Saturday, 8 October 2011

Well that takes the biscuit

It was a back-to-normal Broadway Market today, with no crime scenes to disturb anything. Well okay – perhaps "normal" is overdoing it a tad when you look at some of the characters that materialise at the weekend.

And then, quite apart from anything else, is there another market anywhere that is always so rammed not simply with shoppers, but also with a plethora of bikes and buggies, dogs, small children and the widest range of wheeled toys to be found outside Hamleys in the run up to Christmas?

Which is why I try to get up there as early as possible on a Saturday. Today I was a little tardy after sleeping longer than usual, so it was busy by the time I arrived.

Fortunately, as I still had game on my mind, Andy was back - and I was tempted by the opportunity to try wild duck breast for a change, thinking it couldn't be much different from the farmed variety that I'm used to.

My next piece of luck was in spotting that Mark's organic stall had the first quinces of the season. Two are now sitting in the kitchen, hopefully to ripen a little in the coming days.

The third good break came when I found, with unexpected ease, rice flour.

My mind had turned shortbread on my most recent train trip, where I'd been served a small packet with a cup of tea.

As has become habit, I casually cast a glance at the wrapper. Perhaps rather perversely for a shortbread made in Scotland, it was branded under the name Brönte and included clotted cream among the ingredients. More disturbing, though, was the mention of additional 'flavourings'.

Now what on Earth does that mean?

Unless it's a particularly exotic specimen, with vanilla or even chocolate involved, then what other flavouring are required in addition to butter and sugar?

And then, I had been inspired by the nostalgia of Nigel Slater's Eating for England and decided to try my hand at baking some.

I have tried it before, but it was in the dim and distant past and I have no particular memories of it being a great success - which is probably why I haven't made any since: until today.

Felicity Cloake writes a series of articles for the Guardian where she examines 'how to make perfect' versions of some classic culinary confection or other. Surfing for shortbread recipes, I found her take on the matter.

Not only did it have some interesting facts about the history of this queen amongst biscuits, but she had also road-tested a number of different recipes to see which was best.

And that was how I discovered that ground rice or rice flour, used with plain flour, is the great cook's secret ingredient to help give shortbread that slightly gritty quality.

The other main pointer that I discovered was not to roll the bread out with a pin - it makes it too dense - but to pat gently with you hands, trying to keep them as cool as possible.

There's nothing difficult about Cloake's eventual recipe - it's nice and easy to follow.

Cream the butter - and make it really good butter - and then beat in a pinch of salt an some caster sugar, before sifting the flours over and mixing thoroughly.

But I did have to add more butter to get the mix to hold together at all.

It's a deceptive matter. I emptied the crumbly mixture into a lined and greased baking tray, and patted away as delicately as possible. I wasn't sure whether it would actually hold together. But after the required 15 minutes in the fridge, it went into an oven heated to 150˚C for around an hour.

My fan oven being legendarily bloody minded, it took longer. But the result, when it emerged, was pleasingly golden and had smoothed out in the process of cooking.

I sprinkled some demerara sugar over and then left it for a couple of minutes, before transferring to a rack. Remarkably, it held together, although it was clearly fragile.

The smell was divine – and it wasn't long before temptation became too much. A very pleasing effort: crumbly and richly buttery, with the right sort of graininess that I mentioned early, and nicely light.

So pleasing, in fact, that there isn't much left.

I'm curious as to how people make shortbread that doesn't crumble quite as quickly – but then that would hardly be a commercial proposition.

Presumably, for mass production purposes, the lightness has to be compromised in order to get a great tightness that makes it possible to pack and then sell.

I'll be making more – quite possibly tomorrow. It's insanely easy and utterly delicious. And who needs extra 'flavourings'?

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