I am a pandemic basic bitch. I spent months working from home, teaching elementary school skills to my kids, and resisting a swan dive into alcoholism. So, like half the American population, I turned to baking. My expanding waistline speaks to the results. Sweet or savory, bread or desserts; if it’s made of carbohydrates, I am down to clown. Like most anxiety-ridden adults with too many streaming choices, I’m also a Ted Lasso superfan. It’s like a cookie for your soul that you can eat over and over again. I think. I lost track of the metaphor. So when fantastic online cooking resource Kitchn posted the “official from Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso” shortbread biscuit recipe I went for it faster than Rupert Mannion hits on a uni student. And how better to determine its quality than by comparing it to two classic shortbread recipes in a group taste test?
Now, first off, I’m going to use “biscuit” in reference to the Ted Lasso baked good and “cookies” for the others because I am a fickle man and I know there’s at least four of you for whom it will be fingernails on the chalkboard of your soul. But because I am also kind and there’s nothing worse than having to read 47,882 words before finding the recipe, I’m putting them right here in paragraph two. First, the Ted Lasso biscuit. This is the most basic recipe you’ll find for a shortbread cookie and contains only four ingredients. Next, the King Arthur Shortbread refines things slightly with flavor extracts. Finally, we have America’s Test Kitchen “Best Shortbread” recipe. ATK’s recipes are always thoroughly tested, clearly explained, and delicious. On the other hand, they’re hidden behind a paywall, oftentimes call for items not in your pantry, and occasionally turn a baking sprint into a marathon. Their shortbread is a classic example of this, calling for additional ingredients and a more complicated baking process that takes several hours. But these are the sacrifices we make in the name of
I stuck closely to the original recipes. For example, I didn’t use any extracts in the Ted Lasso recipe. The King Arthur shortbread cookie is made with vanilla and almond. I measured volumetrically or by mass depending on the recipe. There were a few minor technical modifications based on my own baking experience. I baked all the cookies in a 9” round cake pan, for several reasons. First, consistency; 2 out of 3 recipes called for a round pan, so I made the third in the same one. Second, square pans promote dry, overcooked corners. That works with a chewy traybake such as brownies better than it does a crumbly cookie which bakes for a long time at low temperature. I packed the King Arthur cookie dough into 1 cake pan, not the two it called for. This gave the resulting cookie a similar height as the other two, so they looked the same for taste testing purposes. I also chilled all the cookies before baking. Past failures taught me the error in putting warm shortbread dough in the oven. The butter melts before the cookie bakes through, altering the texture significantly. Finally, I docked (poked little holes in) the surface of all the doughs to allow steam to escape without unsightly bubbling. This also helps ensure a crisp surface.
The good news all these recipes are easy and relatively inexpensive. The America’s Test Kitchen version is the most complex biscuit and requires the most specialized equipment. In Lassoesque terms, it’s the Jamie Tartt depilation regimen of cookies. Are the results delicious and (thankfully) hair-free? Absolutely. Is it worth buying a food processor if you don’t own one to grind the oats? Hell no. Just make one of the other cookies. So long as you have a bowl, cake pan, and a stand or hand mixer, you can make them both with minimum effort. The two trickiest parts, making sure you don’t overwork the dough and judging when the cookies are done, come with experience. A “short” cookie should be crumbly, not chewy, so it’s important not to mix the dough any longer than absolutely necessary, and limit the water content as much as possible. And a shortbread cookie should be baked to a light golden color. Not enough time in the oven and it tastes like pasty, raw flour; too long/too much color, and the otherwise mild cookie tastes burned.
In baking, your final product is only as good as its basic elements. They don’t need to be the most expensive, all organic, boutique ingredients out there. Shortbread cookies are by design inexpensive, easy bakes for a home cook who isn’t made of money. But those ingredients should be of good quality. Here are mine.
The most important ingredient in a shortbread cookie is butter. It provides most of the flavor in a cookie that’s otherwise just flour, sugar, and cornstarch. Cabot butter is the best available in my area without paying through the nose for European brands. If I was making one batch for my family I might splurge on Kerrygold Irish Butter, but my paycheck only stretches so far. When it comes to flour, I always go for King Arthur varieties as long as there isn’t a pandemic-induced shortage. It’s a reliable, minimally processed product that provides excellent results, like Higgins sans goatee. Powdered sugar provides both sugar and a small amount of cornstarch. For the rest, well, I used what I already had in the pantry. All the cookies require salt. The ATK version calls for rolled oats, ground in the food processor or blender, and cornstarch. These allow for more cookie structure, but since they’re non-wheat products they don’t create gluten when beaten into the dough and create a shorter cookie.
The Kitchn and King Arthur recipes use similar methods to achieve cookie success. First, the butter is creamed with powdered sugar. This provides a much-needed lift in the cookies, which have no leavener like baking soda or powder to do so chemically. This is the only opportunity to work air into the final cookie and shouldn’t be skipped. Then it’s time for the flour. This should be sifted, so it incorporates into the butter more easily. The most important step here is to not overwork the dough. Mix it only until it barely comes together into clumps. These clumps are then packed into the bottom of a well-buttered cake pan and patted flat. The surface is docked and the dough is sliced about halfway through to make the final, post-bake cuts simpler. After half an hour in the refrigerator, the cookies are baked at 300F for 45-60 minutes until very lightly golden brown. Turn them immediately out onto a cutting board and use a serrated knife or pizza wheel to cut them into the preferred shape. Cool completely and then store in sealed containers.
America’s Test Kitchen makes things complicated, though. First, you grind oats into flour. You add that and cornstarch to the flour and other dry ingredients in the stand mixer bowl, then chop your butter into little pieces one at a time, over the next 5 - 10 minutes. Once it forms little clumps you pat out the dough, cut out the middle, and cook it at 2 different temperatures before resting the resulting cookie for THREE HOURS. It’s a long time to wait for cookies is all I’m saying. They also use a springform pan, but only the sides.
Ted Lasso’s Biscuits
King Arthur Shortbread
ATK’s Best Shortbread
Visually there’s not much difference. They look like cookies. And since I have the artistic talent of a chimpanzee with hooks for hands, not even particularly attractive cookies. The Test Kitchen cookies, in particular, are so delicate they snap as cut. I run out of patience for fine work pretty quickly, so my presentation can be described as “hurried” at best, though in my defense not even Ted’s cookies in the box look perfect. But they’re edible, and that’s the important thing.
The differences show themselves in the flavor and texture. The Ted Lasso biscuit has the mildest flavor. The cookie is light and crumbles in your mouth. The King Arthur version is crisper on the outside and has a bit more of a “snap” than the others. The almond flavor was strong when the cookies first came out of the oven but faded over 24 hours to a pleasant, mild taste that’s a bit one-note. They’re also the most buttery tasting of the cookies. The ATK cookie is even shorter than Ted Lasso biscuit thanks to the oats and cornstarch. It has a more complex sweetness than the Ted Lasso cookie because of the oats, like the difference between white and whole-grain sandwich bread, but not as strong.
So how did the tasting panel respond? Well, for starters, they looked at me like I was an idiot for cooking 3 different versions of the same cookie in one day. Some people have no scientific curiosity. But after feeding all 3 to about 20 unsuspecting family, friends, and coworkers, there was no clear winner. Nor was there a clear loser; people either liked the almond flavor of the King Arthur batch or preferred the traditional taste of the other two. It was generally agreed the ATK and Ted Lasso versions had the best texture, but the King Arthur cookies were still appropriately short. I wish there was a clear winner. After 6 hours in the kitchen, I deserve one, dammit. Here are my personal ratings:
2. King Arthur
3. Ted Lasso
What can I say, I really like oats. And I like the buttery snap of the King Arthur cookie more than the (to me) slightly bland taste of the Ted Lasso shortbread. But the Lasso cookie isn’t bad by any stretch, merely simple. It’s a blank canvas waiting for your particular palette (and palate). And while I prefer the ATK version, I don’t know if I prefer it enough to devote 4 hours of my life to the world’s simplest cookie, not unless it’s a rainy, cold day when I’ve nothing better to do. Or there’s yard work to duck. Who am I kidding? I’ll absolutely devote 4 hours of my life to a cookie. What else am I going to do, reexamine all my life choices in a world on the brink of social, economic, and environmental collapse? I spend enough time doing that already.
I do have to question if these would be Ted Lasso’s daily gift to Rebecca, though. Ted strikes me as a man who appreciates simple things well done, like a perfect cup of coffee (never tea, which is hot dirty sink water). But he’s also a man to take chances. On new jobs, new countries, new players. Would he really stick to a four-ingredient, one-note recipe once perfected? Unlikely. He’d add vanilla. Nutmeg. Citrus. Perhaps fresh-cracked black pepper if he felt particularly daring. The Apple TV+ version is a relegated team that can tie but doesn’t often win. The additions you make, those are your aces.
The bottom line is these recipes are all solid. The Ted Lasso biscuit is an excellent recipe for bakers just beginning their journey to weight gain and diabetes. After that, the sky is your limit! Experiment with flavors. Extracts like orange, almond, and coffee give great notes when used sparingly. Citrus zest, vanilla sugar, and flake salt provide variety. You can add spices like cinnamon, nutmeg or chai tea for a holiday flavor. Or go savory! Rosemary, thyme, walnuts, cheddar, and parmesan are all popular additions to your traditional shortbread. If Higgins’s speech during the Christmas episode taught us anything, it’s our diverse elements brought together into a beautiful, cohesive whole that are better than the sum of their parts, and oh my god shut up I’m not crying you’re crying. Emotions, man. Now I need another cookie.
Header Image Source: Ted Lasso screenshot; all others James Field