When you look at snow, what do you see?
I see slabs of homemade marshmallows covered with a dusting of icing sugar.
I see meringue. Sometimes it’s a smooth pavlova, other times it’s broken shards, the kind you can pick at without anyone noticing.
I see boiled icing, swirled beautifully over a cake.
I see royal icing, hard and decorative, draped over trees.
I see an invisible sieve, shaking way up in the sky, with icing sugar floating beneath.
I see pastry in its early stages, when the the butter is small and crumbly and coated in flour.
I see an icy, flaky granita. At the end of winter it’s spiked with messy dark flavours. Right now, it’s fresh and bright.
Today I see cornstarch, smooth and white, with pebbles of fat here and there. The beginning of my sister Lee’s shortbread. Actually it was our friend Carol’s shortbread. Carol has since passed away, but we think of her when my sister bakes batch after batch every Christmas. Maybe that’s why my brother-in-law says ‘they’ve been kissed by an angel’ every time he pops one in his mouth.
I’m writing this from Mount Sainte Anne, a ski resort just outside of Quebec city. It’s a gorgeous sunny day, -10C, lots of fresh powder. The grooming tracks are fresh; the snow beneath my skis was raked with an icing comb.
I’m here with son #2 for a ski camp. And while he bashes through gates, I’m daydreaming about sweet confections.
This is why I’m not a fast skier.
We’re staying in a condo at the base of the hill. Our house mates and neighbours are seasoned ski parents. They arrived with portable stereos, candles, sharp knives, proper sized wine glasses and holiday baking – the things one needs to make a rental feel like home, especially in the days leading up to Christmas (I’m talking to you cousin Leslie, house mate extraordinaire).
This is our first time at the camp. We’re rookies. I didn’t pack any of the above, and clearly I’m in need of Carol’s shortbread. Of course there’s an épicerie near bye, but those purchases seem excessive, cumbersome. Next year I’ll bring a jar, with the dry ingredients inside. Attached will be a label reading “whip butter, add ingredients in jar, blend until mixture looks like smooth, silky snow with bit of ‘snow cookies’ throughout. Roll into small balls, bake at 325F for 20 minutes.”
Or better yet, my sister will make me some before I leave. They freeze beautifully.
Carol’s Whipped Shortbread
Preheat oven to 325 F
1 lb butter
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup icing sugar
2 cups flour
1 cup cake flour
1/4 tsp almond extract
Cream butter until smooth. Add remaining ingredients. Blend well. Form into little balls with your hands and place on a cookie sheet. (Lee’s are about half the size of a golf ball, perfect for popping in the mouth). Bake for 20 minutes. Cool on a cooling rack.
When cool, there’s an option to top the shortbread with a little ‘kiss’ of icing.
Vanilla Butter Icing
1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 1/2 cups icing sugar, sifted to remove any lumps
2 drops vanilla extract
1-1 1/2 tsp cream or milk
Whip the butter until very soft and creamy. Add icing sugar and vanilla; continue to whip until combined. Add a splash of milk or cream, until desired consistency.
Lee spoons the icing into a zip lock bag, squishing it all towards one corner. She then cuts a very tiny hole in that corner, and squirts a ‘squiggle’ of icing on each cookie. It’s her signature move.
I’m not sure how many cookies this batch makes. Definitely lots.