I have five kinds of Christmas cookies that I make every year. I regard them as mine. Of course, they come from somewhere; I have simply adopted them, which is the thing with cookies.
This recipe for white sugar shortbread came to me from the Boulters, former clients from my personal chef days in the ’80s. I’d cook and they would breeze through between clients and tell me stories of their youth, glamorous evenings at the Cave Night Club and Hy’s Steak House, the Vancouver of the 1960s.
I had never met people like Ron and Peggy Boulter. My people were blue collar – aircraft mechanics, pipe-fitters, clerks at Simpson Sears, mothers. The Boulters were professional business people. They hired interior designers and had furniture made for them. Peggy was an ad exec and Ron was a realtor. They had one daughter, a teenager, Cynthia. She loved animals and rode a horse. As things are supposed to go, she is now a successful career woman with her own kids. All three Boulters were interested and interesting.
Once they took me to Trader Vic’s at the Bayshore Inn, one of their old haunts. I had a drink in a fake monkey head with enough paraphernalia to take out my eye. The restaurant was fading, its glamour a bit tired. The Rat Pack were middle aged and paunchy and besides, looked all wrong in wide leg pants. The ’50s Polynesian comeback hadn’t come back yet. But wasn’t I the lucky one to sneak in before Trader Vic’s disappeared? (For the record, I had the classic curried shrimp on rice, nothing I would have made then – but I would now).
I was one of the new cooks, intoxicated with recipes from the Silver Palate Cookbook and the new food magazine, Saveur. The Boulters wanted to be a part of it all. They let me cook and I loved them for it.
Peggy and Ron are both gone now but somewhere in our ongoing friendship I ended up with Peggy’s cookbooks, complete with her non-cook, cryptic notes in the margins. I love having them, but the best thing they gave me was their family shortbread recipe, which Cynthia remembers making every Christmas with her nanny. Cynthia tells me she isn’t any more of a cook than her mother, but she’s got these down and every year she makes them with her kids.
It is the time of year to give. And also a good time to say how very kind the Boulter’s were to me.
3 cups pastry flour or 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sifted icing sugar (sift, then measure)
1 cup cornstarch
1 lb butter – hard
– Sift flour, icing sugar and cornstarch into a large bowl.
– Cut butter into it until a little bigger than peas.
– Turn out on a floured board and knead with hands until dough ‘cracks’ (don’t overdo)
– Chill slightly for an hour or two
– Roll out evenly to 1/2″ thick and cut with cutters (use simple shapes)
– Place on pan 1″ apart and bake 350 for 30 minutes until just brown around the edges – check at 15 min.
– Cool on wire racks. Store in an air tight tin (do not freeze).
I think shortbread like to ‘sit’ for a few weeks so make around the end of November, but Cynthia says it doesn’t matter. I also lightly decorate mine with sanding sugar before they go in the oven, but the Boulters didn’t. I make mine thinner (which is why the photo and the recipe are not true to one another) so my baking time is less. The Boulters would probably say these were not their cookies, but that is the thing with cookies, isn’t it?