I asked The Scientist what he would like me to make him for a trip recently, and he pretty promptly settled on shortbread 'like the sort you get in packs with a cup of tea'. I was quite pleased he felt so strongly about it - I haven't felt very decisive about cooking recently and this way there was no chance I could keep myself awake fretting over the merits of cookies versus bars. Well, less chance at least. I fretted over what to do with the rest of our veg box carrots instead. I've made shortbread bases before - for the millionaire's shortbread I made Eco Sis, for example, but I've always been put off the most traditional standalone recipes because they call for rice flour. My baking cupboard is in enough of a state without allowing myself to buy more speciality ingredients, and we only have brown rice in the house, which probably wouldn't make for a nice fluffy tea time treat.
A couple of weeks ago though, we went to Coventry for a little shopping trip, and I wandered into the market in search of a weigh-shop I knew was there. You know the sort of place - lots of bins of household goods that you help yourself to, and then pay according to weight. This sort of place is my idea of nirvana, and The Scientist was soon weighed down with little bags, with a tolerant expression on his face. The things you can get though! Cake mix! It had never previously occurred to me that you would want to buy cake mix by weight, and with no instructions. Six different types of breakfast cereal, tapioca, flour, washing powder (better not get those two mixed up), custard powder, nuts, spices - and it's only a small shop. I bought at least five or six different things, none of them big, but still, I wasn't expecting change from a fiver. £1.60. I kid you not. I wish we lived in Coventry - and I have never said that before (though I said it again when we found a nice little noodle place for lunch).
Anyway, you may have guessed that I have included this whimsical digression because one of the things I found at the weigh place was rice flour, so I could make the shortbread. Recipes for shortbread seem pretty ubiquitous but I wanted to make sure I hit the maximum heights, so I got out our copy of Marcus Wareing's How to Cook the Perfect... We've never eaten at a Michelin starred restaurant - try that on two academics' salaries with a fusspot semi-vegan as part of the party - but we like Marcus Wareing when he appears on cheffie programs, and his book includes little tips on how to get the best out of the recipe. In this case, it was handle the butter as little as possible, and rub it into the rest of the ingredients by grating it and rolling it all between your palms. The Scientist had been so particular about the shape of the shortbread that I got him to cut it, but - alas - when I took them out of the pan one broke and he was forced to try it. Let's just say that Marcus Wareing is still number one top chef dude in our house. I made his flapjack recipe at the same time, which directs you to part-bake it, then take it out and drizzle melted syrup over the top before returning to the oven. This makes the top moist and the middle crunchy apparently. Or the other way round; I forget. I'll report back on whether that worked when The Scientist gets back. In the meantime I still have those carrots to attend to.
Marcus Wareing's shortbread (from How to Cook the Perfect...)
Makes about 20 pieces
200g plain white flour
Pinch of fine salt
40g ground rice
75g caster sugar, plus extra for dusting
175g unsalted butter, from a chilled 250g block
Sift the flour and salt into a bowl and stir in the ground rice and sugar. Grate in the butter, then work it quickly into the flour until the mixture resembles fine breadcrumbs.
Press the mixture into a 20cm square baking tin and level the top. Chill in the fridge for about an hour.
Heat the oven to 140C fan/160C/Gas 3
Bake the shortbread for 40 minutes until light golden. Remove from the oven and prick all over with a fork, then mark into 20 pieces, cutting right through to the bottom of the tin. Dust liberally with caster sugar, then leave to cool before removing from the tin.