On the Eleventh day of Christmas, The Country Kitchen baked for me… …Spiced Shortbread Stars
I often think of a particular nursery rhyme about a certain shape when I am preparing my house for Christmas with my family, can you guess which one it might be? I shall give you a clue… We decorate out trees with them, we watch them in the night sky, and even make our cards in the shape of them (or at least I do, so much more fun than a regular square don’t you think?)
Have you guessed it yet? Okay here is another clue…
Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”
I bet you know now! And what better time of year to sing this classic song than at Christmas? After all, the reason we place a star on top of our Christmas tree is because of the Three Wise Men following one which lead them to the baby Jesus in his manger in Bethlehem. So taking inspiration from this classic Christmas story, I decided I would once again take up my rolling pin and make my friends and family some delicious shortbread treats to go in their Christmas hampers.
A traditional Scottish ‘biscuit’ of sorts, shortbread dates back to medieval period where the remains of dough from bread making were re-baked and in a low oven, until they formed a ‘rusk’ and hardened. Over time, butter came to replace the yeast from the bread and what we now enjoy with our cups of tea in front of the fire was considered a luxury dessert, reserved only for the very wealthy and for very special occasions, such as Christmas and New Year. It also made an appearance at weddings, as it was traditional in Shetland for new brides to sprinkle the crumbs of a decorated shortbread over their heads before passing over the threshold of their new home. To be honest I think that is a waste of perfectly good shortbread, but I’m not from Shetland so don’t really have an opinion on the matter!
Traditional Scottish Shortbread, cut into Petticoat Tails
While researching into how to make the very best shortbread, I stumbled across this brilliant article by Felicity Cloake in The Guardian. She looks at the different ways of making shortbread, and tries out a bunch of recipes from cookery writers such as Delia Smith, Sue Lawrence, Good Housekeeping and Marcus Wareing.
She found that using a mix of plain and rice flour along with , as a true Scottish shortbread calls for, really does make all the difference in baking the perfectly crumbly yet soft shortbread. Using only regular flour results in making some odd tasteless biscuit, so you need something such as rice flour or corn flour to give it a sandy texture. I used rice flour and not corn flour to make my Spiced Shortbread Stars, and I found it gave the shortbread a gorgeously grainy texture that is the perfect balance between crumbly and soft, whereas corn flour creates something a little lighter and sweeter. If you are more inclined to go along the road of baking a ‘melt in your mouth’ shortbread, then by all means use corn flour, but you may want to cut the sugar back a little or it make turn out too sweet.
Rice Flour Shortbread
Corn Flour Shortbread
A general rule of thumb for shortbread baking is to use a 3:2:1 ratio of Flour, Butter and Sugar, and included in that a 1:3 ratio of Rice Flour to Plain Flour. So, if your recipe calls for 120g of Plain flour, you should use 40g of Rice Flour to make a total of 160g. Because I was making a double batch of these Spiced Shortbread Stars, I simply doubled my ingredients, making sure I used the same ratio of flours, as if I messed that up there would have been no saving them… and what a waste that would have been!
A handy tip for when you are using recipes that use two types of flour is to combine the two in a larger bowl first, and mix them together so they are already combined before you add them to your mixture. That way, you don’t have to spend as long folding the flours in, as they are already mixed up together.
These Spiced Shortbread Stars taste amazing with a glass of mulled wine, as the spices bring out the combination of flavours and you can really appreciate them. So without further ado, I shall move on to how to make these lovely little gifts…
Measure out the butter and sugar into a large mixing bowl and beat very well until smooth. To achieve the lightest and creamiest texture, beat for about 5 minutes, starting slow and then increasing the speed as you go. If you use butter straight from the fridge you will not need to chill your dough later on, as it will be cold enough to handle.
The mixture should be light and pale in colour, with no visible pieces of sugar.
Once the butter and sugar is well beaten, it is time to add in your spices.
I used a mixture of Christmas-themed spices to flavour my shortbread, but you can use whichever ones you like best. You will need about 3 teaspoons of each, depending on how strongly spiced you want your shortbread to be.
Measure the spices out and add to the creamed butter and sugar.
Along with the spices, add 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract and 2 tablespoons of golden syrup. I always use a Madagascan Vanilla Bean Extract as I find it has a stronger flavour, plus I love the little flakes of vanilla bean running through – so pretty.
Beat again for a good two minutes, until all the spices and syrup are incorporated and the mixture is a soft golden colour. Be careful that you not beat the air out of the mixture, or it will lose its height and your shortbread will fall flat during baking. Taste to check you have the right degree of spices, adding more should you feel it needs it.
Now it is time to add the all-important ingredients…
…Plain Flour and Rice Flour. Because I was making my shortbread gluten-free, I used a Plain Flour from Doves Farm, which is gluten and wheat free. Rice Flour is gluten-free already as it is made from ground rice instead of wheat, so I was already half way there!
Measure out the flours, and sieve into the spiced shortbread mixture.
Using a metal spoon, fold the flour into the shortbread mixture until it becomes a dough. Kneed into a ball until it holds its shape and can be moved around the bowl without sticking to the sides, adding more flour as you go if the mixture is too sticky.
Once you have your shortbread dough, roll it out on a floured surface (or between two sheets of baking paper to save all that mess from flour on your worktops!) until it is one centimetre thick. Using a star shaped cutter, make ‘stars’ and place them on lined baking trays. Pop it in your oven and bake for 12-15 minutes until the stars are a light gold colour and still slightly soft on top, then place on a wire rack to cool.
I chose to decorate some of mine with piped icing to turn them into snowflakes and tree decorations, but I think they look gorgeous just as they are. For a little extra crunch to your shortbread, sprinkle them with some granulated sugar and cinnamon the moment you take then out of the oven. This way the sugar will stick to the shortbread and form a cinnamon sugar-coating, not to mention they will sparkle on your plates. Did some just start singing Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star…
You don’t have to use the same spices as I did, it is entirely up to you what you go for. Personally, I prefer to use a generous blend as, for me, the tastes of Christmas don’t come from just one of them. Enjoy the recipe, and let me know how you get on.
Spiced Shortbread Stars by The Country Kitchen
Makes 40 stars.
- 250g Unsalted Butter, cold
- 150g Caster Sugar
- x2 tsp. Vanilla Extract
- x3 tsp. Ground Spices, each, such as Ginger, Cinnamon or Nutmeg
- x2 Tbsp. Golden Syrup
- 360g Gluten-Free Plain Flour
- 160g Rice Flour
- Preheat the oven to 160°C/140°C Fan assisted, and line two baking trays with greaseproof paper.
- Beat the butter and sugar in a large bowl until light and fluffy. Add the spices, vanilla extract and golden syrup and beat for a further 2 minutes. The mixture should be a light golden colour and very light when lifted.
- Sift in the plain flour and rice flour and combine well with a metal spoon.
- Knead into a dough and roll out between two pieces of baking paper, until the dough is 1cm thick, adding more flour as necessary.
- Use a star shaped cutter to cut the shortbread into shapes and place on the baking trays, about 2cm apart. Make a small hole in the centre of each one to release the air when cooking, or use a fork to create patterns.
- Bake for 12-15 minutes, and then transfer to a wire rack to cool. Decorate with piped icing or sprinkle with a little sugar and cinnamon when served.
Have fun with your shortbread and don’t be afraid to experiment with the many different flavours you could try. I remember a rosemary shortbread I tried in a tea shop on holiday in Cornwall once and it was divine. Don’t forget that a lot about shortbread is personal taste, so have fun with it and don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t turn out exactly how you wanted it the first time around. As my father always used to tell me, “practice makes perfect”…
Happy Baking x