Tis the season for citrus fruit in California. Everywhere I look on my travels, I see orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit trees bursting with ripening fruit. I don’t have any fruit trees on my property, but my former neighbour does. She has a Meyer lemon tree that is exploding with fruit. She asked me if I would take some since she can’t possible use all the fruit her tree bears. How could I say no? Now I have a large bowl of lemons to use.
My first order of business was to make a batch of lemon bars for a holiday party. I particularly like lemon bars because of the fresh, acidic citrus flavour, combined with the shortbread base. I don’t consider this recipe particularly difficult. It’s only the juicing and the zesting that take a bit of time.
I tried to do a bit of digging on the history of the lemon bar or square. There is a general consensus that lemon curd was created during the Renaissance and that shortbread followed thereafter. But the combination of shortbread with a layer of lemon curd baked on top did not surface until the early 1960’s when a recipe for the bars appeared in a Chicago newspaper. From the day on, lemon bars grew in popularity.
Nowadays you can find them in bakeries, patisseries and served during holidays and special occasions. If you like lemon desserts as much as I do, these will become a staple in your repertoire of desserts.
In keeping with the holiday spirit, I am baking sweets traditionally associated with this time of the year. Shortbread is an iconic biscuit (as they say in the UK for cookie) commonly associated with Christmastime.
The cookie was “invented” in Scotland all the way back in the 12th century. It was often twice baked until it hardened into a rusk, then dusted with sugar and spices. But the biscuit became more popular during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots during the 16th century, when it was often baked for family celebrations and holidays like Christmas.
The term shortbread comes from the fat or shortening used in the recipe–in this instance butter (and lots of it!) and the short crumb or crumbly consistency on the biscuit.
Most traditional recipes call for the dough to be pressed into the pan, pricked with fork tines and cut into wedges or rectangular biscuits after baking. I follow a recipe that is more like a drop cookie. And I like to change it up a bit and add some additional richness to the already rich dough.
Shortbread is a 1-2-3 cookie; one part sugar (this can be a combination of granulated sugar and icing sugar), two parts butter and three parts flour. My recipe also calls for cornstarch, which is supposed to soften the proteins in the flour. As such, the texture of my shortbread cookies is so crumbly, the cookie practically melts in your mouth.
Shortbread diehards would probably object to the use of cornstarch in the recipe, but I have had great success with this recipe so I’m not going to mess with it.
I like to add chocolate to my recipe so I take a Toblerone bar, which has delicious milk chocolate and nougat in it, and chop it up into small chunks before adding it into the dough.
I use a small 1/2 inch cookie scoop to form balls and bake them for approximately 15 minutes.
There should be NO browning on the cookie. If it browns, it’s been in the oven too long.
Shortbreads are subtly sweet and deeply rich. They are a perfect companion to a cup of tea or a hot toddy. And they most certainly make a great addition to your dessert table–or even a great gift at the holidays.
Shortbread Cookies with Toblerone Chunks
1 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 Cup Icing Sugar
3 Cups All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Cornstarch
1 Tsp Vanilla extract
1 Toblerone chocolate bar, chopped into small chunks
Beat the butter, icing sugar, flour and cornstarch until fluffy. add splash of vanilla and combine. Sprinkle chocolate chunks into batter and mix until just combined. Spoon onto a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees–make sure the cookies do not brown! The cookies will still be soft when you remove them from the oven. Place them on a rack to cook.
I flew back East for the holidays and discovered some very valuable items in my mother’s freezer: Montmorency cherries.
You see, I can’t find tart or sour cherries anywhere on the Left coast. They don’t grow ’em, they don’t sell ’em. They have sweet cherries. Lots of ’em. But no sour cherries. My grandmother used to make a sour cherry pie for dessert on Friday nights. She’d bake it in a brown glass tart pan, that now sits in my kitchen cupboard. She’d make something called a “Mazola No-Roll Pastry,” which was dead simple and always had the perfect bite to it and a smidge of salt, that was the perfect counterpoint to the sweetened sour cherry filling. I still make it and biting into that pie brings back all sorts of nostalgic memories for me.
When I lived back East, I used to buy a huge bucket of pitted cherries from the supermarket for about 20 bucks. I would drain them and measure out enough cherries for a pie, put them in a plastic freezer bag and have enough to outlast the short cherry season in Ontario. I did that this past summer, hence why there were some in my mom’s freezer.
Instead of doing the traditional pie, I decided to change things up and make a batch of frangipane cream for the pie filling, and then I poured the cherries on top and finished it with slivered almonds.
Frangipane is of French origin. It is more of a paste than a pie filling, made of almond flour, butter, sugar and eggs and a hit of almond extract. I just think of it as the filling you find in almond croissants. It’s definitely not marzipan. It was quite a popular choice on the Great British Baking Show and I was curious what all the fuss was about, so that’s why I decided to try baking with it.
I don’t mind it, but I’m not sure it will become my go to filling. It has a very distinct flavour, which is not to everyone’s liking.
I think it baked up beautifully and looked pretty good. My only criticism (which is entirely cosmetic), is that my pie crust shrank too much and so I didn’t get the nice fluted edge I was hoping for.
But it must have tasted good, because there wasn’t any left at the end of the evening…and people were asking for more!