which just adds to the piggy charm, but I’m new at this techie thing and I just can’t seem to make it work.
Back to sleepless in Cambridge…
… Despite all my best efforts, I couldn’t fall back asleep, so … I decided to bake.
Now, mind you, I am NOT a baker. Baking is chemistry, and I am no chemist. That poor unfortunate soul who was my lab partner in Orgo can attest to that! But, some things are really worth the effort, and at 4 in the morning, I needed to channel my inner chemist (?!?) to focus, relax, and help me get back to sleep. So, I made espresso shortbread. Well, I made the dough and then stuck it in the fridge to chill for a few hours while I went back to sleep.
Now, this might seem strange — why would I make anything with espresso in it in the middle of the night if my goal was to go back to sleep? Well, for me, coffee is less about the caffeine and more about the ritual. Don’t get me wrong, caffeine has an effect on me. But the real wake-up call is that first (and usually only) cup in the morning, the steam rising as I warm my always-cold hands on the mug full of delicious. I only drink it cold when it’s unbearably hot outside…and it’s just not the same.
So, espresso is just another ingredient. Well, not just. It’s an extraordinary ingredient. And in these shortbread, it magically gives a chocolate hint.
My take on baking is that if I’m going to bake, there is usually a special unique or unexpected ingredient that I want to showcase, and the experience – the process – really comes from the heart. That’s the only way I can focus enough to actually follow a recipe exactly. When I made these shortbread, I used a birthday gift from Eva, the first and fastest friend I made up here in Boston. She just gets me.
My love affair with shortbread began in my early teens when I started babysitting for the same family almost every weekend. Penny was English, Medhat was Egyptian, and I cared for their three children for five years, two of them from birth. One Saturday night, soon after “Weezy” (Louise) had been born and Lilah was not yet tired of playing mommy, Penny left some fresh homemade shortbread on the counter. Now, until then my main exposure to shortbread was Walker’s. Which is good, but can not compare to the melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness that is homemade. Penny apologized for leaving things out on the counter in a mess, but was in a rush and the shortbread had to cool. She told me to help myself to a few shortbread. And help myself I did. After I put the girls to sleep. And one more story. And a glass of water. And finally silence.
As any babysitter knows, this is the time to rummage around in the fridge, check out the pantry, and get a snack before settling down for an evening of homework and maybe a little TV, turned low. So, I had a bite of shortbread, plucked from the rack of now cooled little diamonds. Wow! I opened the fridge and saw a mound of dough, wrapped in plastic, and sitting in a bowl. Raw shortbread cookie dough. Enough said. I was hooked and kept stealing little nibbles by the spoonful, always carefully remolding the dough and tightly rewrapping the plastic. I couldn’t eat very much or Penny would notice. Eating some chips is acceptable babysitter behavior. But raw dough…I don’t think so. And Penny is a very proper British woman.
That night when I got home, I prepared my own version of shortbread dough … to eat raw of course. I had noticed that Penny had left confectioners’ sugar out on her counter, so I found some in our pantry, mixed it with a little flour and butter, mashed it all together with a fork in a little bowl, squished it to form a nice mound and didn’t bother with the plastic because it wasn’t going to make it to the fridge. Who has time to waste? I just pinched off little bites of delicious, melt in your mouth … raw … shortbread … dough.
And for years, I made that little concoction when I wanted a little something sweet. It wasn’t until I was all grown up and had my own apartment and started to entertain that it ever occurred to me to actually bake the shortbread.
Adapted from Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course: The Desserts of Gramercy Tavern. The main substitution I make here is to use (parve) unsalted margarine instead of butter so I can serve them after eating meat. I know, I know … the horror! If you made 2 batches, one with butter, one with margarine, and compared them side-by-side, I’m sure the butter would win. And I admit, these are not quite the same as Penny’s. But, I like them just the same. This is definitely an adult cookie and they’re worth the work…
Makes about 2 dozen.
1 C (2 sticks) unsalted margarine softened (or you can use butter…)
2/3 C confectioners’ sugar
21 t vanilla extract
2 C all-purpose flour
1/4 C ground espresso — make sure it is ground really fine (i.e., for an espresso maker).
1/2 t salt
Make the dough: With electric mixer and paddle attachment, beat margarine and sugar until creamy, approximately 2 minutes. Add vanilla and beat well. Turn to low speed and mix in dry ingredients – flour, espresso, and salt until just combined. The dough will be brownish-gray, a little sticky, and firm. Form dough into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 2 hours. (It was at this point that I went back to bed at 5:30 am).
Preheat oven to 300°F.
Roll the dough between 2 sheets of wax paper or plastic wrap (keep the rest refrigerated) to 1/4 inch thick. I’ve never really been very good at measuring thickness — so, if you can’t measure 1/4 inch, the most important thing is to make sure that each batch you put in the oven is the same thickness so everything bakes evenly. If you’ve ever eaten Walker’s shortbread — the little sticks — I think they’re about 1/2 inch thick…so use your best judgment.
Cut the dough into diamond shapes. I find that using a pizza cutter is the easiest way to get straight, clean lines. Place diamonds on Silpat or parchment covered baking sheet (recipe says to use an ungreased baking sheet, but I prefer to cover).
[An aside: Most recipes including this one typically say not to re-roll the scraps, but honestly, unless you can eat all that raw dough...it's such a waste. The re-rolled shortbread might not be exactly the same consistency as the "originals" but I'm not going to tell anyone if you don't. I re-form any scraps into a mound, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for about an hour, then roll out the next batch.]
Prick the shortbread with a toothpick in the middle and bake until pale golden around the edges, 20-24 minutes.
Cool completely on a wire rack.