I have become obsessed with tiny kitchen miracles: little, unassuming, simple recipes, that for whatever reason become so much greater than the sum of their parts. A paltry number of ingredients that give way to deliciousness or complexity that almost defies reason. This shortbread is a tiny kitchen miracle.
Shortbread is so very simple: three ingredients, with a simple ratio of 3:2: (flour:butter:sugar). They are mixed only so much that they just hold together, and then pressed into a dish with nothing more than fingertips. But the end product is a delight that belies the recipe: delicate but robust, sweet but with a faint whisper of savoury, filling but compulsively moreish. It is oe of those tiny kitchen miracles. Like this sauce. This bread. Or This butter icing. These dishes defy common sense. They are small spots of kitchen joy that shine and sing. They are the culinary equivalent of finding five pounds in the back pocket of an old pair of jeans, or waking up on a Monday to realise it is in fact a Sunday. They are unexpected, unasked for triumphs. Days, moments, biscuits that are far better than they deserve to be.
I also have an abiding love for dishes that you fall into. Dishes that are borne of mistakes or misunderstandings or necessity.
A dish of oily, winey, lemony chicken, broken up, with crispy skin, olives, that only came about because I made mistakes whilst following a different recipe, then scrambled to write down all my failures, to ensure I could reproduce this perfect error. A glorious black inky pasta with accidentally confited baby plum tomatoes, and bright, plump prawns thrown in at the last minute and enough garlic to ward off a year’s worth of colds. I fell into this dish.
I ended up with these biscuits when playing around with a dish for Burns Night, trying to pull out the honey flavour of cranachan and lay it over another traditional Scottish dish. I had low hopes for this experiment. I thought I would end up with floral, sticky, soggy biscuits. How wrong I was. The honey glazes the butter biscuit, and loses its stickiness during its short baking time, and whilst some of the salt crystals, some dissolve into the glaze, others sit proudly on top, providing a shock of savoury that gives way to the achingly sweet honey.
They are perfect placed in pairs filled with traditional cranachan, whisky spiked cream, slightly softened strawberry, and sweet, toasted oats (and you can find that recipe here).
But even if you have no interest in Burns Night or cranachan whatsoever, or think that you don’t like honey, I urge you to make this shortbread. I think it is one of the nicest biscuits I have ever eaten.
I love salted caramel. I love its dirty, almost bitter qualities. I love that it is both grown up and achingly sweet at the same time. I love it in rice pudding, I love it lurking under the sandy layer of a fruit crumble, I love it piled onto a teaspoon, straight from the jar, standing in front of the fridge. But there is something purer, a cleaner flavour when you combine honey and salt than salted caramel, which is glorious in its own right, cannot match. It has the added bonus, unlike salted caramel, of being almost instantaneous to make. It is my triumph. It is a tiny kitchen miracle.
You can make this shortbread one of two ways, and the recipe below takes you through both. You can make thin, neat little round individual biscuits, which can be paired off and turned into cranachan sandwiches, or just eaten, one by one, plucked from a teetering pile. Or you can make a thick, satisfying round of shortbread in a dish –I use a fluted oven-proof dish that I would use for a quiche, but this shortbread will lift out of most tins or dishes if you pop non-stick paper on the bottom – that you cut into slender petticoat tails, rigid enough to be held in one hand whilst having a conversation, but melts into a buttery sweet-savoury crumble in your mouth.
It goes like this:
Honey and Sea Salt Shortbread
Makes: 12-18 biscuits, or one thick round of shortbread
Bakes: 35 minutes
160 grams plain flour
50 grams rice flour (if you don’t have rice flour, not a problem, just add 50g extra plain flour)
140g butter if you’re making individual biscuits
110g butter if you’re making a round of shortbread
100g runny honey
1 scant tablespoon sea salt
1. If you have a food processor, put the flour, sugar and butter into the mixer and pulse until the mixture comes together as a cohesive, if crumbly, dough. If you don’t have a food processor, using your fingertips, rub the ingredients together until they form an even, sandy mixture. You should now be able to pat the crumbs into a ball that will just about hold itself together. Turn onto a lightly floured work surface and knead very briefly, just until you have a lump of dough.
2. If you’re making a round of shortbread, press the mixture into the tin or dish you’re using. Try and pack the crumbs down tightly, and keep the level or depth of the shortbread as even as possible. Once you have an even layer, prick all over with a fork, and pop in the fridge to chill for fifteen minutes.
3. If you’re making individual biscuits, wrap this dough in clingfilm and place in the fridge to chill for fifteen minutes. When you remove them, lightly flour your work surface and rolling pin, and briskly roll the dough as thin as you dare. You don’t want to overwork the dough, because this will cause the gluten to activate, and stop the shortbread being crumbly. Use a palette knife if you have one to help you lift the shortbread discs onto a lined baked tray. Chill for a further ten minutes in the fridge.
4. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 150 degrees C.
5. Place in the oven for 15 minutes for the individual biscuits and 25 minutes for the round.
6. Pour the honey into a small container, and if you have a microwave, pop it in for 20-30 seconds. I sometimes pop mine in the oven for a couple of minutes, but it’s perfectly possible to use it without doing this. Remove the shortbread from the oven and paint the honey onto it; sparingly sprinkle the salt across all of the shortbread, as evenly as you can. Return to the oven for a further ten minutes.
7. If you’re making individual biscuits, allow to cool for ten minutes on the trays, and then gently lift onto racks to cool completely.
8. If you’re making a round of shortbread, cut the sections into it as soon as it comes out of the oven, whilst it’s still sitting in the dish. Then leave to cool completely, and recut along the lines you’ve made. This will ensure neat, pleasing triangles with petticoat tails.
9. Ta Dah!
Icing on the Cake
These will keep in their original state for a couple of days (although they probably won’t be around that long), but will start to soften after that. They’re still lovely soft, slightly stodgy and almost flapjacky, but will miss the characteristic snap of shortbread. We began eating these with cranachan-inspired cream squidged between two biscuits, but ended up making two further batches, piling them high, and eating them alongside huge mugs of tea.