For someone who claims to be a lousy cook, Carl Stryg does miraculous things with butter and flour. His shortbread cookies are astonishingly delicate and airy; initially crisp when you bite into them, they immediately melt away in your mouth."I can't cook anything else other than shortbread," he says. But anyone who's tried his delectable, dainty cookies will easily forgive his other culinary shortcomings.
The self-taught baker and owner of Toronto's Coach House Shortbread Company has a loyal following of gourmets, who clamour for the many variations of his sweet and savoury biscuits – dark chocolate and fleur de sel, lavender, almond and sugared rose, stilton and rosemary, spicy asiago and garlic, and gorgonzola and pistachio, just to name a few.
Over the past few months, he's been ramping up production in his "shortbread laboratory," a small, austere kitchen set up next to his showroom. With the help of a baker's assistant, he estimates he'll bake about 15,000 packages of shortbread cookies between mid-August and Christmas,which are shipped across the country.Shortbread is, after all, a seasonal product, almost exclusively sold and consumed around Christmas, Mr. Stryg says. He notes, however, it hasn't always been this way. Traditionally, Scottish shortbread was a special occasion food, eaten at weddings, New Year's and celebrations of all kinds.
Mr. Stryg's own early associations with shortbread were formed during childhood, while making the Christmas treats with his mother, who inherited the recipe from his grandmother and great-grandmother. But he admits he has played with the formula so much over the years, his grandmother probably would not recognize the biscuits he makes today. "I have done crazy things," he says.
His newest flavour this year is sugar plum, made with raisins, dried plums, toasted almonds, spices and rum-soaked apricots. It's sweet, aromatic and tastes a little like Christmas stollen. Mr. Stryg acknowledges he's created his fair share of disasters, however, most notably, a black olive and orange shortbread.
"The dough was the colour of cement. It looked so unappetizing. And I learned in that moment that black olives are delicious in big chunks. In small chunks suitable for this particular cookie, they're a meaningless mess," he says. "The flavour became completely muddy and horrible."
But Mr. Stryg has mastered the distinct, melt-in-your-mouth texture of his shortbreads. To achieve this quality, Mr. Stryg uses several different kinds of flour: Monarch brand cake flour, Glenrose unbleached pastry flour, another standard cake flour, and cornstarch. The right mix of these flours yields the optimal taste, structure and gluten content, he says, explaining that typical flours found in North America have too much gluten in them, which can result in a tough product, as the protein binds everything together like mortar.
"I try to find that place where the mortar is fine, but no so fine that the bricks can't stay together," he says. "That's why the cookies hold together but they melt away."
The final element that makes Mr. Stryg's shortbread special is his small-scale, hands-on production. He estimates he makes as much shortbread in an entire season as well-known Scottish brand Walkers produces in an hour. Although he's received offers from major Canadian food retailers to get into mass production, he has no intention of trading his little laboratory, which resembles an artist's workshop, for a factory.
"Anything that involves conveyor belts does not interest me in terms of my product," Mr. Stryg says, noting he doesn't trust machines to handle the finicky shortbread-making process, which can be affected by subtle changes in temperature and humidity. "I'm paying attention to the dough, to the ingredients, the feel of the flour, the colour of the butter, and I know I can make adjustments accordingly, so the end result is extremely consistent."
Mr. Stryg's shortbread is available at his Coach House Shortbread Company retail showroom (235 Carlaw Ave., Toronto; 416-907-8356), and can be ordered from across Canada online (www.shortbread.ca).
Want to make scrumptious shortbread? Carl Stryg, owner of Coach House Shortbread Company in Toronto, has this advice:
Use cool butter, at least 16 degrees C or slightly cooler. Butter that is too soft won't give you an even mix. Cool butter makes for a less sticky dough, and is easier to handle. It also helps to work in a cool room. "In a hot room in the summer, these cookies just don't set up," he says. "They're delicious, but they're impossible, cranky little creatures and it's a nightmare to work with."
Avoid overmixing. "If you're making shortbread, no matter what texture you're looking for, less is more with mixing," he says. Once you combine the flour and the butter together, never mix for more than eight minutes, he advises. Too much mixing creates a tough cookie.