As a pastry chef, I frequently get asked “What is your favorite dessert?”. Well the answer is that I have many favorites! Of course, I am a pastry chef and get to eat delectable treats all day. To say that I have a favorite is like asking a mother which child she prefers. But, I will say that after spending many hours completing intricate wedding cakes or piping the perfect mousse, simplicity is often my favorite trait in a dessert. And one of the simplest (and most delightful) desserts I can think of is shortbread.
Shortbread is all about the butter which of course I love. The name literally describes the short gluten strands that are created in the cookie by greasing the flour up with butter. But, it isn’t just the butter that makes this cookie fabulous. It is that it is so simple and yet it goes with anything. You can dress it up by dipping it in chocolate or adorning it with nuts. You can crumble it and top a tart. Or, like me, you can have it with a cup of tea and enjoy it while pondering over your day’s activities. Which method will you choose? 🙂
Shortbread (From Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery book)
180 grams unsalted butter
90 g sugar
6 g vanilla paste
270 g all purpose flour
extra sugar for dusting the cookies
Cream butter and sugar together in a mixer using the paddle attachment for 2-3 minutes until butter is soft, light, pale, and fluffy. Add salt and vanilla paste. Mix for 1 minute. Scrape down the sides of the bowl. Mix for 1 more minute.
Add flour. Mix slowly until the dough just starts to come together and then dump the contents on the counter and knead the ingredients into a dough.
Wrap with plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour or overnight.
Roll dough out between two sheets of parchment paper (this will keep the dough from sticking and you will not need additional flour). You can bang on the dough a bit with the rolling pin to soften it before rolling it.
Roll the dough to about 1/4 inch thick and then cut into 2×1 rectangles. I also like to cut my shortbread into hearts. (This can be very elegant later if you decide to dip half the heart into chocolate).
Place cut cookies onto cookie tray with at least 1/2 inch between them.
Dust cookies lightly with granulated sugar.
Chill cookies for at least 1 hour to relax the gluten.
Bake cookies at 325 F for 15-18 minutes until they are a pale golden brown.
“With enough butter, anything is good. ” -Julia Child
Many people spend time debating the nuances of baked products- what makes one cookie better than another, one pie tastier? In general, people can describe small things about what makes a crust or cookie delicious although, decidedly, they cannot always put a finger on what makes it the BEST. However adjectives such as “flaky”, “tender”, “light”, and “buttery” often come to mind. Yet, although many agree that these are desirable characteristics, how can a novice baker achieve such results without extensive practice? The answer lies, as it most frequently does in baking, in chemistry.
If you understand the chemistry behind gluten, protein, and flour you can rest assured you will almost always make a flaky product. Gluten (and the evils of gluten) are abounding in the foodie world today. But what exactly is it? Gluten is nothing more than a protein found in wheat products. It is what gives flour its texture, chewiness, and elasticity. And flours are milled differently depending on their purpose.
High protein or “bread flours” are milled for bread because this dough requires large quantities of gluten for the proper flavor and structure. The flour with the least amount of gluten is cake flour and its low gluten properties are why it is primarily flavored for cookies. All-purpose flour which is most commonly consumed by American households is half bread flour/half pastry flour so it has a fairly balanced amount of protein. This makes it perfect for all manner of general baking from pies to tarts to breads.
So let’s get back to the science behind the mysterious gluten component which lurks within wheat. Gluten is composed of the proteins, glutenin and gliadin, which when worked by kneading, rolling, or manipulating flour, strengthen and add elasticity to a dough. The stretching and strengthening of flour is quite desirable in bread dough which needs that elasticity to expand. However, a “strong” dough is not encouraged in pies or cookies as it creates tough texture here. When a baker desires to decrease a tough texture there a few tactics to take- one is to use a low protein flour. The second way to inhibit gluten from strengthening a dough is to shorten the protein strands by adding a lubricating fat such as eggs or butter. Finally, dough can be “relaxed” in a cool environment such as the fridge or freezer. Placing gluten in this cool environment prevents the proteins in gluten from getting tighter and stronger.
So why so much science before I tell you the hidden secret behind a flaky dough? Because the SCIENCE is the SECRET. The next time you make your favorite pie dough or shortbread cookies remember, butter is your friend for a flaky dough. Additionally, EVERY time the dough is handled or rolled or cut it must be refrigerated for at least 30 minutes to relax the gluten. These simple rules will change your average, ho hum pie crusts and cookies into smashing crowd-pleasers. Your pies and cookies will never be the same again!
I first sighted the Kouign Amann when I was working in Apple Pie Bakery at the Culinary Institute of America. When I was a baking and pastry student at school we were required to work 3 weeks front of house and 3 weeks back of house at the resident bakery, Apple Pie. I loved working back of house because I was in charge of stocking pastries with one of my good friends. We had a blast making up silly names for the pastries and racing around to beat each other filling orders. We had to initiate what are know as “call-backs”. When you work in a kitchen and you have 5 or less of a product remaining it is customary to shout out “5 insert-name-of-pastry left!” Your partner has to call back that pastry name and amount. This process ensures that your counterpart heard you in what is frequently, a busy and loud, kitchen. The first time my friend saw the Kouign Amann’s stocked in the pastry case she shouted out “5 Quiggins!!!!” I busted out laughing. We had no idea how to pronounce the name of the dessert. To this day it is hard for me to look at a Kouign Amann and not call it a Quiggin, which frankly sounds like a dessert out of a Harry Potter novel.
This lovely sweet laminated pastry is actually pronounced Queen a-Mahn and is buttery and beautiful. The name for this fluffy pastry comes from the Breton words for cake “kouign” and butter “amann The dessert originated in Brittany, France and tastes a bit like a danish but lighter. It has a delightful layer of caramelized sugar that crusts over on the top and bottom of the pastry when it is baked. If you have ever made puff pastry, you will take to this recipe very easily. And even if you haven’t you can still make this dessert following the recipe below.
1 cup warm water
1 package active dry yest
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces cold, salted butter
1 cup of sugar
MAKING THE KOUIGN AMANN
1. In Kitchen Aid stand mixer combine the flour and salt and mix for 15 seconds on low. Combine 1 cup of water with active dry yeast and allow to set for 5 minutes. If the yeast bubbles up then add yeast/water mixture to flour. If not, the yeast is inactive and you will need a fresh packet. Combine ingredients on low until the dough comes together in a round ball and then mix on medium speed for 5-6 minutes using a dough hook. The dough should come together and be tacky but not too sticky. If the dough is too sticky add flour slowly until it gets to the right consistency.
2. Let the dough rise for about 45 minutes at room temperature. Then allow it to continue to rise another 30 minutes in refrigeration. Prepare cupcake/muffin tin (that makes 12) by melting butter and brushing butter in the tin.
3. While the dough is in the fridge pound the butter on a flat counter top. Dust the counter with flour and coat the butter on all sides with flour. Pound it gently but firmly using a wooden rolling pin until it is soft and malleable.
4. Remove dough from fridge and roll it out until it is the width of the rolling pin and the length of two rolling pins (in other words small rectangle). Pound the butter until it is slightly smaller than half the size of the dough. Cut it so that it just fits in the dough with the edges showing. Place the pounded butter on top of the dough and fold the other half of the dough over the butter like a sandwich. The butter should fit in the dough tightly but you should still have ample room to fold up the dough on all sides so that it is sealed in.
5. Flour the counter again and place the dough on the counter so that the folded edge is facing to the left like a book. Roll out the dough until it is again the length of two rolling pins. Fold the dough like a letter in thirds. Turn the dough 90 degrees, so that the spine (or folded edge) is again to the left and roll the dough out again to the same size and then fold it again like a letter.
6. Refrigerate the dough for 30-40 minutes.
7. Remove dough from fridge and again complete two “turns” as explained in step 5 except sprinkle half a cup of sugar on the dough each time before the dough is folded in thirds.
8. Refrigerate the dough for 30-40 minutes.
9. Dust the counter with sugar and roll out the dough until it is 8 in by 24 in. Cut the dough in half so that each strip is 4 inches in length and then cut both strips into 4 inch squares. Dust the dough liberally with more sugar.
10. Optionally fill each dough pocket with about a tablespoon of jam. I highly recommend this! Although you can feel the dough with anything you like.
11. Fold the corners in for each square piece of dough so that it forms a dough pocket. Gently stuff each square piece into the muffin tin. The edges of each kouign amann may come out of over the edges or get crumpled. This is ok!
12. Cover the tins with a towel and allow to rise about 40 minutes.
13. Bake the kouign amman about 40 minutes at 350 F convection or until they are a rich golden brown. Turn the kouign amann out immediately when baked so they easily unmold from the muffin pan.
14. Eat and enjoy!!! And don’t hesitate to ask questions if you need any assistance. Laminated doughs can be tricky the first time around!
Wow, the first entry of my blog! This blog is dedicated to my exploration of food and pastry and most importantly, butter. You see, I just love butter. Real, unadulterated butter. I put butter on everything and I bake butter in everything. Yes, I am a butter fiend.
So I feel there is no better way to start off a pastry blog devoted to my favorite fatty substance than to think of the most buttery dessert I can – pecan sticky buns. I make my sticky buns with brioche dough that is loaded with butter and topped with, you guessed it, a brown sugar topping made with more butter. These ooey-gooey treats will leave your mouth watering for more. And they are so perfect for breakfast!
As we begin dear readers, tell me your favorite buttery dessert. I would love to hear from you. Stay tuned for my secret brioche recipe in a later post. Until next time, eat more butter!