Friday, 6 July 2012

Elephant No. 278: Shortbread

Today felt like a baking day—because, really, what better activity on a day when the mercury tops 34˚C (93˚F) and the humidex is 42˚C (108˚F)? Hard to believe that this is one of the world's coldest cities in winter.

Making shortbread is relatively easy. The tricky part is making sure you don't overwork the dough. I have yet to master this, so today I was only hoping for edible—and, of course, elephant-shaped.

Although my sister-in-law makes perfect melt-in-your-mouth shortbread, I've never even come close. So I'll stick instead to my traditional recipe for brown sugar shortbread. Although crunchier and darker than some versions, it's quite tasty, and relatively easy to roll out and cut into pretty shapes.

At its most basic, shortbread has three ingredients: butter, sugar and flour. You can use different types of sugar, different types of flour, and even something like shortening rather than butter. The three most common ingredients, however, are butter, white flour and icing sugar.

Then there are the additional ingredients. Cornstarch is often added in place of some of the flour. Flavourings are often added—I, for example, often add a touch of almond flavouring. Shortbreads can also include dried fruit, nuts, seeds and spices. Many shortbreads are also decorated with sprinkles and coloured sugar.

For today's elephant, I decided to go old school, and make a very traditional Scottish shortbread, consisting of three main ingredients: butter, light brown sugar and flour. Here is the recipe for the cookies I usually make at Christmas:

Traditional Scottish Brown Sugar Shortbread

1 cup (250 ml) butter, softened
1/2 cup (125 ml) packed brown sugar
2-1/4 cups (550 ml) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon (2 ml) almond, orange or other flavouring (optional)

1. In a large bowl, cream together butter, sugar and flavouring until light and fluffy.
2. Stir in flour gradually and mix well. Do not over-beat, or the dough (and the resulting cookies) will become tough.
3. Roll out 0.8 cm (1/3 inch) thick on lightly floured surface. Cut with lightly floured cookie cutter and place on cookie sheet. Decorate if desired. If you don't want to go to the trouble of using a cookie cutter, press into a disk or rectangle the same thickness, and cut into wedges, strips or squares with a knife. You can also press the whole thing into a shortbread mould.

4. Bake at 300˚F (150˚C) for 20–25 minutes, until edges are just beginning to turn a light brown. Cool on cookie sheet for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack.

I was a bit tired of my usual elephant cookie cutter, so I tried this plastic one from a clay-modelling set. Unfortunately, the dough stuck to every nook and cranny of the cutter, making it impossible to get a complete elephant. So I reverted to my previous cutter, which is actually much larger, meaning fewer cookies.

To start, I beat together the butter, sugar and a bit of orange flavouring with an electric mixer until it was fluffy and creamy. This took me about 8–10 minutes of constant beating.

Next, I blended in the flour in three lots, using the back of a wooden spoon to mix it into the butter-sugar mixture. The idea when blending in the flour is to keep the dough from getting sort of heavy and "stringy". If you try to use a beater or mixer for this, it will be easier to mix, but the dough will also likely be tough. That being said, the frustration of trying to mix a decent dough might outweigh the possibility of ending up with tough cookies.

The resulting dough should be stiff, but pliable. It won't be as soft as dough for sugar cookies, and may appear more like piecrust than cookie dough.

I divided the dough into two amounts and dumped the first half on a lightly floured cutting board. I rolled it out to about 1 cm (1/3 to 1/2 inch) in thickness, and cut out as many cookies as I could fit. I then did the same thing with the other half of the dough. When I was finished, I had thirteen cookies. The recipe says I'm supposed to get two or three dozen.

I decorated them with coloured sugar, then popped them in my preheated oven to bake. I baked mine for about 22 minutes.

I have to admit that, no matter how often I try shortbread, I don't love making it. The dough is always kind of disappointing to me, and rolling, cutting and decorating cookies is an activity that I find vaguely tedious at the best of times.

That being said, these are kind of cute, and actually taste pretty good.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Given enough toys to play with, most elephants are quite good at amusing themselves. Elephants also often have favourite toys and games—some of which may mystify the rest of us—including velcro, a log, and even a hapless live lizard.

A particular favourite, however, appears to be a game we might call "lawnchair toss". At the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya, an elephant called Ajok—who also appears to be a bit of a comedian—adopted a folding chair as his favourite toy. Creeping up to a staffer's verandah at night, Ajok would snatch a camp chair and toss it over a wall, causing a deafening clatter that often terrified anyone within earshot.

Nor is Ajok alone in his love of this particular pastime. In a previous post, I wrote about two elephants at the Thula Thula reserve in South Africa. Crashing an evening dinner party, Frankie and Nana tossed a couple of chairs high in the air before turning their attention to the banquet and swimming pool.

Baby Ajok with staff at the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Wildlife Trust of India

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