Sunday, July 4, 2010

Secret Checkerboard Shortbread

My lawyers have summoned me to their offices tonight, even though I've not been served with a subpoena or named in a lawsuit.

Terry and Al, partners of Racht & Taffae--a top New York City real estate law firm--are in possession of a prime piece of real estate. In addition to being close friends and legal advisors (Terry advised me when I bought my co-op), Racht & Taffae has a Hudson River view of tonight's fireworks show. They're throwing a party. Yay! What to bring? This calls for some home-made shortbread.

I love baking shortbread. And after experimenting with scores of shortbread recipes, I always return to the wisdom of IRMA Rombauer, the master chef of the Crossword Grid. Irma Rombauer's Joy of Cooking, a fixture in most kitchens, is a classic tome. In this house it's a reference book, tucked between the Harvard Dictionary of Music and Larousse Gastronomique. Mrs. Rombauer's simple Scotch Shortbread recipe--basic and egg-less (eggs were in short supply during harsh Scottish winters)--is a joy to bake.

The recipe is brilliant in its simplicity and calls for only four ingredients found in just about anyone's kitchen: Flour, sugar, butter, salt. I tweak it with a fifth component: 1/8 tsp. of vanilla . . . just because vanilla reminds me of Christmas.

Baking is, hands down, my favorite branch of cooking. It requires the same precision and careful measurements used in puzzlemaking. "Baking" my Aunt Zosia would say as she methodically measured every cup of flour as if it were her first, " is chemistry in a bowl."

I started the shortbread at 10 this morning and by 10:10 AM, had disrobed down to beach wear--whoa, it was hot today (90+). And with the oven going, there's no way around the intense heat. Did you ever have one of those dreams where you discover a new room in your house, a room you never knew was there? I never knew I had a built-in sweat lodge in my house.

When baking on a hot day, it's important to stay healthy and focused. Hydration is key. And so is sticking your head in the freezer on an "as-needed" basis. The water bottle is going strong and if necessary, I might even crack open a CODE BLUE, a sports "recovery" drink that caught my eye simply because it contains crossword regular AGAVE. How dorky am I!  (It does help after a tennis match on a hot day, though.)

I baked two batches in separate pans and layered one pan with melted semi-sweet chocolate. I had considered making Millionaire's Shortbread, but having had some dental work this week, the gooey caramel layer might abscond with the temporary caps. Better to keep it simple with only the chocolate topping. The batches were cut into squares and assembled into a checkerboard pattern.

Things were going well until the lettering phase. I used White Royal icing for the lettering, but as you see, the heat melted the frosting. Hence the wobbly-looking fonts. By now the kitchen was at 120 degrees--any lettering was okay with me. There's a little secret message built into the Cryptic Checkerboard Shortbread . . . nothing subversive, mind you, just something to honor my hosts. But in the event that Homeland Security stops me on the No. 1 train tonight, I will cooperate with the authorities. It's entirely appropriate to profile crossword puzzle constructors in the name of national security.

Joy of Cooking includes a serious chapter on cocktail recipes, and some of the drinks are quite strong. One wonders how Irma managed to hold it together while writing this 900-page book.  It would hardly be a stretch to imagine her relaxing with a stiff evening cocktail. How else does one wind down after a day of testing recipes for Broiled Brains (p. 504) and Shrimp Puffs (p. 75)?

And so, in keeping with this imagined tradition, I've poured myself a pre-prandial Apple Martini (Apple Schnapps, Grey Goose, ice). Here's a toast to Mrs. Rombauer on a job well done, and for giving crossword constructors a powerful clue for IRMA.

Joy to you on this holiday weekend and . . . Happy Birthday, America!


Theresa a/k/a Terry of Racht & Taffae said...

The shortbread was divine, the fireworks spectacular and the company lively. Thanks for the shout out, Liz...and the shortbread!

nanpilla said...

Having trained as a chemist, it is no surprise that I love to bake. All that measuring! My husband loves to cook, but doesn't like the precision that baking entails.

When the weather breaks, I'm going to have to try the shortbread - it sounds wonderful. I've already pencilled in the vanilla into my "Joy". I've always been fascinated with her section on cooking game. Back in our poor graduate school days, we used her instructions to skin a squirrel, but changed our minds about cooking it after looking at what little was left.

Elizabeth said...

@Terry, thanks to you and Al for throwing a fantastic party . . . the fireworks were the best ever--what a show!

@nanpilla: Your chemistry background will come in handy during this heatwave . . . mainly in calculating the actual oven temperature. I kept a watchful eye on the shortbread, as the baking time accelerated due to the high ambient temperature.

I have to confess, I've not read Mrs. Rombauer's writing on game, but the "Cocktails" section is very dog-eared. I'm not so sure that's a good thing. :) The great thing about "Joy" is that there's something in it for everyone!