ADVERTISEMENT

Dave Thomas has been making shortbread, Scotland's classic butter cookie, since he was a wee boy who had to stand on tiptoes to roll the dough.

Thomas grew up in Perryville, outside Syracuse, and growing up in the 1940s, "kids didn't have all the toys to play with they do now," he said. "So a big deal, for me, on Saturday mornings, was making shortbread cookies at my grandmother's house."

His grandmother, a Scotswoman named Elva Pickard, rolled out her shortbread dough on a special board she fashioned herself. It was lined with two rails, a half-inch tall, and she would put the cookie dough in the middle to roll it out. That way, she explained to her grandson, the dough wouldn't get over-compressed, and the cookies would have a consistent texture.

Fifty-odd years later, after a career at IBM, Thomas started McDuffies Bakery, 9920 Main St., a Clarence producer of shortbread and other baked goods. Using machines designed to mimic his grandmother's rolling board, McDuffies produces about 100,000 shortbread cookies a day, making it one of the largest shortbread specialists in the East, he said.

"The recipe we use is actually my grandmother's recipe," Thomas said.

Next week brings Robert Burns Day, on Jan. 25, an occasion to remember the legendary Scottish poet, and celebrate all things Scottish. Besides a simple shortbread recipe recommended by shortcake expert Thomas, included here are recipes for two shortbread elaborations, one tangy with lime zest and another so rich with caramel and chocolate it is known as "Millionaire's Shortbread" in Scotland.

"There really isn't any bad shortbread," said Thomas. "Even when you do it wrong, it's pretty good."

Still, he did have some tips to help home bakers make the best shortbread possible.

Since shortbread has so few ingredients, it is "absolutely critical" to use the best you can afford, he said. Thomas recommends using King Arthur flour, as McDuffies does, for its low proportion of impurities.

The vanilla is probably even more important, he said. Because it is cheaper, people and commercial bakeries often use imitation vanilla -- vanillin -- but "it's not even close," Thomas said.

He recommends pure bourbon Madagascar vanilla, available at Penzey's, The Podge and other stores. Yes, it costs more, but think of it this way: "If you're doing it at home, you're using so little of it that there's not much of a savings [using cheap vanilla]."

Consider replacing granulated sugar with confectioners or powdered sugar, he said. Those cookies will spread out a little more, but it gives the cookie a creamier texture, which is how Thomas prefers his home-baked shortbread.

The downside of powdered sugar shortbread is it won't keep as long, he said. That type will eagerly absorb water from the air and become soft quickly. "If they're going to be eaten right away," he said, "it won't matter."

> Simple Shortbread

1 teaspoon pure vanilla, preferably Madagascar Bourbon

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 cups all-purpose flour, preferably King Arthur

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Add vanilla to softened butter and mix until smooth. Add granulated sugar and salt and continue mixing until incorporated.

Slowly add flour and mix in. Form dough into a disc, and wrap in plastic. Place in refrigerator and chill until firm, about 2 hours.

Roll dough into circle about 1/4 inch thick, trying to maintain uniform pressure on the rolling pin. Cut into shapes with cookie cutters or knife. Place on parchment paper-covered baking pan. Bake until edges start to brown, about 10 to 12 minutes.

Store cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two weeks, or freeze.

Notes from McDuffies' Dave Thomas: Replacing granulated sugar with powdered sugar makes shortbread with a creamier texture, but less storage capability. It will go soft in hours if left exposed.

You can also vary the recipe by adding nuts, chocolate chips or dried fruits to the dough. Also, the cookies are wonderful if you melt semi-sweet chocolate chips and dip baked shortbread in the chocolate.

> Shortbread with Lime Zest

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1/2 cup granulated sugar

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon cornmeal

1/4 tablespoon flaked sea salt

1 tablespoon lime zest

Preheat oven to 300 degrees and grease a large baking dish.

Cream together butter and sugar, then stir in flour, cornmeal, salt and lime zest.

In the baking dish, spread the mixture so it is 1/2 -inch thick. Prick holes all over the dough with a fork. Bake for 1 hour, or until lightly browned. Remove from oven and, while still warm, cut shortbread into squares and remove from pan.

(From the excellent "The Homesick Texan Cookbook" by Lisa Fain, Hyperion.)

> Millionaire's Shortbread

For shortbread:

2 sticks butter, cut into small pieces, plus more for preparing pans

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for preparing pans

2/3 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

For caramel layer:

2 (14-ounce) cans sweetened condensed milk

2 tablespoons butter

For chocolate topping:

3/4 pound good-quality milk chocolate

To make shortbread: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter 2 (8-inch) square non-stick pans and coat with flour, tapping off excess.

Place the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and pulse once. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles peas. Press the shortbread mixture into prepared pans and bake until golden brown around the edges, about 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool completely.

For caramel: In a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the condensed milk and 2 tablespoons of butter. Slowly bring the mixture to a boil, stirring continuously. Continue stirring over the heat until mixture becomes thick and amber in color, about 15 minutes. Pour the caramel over the cooked shortbread, spreading evenly using an offset spatula. Cool to room temperature.

For chocolate topping: In a glass bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water, melt the chocolate. Once chocolate has melted, pour it over the cooled caramel layer, and spread to cover. Cool at room temperature for about 10 minutes, and then place in the refrigerator to cool completely, allowing chocolate to slightly harden.

Cut into 2-inch squares. Store in an airtight container.

(From Food Network's Claire Robinson)

email: agalarneau@buffnews.com