Every family has its funny little games. One I play with my mother is “What’s the most past its best-before-date ingredient in the back of the cupboard?” These tend to be spices, but in this case, at my folks’ place I found a box of cornflour1 that was… well, let’s say that at least it was from this century.
Now, one of the many wasteful habits we have in the modern world, especially in the West, is throwing away perfectly good food. Love Food Hate Waste says that in the UK alone “We throw away 7 million tonnes2 of food and drink from our homes every year, the majority of which could have been eaten.” This may be a massive underestimate though. Other stats3 have it at 15 million tonnes. Think of that. That’s a mountain of food. A mountain of food that was produced with vast amounts of energy, that goes into landfills, when elsewhere people are starving – or indeed, relying on food banks here in the UK, the sixth biggest economy in the world.
So rather than giving it to the birds or the bin, I thought, why not try and use up the cornflour. Certainly, in its long career at the gloomy back of the cupboard, it’s not improved, but nor has it become inedible – it’s probably lost some of its power-to-thicken, but it hadn’t rotted or become toxic or bad for you. It just got stale.
I’d been browsing Jane Grigson’s English Food and naturally, given my inclinations, I was in the Teatime chapter. Among the entries is one for Shortcakes. Though these are actually shortbreads, or shortbread biscuits. Grigson, writing in 1974, before the internet made everyone a expert and/or pedant, simply says, “Scottish shortbread is one of the many international variations on the shortcake theme”.
Shortbread is one of those recipes that utilises memorable proportions: 3 parts flour, 2 parts butter, 1 part sugar. For the flour, the Grigson recipe gave an option for either using ground rice or cornflour mixed with flour, so this seemed like a great way to use up the museum piece.
I’ve made shortbreads with ground rice and semolina before, which gives them a bit of crunch, but using cornflour takes them the other way – into a softer biscuit that almost dissolves in the mouth. The delicate texture can be further enhanced by using icing (powdered) sugar wholly or partially for that 1 part sugar.
A note on techniques
Shortbread can be made by either creaming the sugar and butter, then adding the flour, or by rubbing the butter into the flour, then adding the sugar. Grigson’s recipe did the latter, and gave the delightfully in-depth instructions of “Mix to a dough”.
Shortbread isn’t a million miles away from a shortcrust pastry, so the rubbing-in method seemed like a logical choice. As with a shortcrust pastry, try to avoid overworking the flour.
Now, I’ve made these twice in the past week: once with the, er, vintage cornflour, and once with some fresh stuff now I’m back home. Both worked well: the, er, well-aged cornflour resulted in a slightly softer, more powdery biscuit that was perfectly edible and palatable. Stale flour isn’t ideal, but it won’t kill you. So don’t bin it the moment it goes over its best-before date. Think of those 7 – or 15 – million tonnes.
200g plain (all purpose) flour
100g cornflour (corn starch)
200g unsalted butter
50g caster sugar
50g icing sugar
1. Preheat the oven to 180C.
2. Line a couple of baking sheets with parchment or silicone mats.
3. Weigh out the flours and sieve them together into a large bowl. Or just combine and whisk a bit with a fork if you can’t be bothered with the sieve.
3. Cut the butter into small cubes, add it to the flour and rub it in until the mixture is crumb-like.
4. Add the sugars to the mixture and squeeze to all together to form a dough. It will be crumbly. You want it crumbly – crumbly = short.
5. Roll out the paste on a lightly floured worktop, to a thickness of about 12mm. I made mine into fingers, cutting pieces about 70 x 25mm.
6. Put the piece on the baking sheets and prick them with a fork.
7. Put them in the oven and bake for about 15 minutes. The classic shortbread is baked to the point where it’s still pale, but I like mine just starting to colour. Your choice – add or subtract a few minutes from the baking time to suit your tastes.
1. What Americans call corn starch and Italians amido di mais. Whatever you call it, it’s a starch extracted from the endosperm – the carby bit – of kernels of Zea mais, maize, or corn in US English.
2. 7 million metric tonnes is 7.72 million short/US tons or 6.9 long/imperial tons. By any measure, a lot.
3. This article in The Guardian is about a new law in France to stop supermarkets wasting so much food. It has stats from Eurostat, with the UK at the top of an EU league table of food wasters.