I grew up in the most anglophile French household I know, where the paperbacks strewn about the coffee table often bore little penguins, where the parents used English as a secret language when they didn’t want their daughters to understand, and where sending them to England every summer sounded like a good idea (that question is still up for debate; in any case, there went the secret language).
Food-wise, it meant that fried eggs frequently came with Worcestershire sauce and bacon (and even bangers if we were lucky), that fromage blanc was liberally doused with Golden Syrup, and that Christmas wouldn’t have been Christmas without my mother’s marzipan-topped Christmas cake, prepared weeks in advance.
It also meant that shopping expeditions to the Boulevard Haussmann department stores always ended with a quick run through Marks & Sparks‘ food section for tea, English muffins, stem ginger biscuits, hot cross buns, mincemeat pies, cole slaw, ready-made Indian dishes, and even bangers if we were lucky. Oh, and shortbread, too, which disappeared at a speed proportional to their butter content.
By the time Marks & Spencer decided to stab us in the heart and close their French stores (over some futile reason like not making any profit) it had become fairly easy to find British goods of all kinds in even the most ordinary of grocery stores in Paris. But when it comes to shortbread, I’d discovered that baking your own was even easier — and much more gratifying, too, in that call-me-Delia sort of way.
The following recipe uses stone-ground cornmeal to produce the supernal crunchy note any self-respecting shortbread should present. It results in an obviously buttery* but not overly sweet shortbread that you may choose to grace with a hint of vanilla or citrus zest. There is no law against piling on the chocolate chips and dried fruits and nuts and bells and whistles, but I am of the mind that simple is best.
* Do use the very best butter you can find; if there is one recipe that will showcase it in all its glory, this is it.
- 150 grams (5 1/3 ounces or 2/3 cup) top-quality European-style semi-salted butter (I use Bordier’s beurre demi-sel; substitute top-quality European-style unsalted butter, plus a fat pinch of fleur de sel or kosher salt)
- 70 grams (1/3 cup) sugar
- The seeds scraped from one vanilla bean or 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or 1 teaspoon (loosely packed) freshly grated, finely chopped citrus zest from an organic fruit
- 70 grams (7 tablespoons) stone-ground cornmeal (in France, Italian épiceries and organic stores sell it as farine de maïs or polenta)
- 150 grams (1 1/4 cup) all-purpose flour, sifted
Preheat the oven to 150°C (300°F)
In the bowl of a food processor (or by hand, in a medium mixing-bowl, with a sturdy rubber spatula) cream together the butter, sugar, and vanilla or zest, if using. Add the cornmeal and mix until combined. Add the flour and process until just combined.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface, knead for a few seconds until smooth, and gather into a ball. Press the dough with the heels of your hands into a pan (or see note below), preferably nonstick with a removable bottom: I use a fluted rectangular tart pan like this one, but a 20-cm (8-inch) round pan would work too. Level out the surface with the back of a tablespoon, prick holes all over the dough* (I use my chocolate dipping fork), and bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until lightly golden.
Transfer to a cooling rack, mark rectangular or square or triangular pieces using a sharp knife* (be gentle so as not to ruin the nonstick coating of your pan) while still hot and malleable, and let cool completely. Separate the pieces and serve. Try to exercise restraint, for shortbread tastes even better the next day.
* Please do not try to make the holes or the pieces too regular. It is their very imperfection that makes them appealing.
Note: Alternatively, you can spread the dough thickly on a lightly floured surface, cut out shapes using a cookie cutter, and arrange them on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Reduce the baking time accordingly.