It was my sister’s birthday recently and I asked her if she’d like a cake or baked goodie. She answered, “shortbread, if that’s possible!!” I laughed when I read the message. It didn’t surprise me. She had declared previously that shortbread was her favourite item from everything that I had baked whilst living with them, during lockdown for 3 months. The week before, I had moved out into university accommodation when lockdown measures had eased allowing me to social bubble with them.
However, how was I going to go about making it a birthday special shortbread with limited baking equipment and none of my usual baking and decorating tools?
- Make a cake structure out of shortbread biscuit? Maybe, but I wanted to make something more personal.
- Stamp out happy birthday with cookie cutters? I didn’t have any alphabet cookie cutters and didn’t know any shops within walking distance that would stock them. I couldn’t ask her to drive me to a shop because, well that would ruin the surprise.
So, I let the thought percolate for a night and then I hit on the idea to create shortbread scrabble tiles, spelling out Happy Birthday Ee-Reh. My sister really likes playing scrabble so this would be special and personal to her. Importantly, I figured out how I’d be able to make them by improvising with what I had in the kitchen already. So yesterday I spent a happy Saturday morning improvising baking tools and creating these shortbread scrabble tiles, whilst working out how to do my laundry in the on-campus laundrettes.
Here’s how I made the scrabble tiles, if you’d like to make them.
I searched the internet for an image of scrabble tiles and counted out how many letters I needed for my birthday message to my sister. I used my go to Fiona Cairns shortbread recipe. This blog post has a more detailed methodology, and worth reading if you’ve not made shortbread before. This time, in the absence of salted butter in my fridge, I substituted it with unsalted butter and added salt. I also accidentally softened half the butter in the microwave for 10 seconds too long, so it was a liquid goo. But it was okay because when I added the rest of the still cold butter chunks, it started to harden and sort of get to the right temperature and consistency. I used cornflour because it is more readily available in UK supermarkets than rice flour but either is fine. I resisted the urge to use a ruler (didn’t have one, haha) or measuring tape (which I do have) and eyeballed the shaping and cutting. It’s homebaking, you know, not the GBBO.
Equipment you’ll need
- Medium sized mixing bowl
- Clingfilm – baking paper will also work
- Chopping board
- Tea spoon
- Hand mixer
- sharp knife
- metal or wooden improvised carving tool – I used the end of the beater. I kept thinking that a metal chopstick would have been great.
- Metal baking tray and baking paper
- 250g unsalted butter, softened and cubed
- 100g golden caster sugar, plus some more for sprinkling post-baking
- 1tsp table salt – about 5g
- 250g of plain flour
- 125g of cornflour
1. Cream together the butter, salt and the sugar together first. I use a hand mixer because it’s faster and easier.
2. In another bowl, measure out the flour and cornflour. Mix it with a whisk. Unless you’ve got weevils or clumps, that is all the ‘sifting’ you need to do. Mix into the butter and sugar in three batches to stop the flour flying out of the bowl until it starts to come together. Then gently knead the dough for about 5 minutes, until it is smooth.
3. Get a piece of clingfilm or baking paper. Place half the mixture evenly in a long oblong shape on the clingfilm. Fold the clingfilm over to cover the dough and use your hands to massage it into a more recognisable rectangular oblong log. I tried to make each side 3.5cm, which is the length of my thumb. I was eye-balling it. Try to give it corners so when you cut it, it will look like a square. Twist the edges of the clingfilm and pop it into the fridge for at least 30 minutes. This will make the dough easier to cut. Do the same with the other half of the dough.
4. In the meantime, write the message on a piece of paper, count the number of scrabble letter tiles that you’ll need and check the internet for the font and numerical value of each letter tile. Also wash up the beaters.
5. Preheat the oven to 170°C/340°F/gas mark 3. Line a metal baking sheet with baking paper.
6. Take one of the logs out of the fridge and place it on a chopping board. Unwrap and cut off the rounded edges. Slice each log into 1cm thick squares. I eyeballed it. Rotate the log every 4-5 slices to ensure that they keep an even square shape.
7. Take one square and transfer it onto the lined baking tray. I used the end of the hand mixer beater to carve out the letter and the end of a tea spoon to make the numbers, holding the square with my other hand to keep it still. Carve about 5mm deep. Every so often, I would use a sharp knife to remove the shortbread ‘debris’ and if it was a letter like a B or an E, I would pad some of the ‘debris’ gently in between the carved furrows to strengthen the shape of the letter, hoping that it wouldn’t disappear as it baked. Curved round 3’s proved impossible for me.
8. Bake in the middle of the pre-heated oven for 14-16 minutes. It should be a lightly golden colour on top and little browner on the bottom. DON’T pick one up when fresh out the oven to check if the bottoms are browned because it will break!* Wait until they have cooled down and are stronger. Instead trust the oven and sprinkle a little caster sugar on top immediately when they come out of the oven. If any of the pieces have baked into each other, separate them with a sharp knife.
*I needed 19 letters, but as I picked up the ‘I’ to do exactly what I told you not to do, it broke in half. So I got my second log out and decided to carve out some more letters so that my sister’s family could spell out each of their names, if they wanted to. Sometimes, this is how the creativity juices unfold.
And that’s it. Tada!
P.S I asked my sister for a lift so that the shortbread biscuits wouldn’t break into crumbs whilst walking the hour over to her house.
P.P.S She really liked them, and so did the rest of her family.