It’s a Christmas Miracle!
I’m giving it away. My mother’s secret. The one she held close; a few scribbles on a greasy, dog-eared page. I know she had others. Sad secrets, mortifying ones. As we all do. But this one made her a special sort of genius. A star. It gave her powers. Kitchen witchcraft of the highest order. Well, at least I thought so.
Christmastime for Mother meant baking her once a year shortbread cookies. She baked dozens and dozens of them, stacking and stashing them away in tins between layers of wax paper, lowered into the depths of the giant chest freezer, buried under baggies of meat, perch from the Ottawa river, and extra veggies from Father’s garden. Huh! As if I didn’t know they were there! As if I couldn’t find them! As if freezing them would stop me – ha! – it merely slowed me down some.
I’ve eaten my share of shortbread in this life, from the crappy, rancid store-bought kind to yummy, gourmet store-bought kind, and everyone’s homemade this-is-the-best-shortbread-ever kind. I’ve had them thin and snappy, thick and dusty, melt-in-the-mouth, and flaky; plain, dry, chocolatey, nutty, too sweet, extra buttery, and not buttery enough. I’ve had them confused and diluted; perfumed with lavender or Earl Grey tea, studded with nuts, and turned into crackers with cheddar and rosemary. And still…and still, Mother’s is my favorite. With hard white icing – which I still haven’t perfected – and a tiny bit of red or green maraschino cherry, or those little silver balls better suited to smashing molars.
She started with the Five Roses cookbook’s Prize Shortbread recipe and tweaked it. Here’s how:
Mother’s Prize Shortbread
1 cup (250 mL) butter, room temperature but not soft
Pinch to ¼ tsp (2 mL) nutmeg
½ cup (125 mL) packed brown sugar – light or dark, whatever you prefer
2 cups less 2 Tbsp (500 mL less 30 mL) all-purpose flour
2 Tbsp (30 mL) corn starch
Preheat oven to 350F (180 C).
Line a baking sheet with parchment; set aside.
Into a large bowl, soften the butter; add the sugar and nutmeg and stir together. A wooden spoon works well, but I think a stand mixer on medium is just as good. Blend until creamed; about 30 seconds to 1 minute.
Add the flour a bit at a time until the mixture is too crumbly and stiff to work with a spoon or the beaters.
Lightly flour the counter, tip out the dough and kneed lightly, just until dough begins to crack.
Flour a rolling pin and roll dough to about ¼-inch thick. Cut into desired shapes. Mother always used a juice glass, dipping the rim of the glass into the flour after every few cuts. Then, she’d use a lifter to transfer the cookies to the baking sheet.
Bake for about 10 minutes or until light brown at the edges. If using dark brown sugar, the cookies will be the shade of a gingersnap.
When done, allow to cool on the sheet for a few minutes before transferring to a cooling rack. Allow to cool completely before icing.
At about a 3-inch cookie this recipe makes about 24.
A word of advice: never, ever, under any circumstances, try to make these with margarine. I did that once when I was a poverty-stricken student. I ended up with one, inedible, (though I may have actually eaten it anyway), massive, lacy, tuile-like affair the size of the sheet pan.
Mother’s icing is still a mystery to me; I’ve never found a recipe for it, not one scribble anywhere. So I do the best I can going on taste memory. I make some variation of a simple, unmeasured concoction – and it changes from batch to batch – of icing sugar, almond extract, cream, sometimes egg white, but always with a bit of maraschino. I’m getting too old to risk the dental work with those pretty little silver balls!
This year I went with a rather successful combination of 1 egg white, icing sugar, a splash of both Maraschino juice and almond extract, and a drizzle of 35% cream…all done by eye and taste and feel.