Monday, December 3, 2012

If you give a book a cookie...

Rose water shortbread with bittersweet chocolate base.
I have been eyeball deep in autobiographies and I absolutely love them. I don't know what kicked off this obsession but I'm glad to have it as reading about the lives of others has sparked a curious baking endeavor. As I've been reading these life stories some kind of sweetie comes to life in my mind that is in someway reminiscent of the storyteller. It may seem certainly caught me off guard, but I love that it has challenged my penchant for unusual flavor profiles. I'll be posting the recipes inspired by these books over the next few weeks.
Great Great Uncle James.
The first in this new series of posts belongs to my great great uncle: James Wedgwood Drawbell. Uncle James was a tenacious Scotsman who forged a name for himself in the newspaper publishing world with over 20 successful years in the industry. In his early days of journalism he rubbed elbows with the likes of Noel Coward and Scott Fitzgerald. At 26 he turned a faltering Sunday paper in London into a success and over the years became known for recognizing new talent, pushing publishing into a new era of ideas and advocating important causes...which led to frequent and timely conversations with George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, D.H. Lawrence, Dorothy Thompson and then there was one kicker of an afternoon tea with Adolf Hitler.

He is a masterful storyteller. His use of language is captivating. It's easy to journey through his life as though having been present at every turn. It gives me hope that somewhere in my genetic make up there's a little of the same storytelling DNA floating about.

It seems his purpose for telling his story is twofold. One, the nuts and bolts of successful newspaper publishing. And two, to show that with faith, determination and gumption anyone can succeed in their vocation. Do I hear an Amen?

 The most important part of the book is the first 80 pages. It is the most heartbreaking part of his story and the most triumphant. The section is called The Thistle and The Rose and it recalls his childhood under the weight of poverty, the unpredictability of a tormented father and the protection of an adoring mother and siblings. It is this part of his story that inspired the recipe. James describes at length the love and devotion he has for his mother. Her tiny stature juxtaposed with the inner strength of a freight train, and her delicate kindness a gift to her children but a curse to her married life. His father, on the other hand, goes unnamed. James calls him the Pupil Teacher after his brief encounter with employment. At the deepest depth of his depravity this unnamed man was packed up by his sister and shipped off to a colony never to be heard from again! And the family, led by James' tiny mom, started a new life. His mother the Rose, his father the Thistle. However painful the thistle was in James Drawbell's life he managed to turn wounds into wisdom and walked away with a hearty sense of self worth and confidence.

So, inspired by his family and formative events in his childhood, I created a shortbread recipe: Rose water with bittersweet chocolate. Slightly obvious: shortbread being Scottish, rose for his mom and the bittersweet chocolate the stamp on his life left from his father. Before attempting this recipe I researched rose water pairings--I often use it with white chocolate and pistachios. I was delighted to see that it had been used with the darker chocolates in a handful of recipes (some savoury, oddly enough) so I gave it a whirl...or whurrrrrl. (*sigh* wish the accent also traveled genetically). The rosy aromatic buttery cookie with the melt-in-your-mouth intensity of the dark chocolate is a feast for the senses. A cookie befitting of a man who's life, though laced with the bitter, was tempered by the sweet.

Rose Water Shortbread with Bittersweet Chocolate

Adapted from 3 Martha Stewart shortbread recipes: here, here and Classic Shortbread recipe in the 2010 Holiday Cookies issue.


1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup cake flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1/3 cup + 2 Tbs confectioners sugar (icing sugar)
1 Tbs rose water
5 oz bittersweet chocolate

  1. Spray an 8 inch square pan or round tart pan with removable bottom or stone cookie mould generously with spray oil. If using a regular pan I also line with parchment and add a little more spray oil on to that. My first three attempts with the baking stone I didn't spray enough! Set aside.
  2. Combine flours, set aside.
  3. In a mixer fixed with paddle attachment cream butter and sugar. Add rose water. *If you are not going to add chocolate later reduce rose water to 2 tsp. The chocolate will overpower the rose  if not enough rose water, but the rose will overwhelm the shortbread if too much.* It is important to add the rose water at this stage. It will change the texture entirely if added at the end or after the flour is added.
  4. Add flour mixture all at once until combined. It will be crumbly at first but keep going until it forms a stiff dough.
  5. Place dough on plastic wrap and using the wrap form dough into disk. Place disk in middle of stone mould and press into whole mould using the plastic wrap. Same process with other pans. Let chill for 20 minutes.
  6. Preheat oven to 300 degrees F.
  7. Using a wooden skewer or toothpick, pierce dough (not all the way through) all over. Bake until light golden brown and firm-ish in the center. This can take anywhere from 30-50 minutes. depending on pan. Re-pierce (not all the way through and not as often) with wooden skewer or chopstick to make slightly larger holes - this will grab the melted chocolate later and keep it from easily flopping off when all is cooled and done. Let cool 10 minutes on wire rack.
  8. To unmould, place a tea towel onto a cutting board and then turn over onto mould so tea towel is between mould and cutting board. Invert so mould is upside down on teatoweled cutting board. Tap mould and cutting board very firmly on hard work surface. You may need an offset spatula or knife to loosen the edges first. Lift mould and using tea towel drag shortbread back onto wire rack to cool completely.
  9. In a double broiler (pot with a few inches of simmering water and bowl placed on top - not touching the water) melt chocolate. Let cool.
  10. Invert shortbread again so the bottom is facing upwards. Spread a thin layer of melted chocolate and let harden.
  11. Turn over, slice into wedges and enjoy! 
Shortbread can be stored in airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.