This summer has been filled with parties. There was husband Patrick's poker party with pals. There was karaoke night with old college friends who have an obsession with Sinatra. An early-July barbecue and bonfire at Mission Bay for Patrick's birthday was followed by a family reunion bash on a cousin's family farm, complete with a mooing cow, cawing peacock, and a herd of quail babies bustling after their adopted mother, a chicken. I thought there would be a party respite after that. I forgot about my pregnant friend. A tea party baby shower was in order for my chum who has been on bed rest for weeks. I needed to find the best shortbread cookies -- her favorite -- to have with tea.
First stop was All Things Bright and British tea shop in La Mesa. "Shortbread is a Scottish dessert," the saleslady informed me. She pointed out a shelf of Walkers shortbreads. "I like the Shortbread Petticoat Tails ( $4.29 for 5.3 oz.) because they come packaged in a pie shape, cut into triangles, and it is easy to snap off a piece and dunk it in some tea." I picked up a package and also the Walkers Pure Butter Shortbread ( $4.29 for 5.3 oz.) and Walkers Pure Butter Stem Ginger Shortbread ( $5.29 for 6.2 oz.). I was curious as to whether the petticoat tails and the butter shortbread would taste different since they had the same ingredients. "Most shortbread is about a third butter, that's why it tastes so good," she offered. "Some people say the shortbreads taste the same, but to me, the different-shaped shortbread makes them taste different."
The saleslady recommended a tea from the myriad of teas on the shelf. "Yorkshire Tea by Taylors of Harrogate is my coworker's favorite," she told me. "She's from England, and to her there is no other tea." I picked up a box for the party and headed on to Trader Joe's, Henry's, Whole Foods, and Vons and bought any shortbread I could see. I arrived home well after dinner and exhausted, so we decided to taste the next day with our morning tea.
Around ten o'clock, I lined up the shortbread boxes on our kitchen counter and sat down with Patrick and my mother. We started with the Yorkshire tea. Patrick enjoyed it, as did my Irish mother, though she remarked with a smile, "I like Barry's better." Then we dug into butterdom. We started with the Lorna Doones ( $4.29 for 10 oz. at Vons). "Too much like a sugar cookie," moaned Patrick, "shortbread should be more bread-like, not snappy."
Pamela's Products Butter Shortbread ( $2.99 for 7.25 oz. at Whole Foods) had the opposite problem. "The softness is off-putting," remarked Mom. "It is like a cookie that has had water spilled on it." We wondered if the lack of wheat and gluten had something to do with the sogginess. The same brand's Lemon Shortbread and their Pecan Shortbread (each $3.29 for 7.25 oz. at Henry's) were crumbly, falling apart in our hands. "I am a big fan of shortbread and a big fan of pecans," Patrick commented, "but I am not a fan of them together."
No one at the table liked the Safeway's Pecan Shortbread Cookies (two one-pound packages for $5.00 at Vons), which had an acidic aftertaste. And neither the Sandies Pecan Shortbread ( $3.99 for 16 oz. at Vons), which left a greasy film on the top of our mouths, nor the Shortbread Fudge Drops ( $2.77 for 9.5 oz. at Wal-Mart) went over well. "This bears no taste resemblance to shortbread," said Patrick of the latter, "and its shape calls to mind a toilet seat."
"What are you saying?" laughed mom, discreetly spitting hers into a napkin.
We quickly got off that topic and moved on.
Finally we tasted a cookie we all loved, the Wild Oats Natural Assorted Shortbread ( $6.99 for 8.8 oz.. at Henry's). "A strong buttery taste," said mom, "[with] perfect thickness and perfect texture." We set the box aside as a keeper.
The '50s-style packaging of the Starr Ridge Shortbread Classic Butter Cookies ( $3.99 for 6 oz. at Whole Foods) sent us all reminiscing. The cookie had huge sugar crystals sprinkled on top and the taste, though pleasant, was more sugar than shortbread. "If you handed me this cookie at a party, I would think it was a sugar cookie," noted Patrick.
The kilt-wearing cartoon ginger root playing the bagpipes on the package of The Ginger People Ginger Shortbread ( $3.99 for 6.2 ounces at Whole Foods) also tickled our fancy. The strong ginger taste appealed to the table, but the cookie was a tad on the soggy side. The bite-sized Trader Joe's Ginger Shortbread Squares ( $2.29 for 5.3 oz.) carried even stronger ginger flavor, though some found the cookies too snappy.
Trader Joe's also sold All Butter Shortbread Cookies with chocolate filling and another package with apricot and raspberry filling (each $3.99 for 14 oz.). The chocolate-filled cookies had perfect texture and, though dry, retained enough moisture to make it pleasant. "The chocolate is like gilding the lily," said Patrick. "I prefer it without the chocolate." The fruit-filled cookies were soggy and flavorless. Patrick went on to wax poetic about shortbread cookies. "If you bite into the cookie and it just snaps, I think 'Wrong.' But if you bite into it and it just crumbles around your teeth but doesn't fall apart, it's right. And it's got to have that shortbread bite, which is reminiscent of a sourdough bite. It leaves a ring of flavor in the mouth."
Island Bakery Short Bread cookies ( $4.49 for 5.3 oz. at Whole Foods) was another winner, and the Wholesome & Delicious Heaven Scent Shortbread Fudge Thumbprint Cookies ( $2.69 for 6 oz. at Whole Foods), though they had a pleasant taste, the fudge overpowered the shortbread flavor.
Finally we broke into the British teashop cookies. The Walkers Pure Butter Stem Ginger Shortbread was hard to cut and chew. "This is another cookie with an identity crisis," offered Patrick. "Is it a sugar cookie or a shortbread cookie?"
The Walkers Shortbread Petticoat Tails were a favorite, with their creamy butter taste. But the cookie that took the cake was the Walkers Pure Butter Shortbread.