Wednesday, December 22, 2010

James Beard's Shortbread & Seedcake

This morning I pulled out a book that I haven't looked at in years. It's title is James Beard's Simple Foods: 40 Cooking Lessons by America's Greatest Cook. In case you aren't familiar with this famous chef, I'll give you a few words from the book cover:
"James Beard, the dean of American cookery, was born and brought up in Portland, Oregon. He began his career in food in 1938, when he and a friend started Hors d'Oeuvre, Inc., a cocktail catering service. The first of his two dozen books, Hors d'Oeuvres and Canapes, appeared in 1940, and in 1946 he conducted the first-ever television cookery show. He began his famous cooking classes in the mid-1950s and continued them for the rest of his life, most often holding them in the kitchen of his Greenwich Village townhouse, which is now the headquarters of the James Beard Foundation."

"He was a giant of a man (six feet three inches tall, and nearly 300 pounds) with a passion for food and strong opinions about it. He hated fussy, pretentious food, believed in simplicity and freshness, and had an enormous influence on American gastronomy. He died in 1985 at the age of eighty-one, still by universal agreement, full of enthusiasm and the joy of living."

As you can see in the picture, Julia at six feet two inches tall is almost as tall as he is. They were great friends, and she wrote the forward to this book. Both their contributions to the world of cookery have been phenomenal!

Scanning the pages of this book, I came upon several chapters on Christmas, and I want to share with you some of his advice about baking at Christmastime. In his first chapter on Christmas, he gives some recipes for goodies to go along with eggnog or Christmas punch, two drinks which he says are too sweet to add anything more than little sandwiches of chicken, ham, or turkey, salted nuts, or some such similar savory nibbles. But, he says, if you insist on serving some kind of cake or cookie with it, Scottish shortbread or seedcake are not very sweet and are very easy to make. So here are James Beard's instructions for making a very good shortbread.

Shortbread: Mix 3 cups of sifted all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup of sugar, and 1 cup (that's 2 sticks) of soft butter together, either with your hands or in the electric mixer. Add 1 egg yolk and knead it in well. 

Divide the mixture into 4 parts and roll each into a square or a circle, about 1/2 inch thick. Prick with a fork. Cut each circle into 8 triangles or each square into 8 smaller squares, place the pieces on a lightly buttered and floured baking sheet, and bake in a preheated 350 degree F oven for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 300 degrees F and bake for 30 minutes longer, until the shortbread is a delicate light brown. This makes 32 little pieces of shortbread. Or, you may bake the 4 circles, first crimping the edges with your fingers as you would do with pie crust, then cut them into 8 triangles while they are still warm, and return the pieces to the oven until the edges are lightly browned.  

Beard says: "Another traditional accompaniment to eggnog that I like very much is seedcake. It is rich, but not too sweet, and it makes better eating than gooey fruitcakes or Christmas cookies."  Here are his instructions straight out of the book for making it.

Seedcake: Cream 1 cup (2 sticks) of butter with 1 cup of sugar until very light and fluffy, using an electric mixer, if you have one. Add 5 eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift 2 cups of all-purpose flour with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1 teaspoon baking powder. Add the dry ingredients to the butter-sugar-egg mixture and beat for 2 minutes at low speed in the electric mixer, or by hand with a wooden spoon, giving it about 100 strokes. Add 2 tablespoons of caraway seeds and continue beating for another minute.

Pour the cake batter into a buttered and floured 9-inch tube pan and bake in a preheated 350 degree F oven for about 45 minutes, or until the cake tests done (when a straw or small wooden skewer inserted into the center comes out clean). This is a nice cake to have in reserve for the holiday season and if you keep it in a tin with a tight lid, it will stay fresh for quite a long time. Serve it thinly sliced with eggnog or other punches, or with tea or coffee. 

So there you have some nice old-fashioned recipes from the master himself. I love the casual approach of his recipes--he had a newspaper column for many years, and he used the same conversational style in his cookbooks. I hope you'll find them so tempting that you'll add them to your menu. 


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