This time of year, food editor Mary McGrath’s classic shortbread cookies usually fill my apartment with their deliciously buttery scent, though the past few days my apartment has smelled like gingerbread, which is weird since I’d actually baked banana bread and cinnamon almond biscotti (with brandy!). But last night, my apartment finally smelled like butter. BUTTER!!! Mmm shortbread. It really is one of the easiest things to bake, with only four ingredients. I often make substitutions and adjustments in recipes, even with baking and especially when cooking (measurements? what’s that???), but there’s one recipe I’ve learned is perfect as is, and that’s Mary McGrath’s classic shortbread.
I clipped it from Mary’s food column in the Toronto Star sometime in uni (dare I say exactly when that was? let’s say it was back in the ’90s), and I’ve used it every Christmas. Every Christmas. Actually, I lied. I usually use all-purpose flour in the recipe, instead of the suggested cake and pastry flour, but that’s because I didn’t understand until now what kind of difference the type of flour makes. The other night, I decided to look it up, as I was debating whether I really needed to bike out to buy cake and pastry flour, which, it turns out, is ideal for cakes and cookies that have a delicate texture. Since I’d recently met Mary at a Toronto Public Library event about shortbread (which included many delicious shortbread samples!) and had confessed to her that I’d been making her recipe for almost 15 years, I decided to try it with cake and pastry flour, as I recall her saying to the crowd of foodies that that was her preference.
And, boy, does cake and pastry flour ever make a difference! The texture of the shortbread is soft and slightly crumbly. It actually makes the shortbread taste even better! It looks pretty good too – see the delicate, yummy rocking horse above.
So here’s my gift to you this Christmas: my version of Mary McGrath’s Classic Shortbread recipe (adapted from her Shortbread Sampler). OK, I guess it’s Mary’s gift to you via me! The only change I’ve made is to sprinkle granulated white sugar on top for decoration and a touch of sweetness. Sometimes I use a coarser red or green sugar for fun.
Mary McGrath’s Classic Shortbread
1 1/2 cups butter, softened (that’s almost an entire stick!)
1/2 cup icing sugar, sifted
3 cups cake and pastry flour
1/2 cup rice flour (Mary stresses that rice flour is key to authentic shortbread)
Granulated white sugar for garnish
- Preheat oven to 300°F.
- In a large bowl, cream together butter and icing sugar with an electric mixer on low until smooth.
- In a medium bowl, combine flours, whisking well.
- Slowly add flour mixture to butter mixture in 4 additions, beating between additions. Scrape the sides of the bowl before adding each addition.
- Form dough into ball. Roll out onto lightly floured surface to 1/4-inch thickness. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Remove from fridge and cut into shapes. Lay out on parchment paper-lined cookie sheet. Sprinkle granulated white sugar over top if desired.
- Bake for 18-20 mins or until slightly firm and bottom of cookies are golden. Let cool for a few minutes before transferring to wire rack. You may have to rotate the cookie sheet halfway through baking so the cookies bake evenly.
Makes about 24 cookies
Recipe adapted from Mary McGrath’s A Shortbread Sampler. Available at the Toronto Star’s online store, the softcover book costs a mere $10; 100% of the proceeds goes to the Toronto Star Fresh Air Fund and Santa Claus Fund.