by Elizabeth Hilts
Okay, sit back. Get comfortable. I want to tell you a love story.
One pound sweet butter.
Two cups confectioner’s sugar.
One tablespoon vanilla extract—I use the double-strength for this.
Four cups all-purpose flour.
One teaspoon kosher salt. If you use table salt instead, cut it back to half a teaspoon.
Your grandmother taught you how to make shortbread. She did not use confectioner’s sugar, she used granulated. Granulated sugar has the texture of sand. If that is what you have on hand, go ahead and use it. The cookies will turn out a little sweeter, but they will be crisp. Shortbread made with confectioner’s sugar is a gentler thing, which you learned one day when forced to substitute—a happy accident of timing.
Preheat your oven to three hundred and twenty five degrees. Get out your large baking dish, the one made of Pyrex, the one you thought would be okay for lasagna. Which it is, but it’s not great for lasagna because you can only fit four thin layers of pasta, sauce, cheese and if you want a big meaty lasagna, that baking dish will accommodate, what, three layers at most? That baking dish turned out to be a mistake when it comes to lasagna, but it’s just right for shortbread.
Now grab that pottery bowl you bought at the Shaker village in New Hampshire where you and Bernie and Mike spent the day while your husband was at the racetrack. Of course, he wasn’t your husband then and you were uncertain if he ever would be. That was one of the things you and Bernie discussed when Mike wandered off to look at the barn or something. That was, in fact, something you and she talked about often. Practically her last words to you in that hospital room were “He’ll never give you what you want.” But that day, at the Shaker village, she urged patience. So you bought this bowl, with its two blue stripes.
Put the butter in the bowl and beat it with a wooden spoon, the way your grandmother taught you, until creamy. Of course you could do this in a stand mixer or even with a handheld mixer, but then you would miss the moment when the butter submits to your touch and begins to transform, going pale and lovely as you introduce it to air. Add in the sugar and vanilla, mix well, now add the flour and salt. The dough will be incredibly crumbly, so willfully crumbly that you may doubt that it will ever become anything more than this ragged, unmanageable mess of a thing. But believe me, your faith will be rewarded.
Turn the dough into the pan and press it firmly with your hands until it is evenly distributed. Now take a fork and poke the tines into the dough in as straight lines as you can manage. Place the pan in the oven and bake until the shortbread is firm and lightly browned, about 25 minutes. Your home will be filled with the aroma of happiness.
Remove the pan and let the shortbread cool for five minutes or so, slice it into small squares and let it cool completely in the pan. Trust me when I tell you that trying to remove the shortbread from the pan before it has set completely will break. Your. Heart.
This shortbread is best when it has aged for a few days. The cookies soften slightly and the butter, sugar and vanilla settle and merge, the sum of the parts transformed through the everyday alchemy of heat and time. When you pop one of those small squares into your mouth and bite, the cookie will resist for just a moment before it shatters over your tongue into velvet sweet.
And you will remember everything that went into its making.