Let me say that again, slowly. Chocolate. Espresso. Shortbread. Cookies. Are you drooling yet? And if you’re not, where do you come from? Before I start, I think I need a disclaimer. These cookies are HIGHLY addictive. If you can stop eating at just one, I ask you again, who are you? And where can I buy some of that will power? Because mine just crumbles in the face of that heavenly butter-sugar-espresso-chocolate combination. I thought it was just me but my cousin D will vouch for the siren song of these deceptively plain looking cookies. I’m just saying I won’t be responsible for any weight gain that may occur between you baking these and staring desolately at an empty tin.
My first acquaintance with shortbread was through a close cousin – the Shrewsbury biscuit named for the historic market town of Shrewsbury in Shropshire county, England. The biscuit was presumably brought to India by the British and it is no surprise that the city of Pune, termed the Oxford of the East, should excel in the production of this delicious cookie. If there is a mecca to the art of pure, old-fashioned baking in India, it has to be the Kayani Bakery in Pune. It was founded in 1955 by two Iranian brothers and in the tradition of Irani cafés all over Bombay and Pune, it still remains largely unchanged. Freshly baked goods come out of their huge ovens twice everyday – these are crucial times, because if you’re a little too late, you can be sure that the favorites will be sold out. You wait patiently in a queue that spills out of the shop and make up your mind as it snakes its way in because once you reach the counter, there will be no time. Orders are barked out and filled in just as fast and before you know what happened, you’re out on the street with the typical square patterned boxes or paper bags, which emit such a seductive buttery smell that you want to rip them open right there.
Everyone has a favorite at Kayani. For some it is their decadent rum or chocolate-walnut cakes. For others, it is their Shrewsbury biscuit for which they are justifiably famous. (When I moved to Pune for work, one of my friends whooped for joy because I could get him Shrewsbury biscuits every weekend.) When I first ate these biscuits, they were a revelation to me, because we don’t traditionally bake cookies in India and these were so unlike the factory-manufactured biscuits (as they’re called here) I’d eaten. A single bite transported you as the cookie dissolved in your mouth leaving behind the memory of butter and sugar. But the older me found them too buttery (yes, alas there can be such a thing) and Kayani’s plain butter cake (best eaten sliced cold from the fridge) became and to this day remains my favorite. (I have baked dozens of cakes to try and replicate that taste and been only marginally successful, but that’s another story.)
Getting back to the cookies, even though the Shrewsbury was not on my favorites list anymore, I was still looking for a similar cookie with maybe a little less butter and a little more texture – enter the cousin – Shortbread. They share the same elements – butter, sugar and flour but the shortbread has a slightly sandy texture that feels a little more substantial before it too melts in your mouth. Add chocolate and espresso to the mix and you’re in cookie heaven. The recipe for this fabulous cookie comes from Dorie Greenspan’s equally fabulous book Baking: From My Home to Yours and is one of the few recipes I have never felt a need to tinker with. As in any simple recipe, the key is the quality of the ingredients and the care with which you treat them. But don’t worry, making this cookie is quick and with Dorie’s expert tips, painless.
You start with butter that is soft but retains its shape at room temperature and beat it with confectioners’ sugar till it is smooth. You then gently beat in vanilla and espresso, and finally the flour. The only caveat is to avoid over-beating at all stages – if you beat the butter and sugar too much, the incorporated air will cause the cookies to puff up when baked and then sink; if you beat too much while adding in the flour, the cookies will not have that sandy texture we’re looking for. In the end, you add in chopped chocolate or mini chocolate chips and then marvel over how absolutely beautiful the dough looks. I dare you to not sample a single bite. (Oh go ahead, you know you want to and it will make me feel better for not being the only weak-willed person here.)
Next comes this neat trick from Dorie – you fill a zip-lock plastic bag with the dough and roll it out – no sticking, no problem. Refrigerate the dough, making sure it’s on a flat surface, else you’ll get undulating hills and valleys and cutting into squares will no longer be the simple task it should be. Once you have relatively neat squares (see how I don’t use words like perfect?), you bake the cookies for a relatively short time. They should still be pale, but as you can see from mine, there are a very few minutes between pale and golden. Let me tell you, this does not make them any less fabulous. I know you want to sink your teeth into them right now. But wait a little till they cool down. Never will your patience be rewarded with such a heavenly reward.
P.S. If you can bear to be generous with them, these cookies make wonderful gifts and travel well as my friend who received these among 3 dozen other cookies as a birthday gift will agree. (This is my not-so-subtle way of indicating I can be generous, which my eating habits outlined in this blog don’t usually indicate.)
Chocolate-Espresso Shortbread Cookies
Recipe adapted from Baking: From My Home to Yours – Dorie Greenspan
1 tablespoon instant espresso powder
1 tablespoon boiling water
2 sticks (8 oz or 240 gm) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
4 oz (120 gm) finely chopped bittersweet chocolate, or 3/4 cup mini chocolate chips
Confectioners’ sugar, for dusting (optional)
1. Dissolve the espresso powder in the boiling water (it is extremely handy to use the microwave to do this). Set aside to cool to tepid.
2. In a stand mixer or using a hand-held electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar on medium speed until the mixture is smooth, about 3 minutes. Don’t over-beat or the air incorporated will cause the cookies to puff when baked and sink as they cool.
3. Beat in the vanilla and espresso. Reduce the mixer speed to low and gently beat in the flour only until it is incorporated. This is the key to getting the sandy texture of the shortbread.
4. Transfer the sticky dough to a gallon-size zip-lock plastic bag. Put the bag on a flat surface, leave the top open and roll the dough into a 9 x 10 1/2 inch rectangle, 1/4 inch thick. While rolling, turn the bag and lift the sides from the dough occasionally to avoid creases. Seal the bag, pressing out as much air as possible and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 2 days, making sure it is resting on a flat surface. Refrigeration improves the flavor, the cookies hold their shape better when baked, to say nothing of making the slicing process so much easier.
1. Position the racks to divide the oven into thirds and preheat the oven to 325⁰F (160⁰C). Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicone mats.
2. Slit open the zip-lock bag and place the firm dough sheet on a flat surface. Cut the dough into 1 1/2 inch squares using a sharp knife.
3. Transfer to the baking sheets and carefully prick each square twice with a fork, gently pushing in the tines till they touch the sheet. If using chocolate chips, your square might crack and break if the fork hits the chips. Don’t worry, just push it gently back together again.
4. Bake for 15-20 mins, rotating the sheets from top to bottom, and back to front at the halfway point. The shortbreads should be pale and not take on too much color (mine did, but this did not make them any less delicious).
5. While still warm, dust the cookies with confectioners’ sugar if you like. (I don’t do this.)
6. Cool to room temperature and serve with coffee, tea or a ribbon and a smile.