Saturday, October 16, 2010

Persian Shortbread: Fearless Baking with Flavor

Altering recipes for flavor is tricky business.  Anyone who's ever ruined a batch of cookies knows how disheartening the consequences of  pastry bungling can be.  You pull the trays out of the oven and the errors of your ways are written all over the cookie sheets for everyone to see.  You're a "cookie killer"; time to get a scarlet tattoo of your new name and give up baking for good. 

Baking is a precise science, but that shouldn't deter adventurous flavor seekers.  Redemption is a recipe away and its name is shortbread.  The ingredients are few and the possibilities are endless.  Here's the secret; don't alter moisture, wet/dry ingredients or shortening.  You have complete freedom when it comes to adding flavor via extracts, spices and/or citrus zest.  Just make sure your flavors complement each other.

Not sure if your flavors are a good match?  Consult books with flavor pairing charts or use online tools such as Cuuks or FoodPairing.  Not sure about proportions?  Look at other recipes for flavored shortbread and deduce.  Don't let celebrity chef culture turn you into a lily-livered chicken.  All bakers and cooks have a successful sleuth living inside of them; feed yours.

Persian Shortbread
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd
Yield: 48 Cookies

·      1 stick of unsalted sweet butter (softened at room temperature)
·      ½ cup organic cane sugar
·      2 large organic eggs
·      2 cups Arrowhead Mills® Brown Rice Flour
·      ¼ teaspoon baking powder
·      1¼ teaspoons toasted sesame oil
·      6½  teaspoons true vanilla extract

Alternative Flavor:
Use in place of toasted sesame oil and true vanilla. Add cinnamon to flour and Tahitian vanilla to egg mixture when using this method to flavor the shortbread.  The smell of these cookies baking is intoxicating.
·      2 ½ teaspoons China cassia cinnamon
·      2 tablespoons Tahitian vanilla extract

·      Preheat oven at 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
·      Combine brown rice flour and baking powder in large mixing bowl and set aside.
·      Using a fork, blend butter to achieve an even creamy consistency.
·      Add sesame oil to butter and incorporate.
·      Add vanilla to butter/sesame oil combination and blend by hand. Follow with the addition of sugar.
·      Beat two eggs by hand and add to the liquid ingredients.
·      Add liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients and mix until well combined. 
·      Roll one heaping teaspoonful of dough between the palms of your hands to ¼ inch thickness.  Place on  cookie sheet in six rows of four.  (You can also use a one-teaspoon capacity cookie scoop as the dough is on the soft side.)
·      Bake for 18 minutes, reversing trays and moving them from top to bottom after 9 minutes to ensure even baking.  The cookies should be lightly browned on the edges when they are done.
·      Remove cookies from baking trays and allow to cool on cookie racks.
·      Store in an airtight container.

Persian Shortbread is inspired by nan berenji, a rice-based cardamom and poppy seed cookie with roots in Iran.  The cookie is part of the baking repertoire of Sephardic Jews and is especially popular during Passover as it is not a leavened wheat product.

Brown rice flour, which is available in health food stores, is substituted for white rice flour in the original recipe.  It adds texture and a nutty nuance.  The combination of  vanilla and toasted sesame oil builds on the Middle Eastern origin of the cookie, and is a deliberate riff on sesame halwa.

The recipe for Persian Shortbread is gluten-free.  Vegetarians can experiment with non-dairy substitutes for butter, such as Earth Balance, which is available in stick form.  Adding ¼ cup of ground flaxseed meal to the dough adds fiber and makes the dough less sticky (great if you prefer to hand roll the cookie dough between your palms).