Pantry Basics: Shortbread cut-outs



Earlier this year, I had the pleasure of contributing an essay to Pin Prestige’s August issue. The theme of this particular edition was 点, meaning dot. And I was invited to respond to the question: “你最想去到哪个时间点?At which point in time do you want to be?”

As an abridged translation was published in the Chinese language magazine and at, I thought I’d share it here in English as it speaks of the many dilemmas that torment a mother’s heart and mind.

When I consider when it is that I want to be—the point in time I want to be at—my thoughts are immediately drawn to my children. As it is, I feel that as a mother I am perpetually racing against time.

I had my first child three days after I turned 38. When I became a mother, the concept of time took on a dramatically different dimension in my life. When you begin to live your life in relation to your children’s, you become remarkably conscious of the rapid-fire passing of time.

The minutes and seconds
There is the banal, almost pedantic necessity of managing time. Getting to school on time, keeping track of time, filling time, structuring time. From each child’s birth, I’ve obsessed over the number of hours of sleep he or she clocks in each day; the number of minutes we spend speaking and reading in Mandarin; how his or her waking hours are productively employed whether in education, sport, the arts, or play.

And as a working mother, the need to do this can be all consuming. It is the crushing compulsion to ensure that every hour, minute and second of my children’s lives continues to be filled with the life lessons I would have hoped to impart if I were caring for them myself.

So, when I ask myself, “At which point in time do I want to be at?” The honest answer from a mother’s heart would be: “For my children, at every conceivable point in their lifetimes.”

Clearly, this is impossible.

The histories of a lifetime
Yet, how am I to choose one moment out of a lifetime of moments to witness or, dare I say, influence? Naturally, I yearn to share the high points of my children’s lives, their joys and successes. However, if I were forced to make a choice I would forsake these for their darkest moments, when they are most likely to feel most lost and alone.

But, the fact is, a lifetime consists of innumerable moments. Being present at a specific moment–just one moment in time–is of less significance to me than equipping my children with values that transcend the irreversibility of time.

A significant part of parenting hinges upon giving our children the time and space, for better or worse, to be their own persons. Helping them to craft their individual moral compasses (the value system with which they may make their own decisions, discoveries and mistakes in their own time), is possibly my greatest goal as a parent.

This is perhaps the best way for me to invest the extremely finite time I have with my children.

Even then, such lessons are not easily taught. We are talking about the interface of many lifetimes, because our lives are not lived as ours alone. We carry upon our shoulders the histories and lessons of not only our immediate ancestors, but of humanity.

A lifetime of recipes
I frequently find myself returning to food, the language I communicate with best, in my attempts to lay the foundations of these lessons in the hearts and minds of my young children. It is a language that is universal, one that they can already connect with on many levels even at this young age. And in recording my recipes for them, I endeavour to recall these lessons for my children far into their futures (hopefully surpassing my own lifetime) in a way that remains relevant, timely and yet, timeless.

I hope that as they seek to recreate the flavours of their childhood for the people who matter in their lives, that the process leaves them with more than just a momentary corporeal pleasure; because the best recipes can also prove to be significant recipes for a life lived well.

I am a prolific recipe writer. But the ones that mean the most to me are the simplest. They are the ones that I use most frequently. And with the familiarity of repeated use, the finer details of achieving perfection become more apparent. So, I write and re-write these recipes over decades. The point being that while time is immutable, the lessons we learn from history—the passing of time—can and should evolve.

When, then? There is no time like now
I am pragmatic. The time at which I want to be at is always the present, because there is no time better than now. I can only do what I can now, to help the lessons of the past come to bear on our futures, and my children’s futures.

I’m sharing, here, a recipe for shortbread that I bake regularly, a sweet treat that my children look forward to in their school snack boxes. At this point in our lives, my work schedule doesn’t afford me the time to serve my children freshly cooked meals on a daily basis. I cook at night, after they’ve gone to bed, dishes that can be stored and served to them even when I am not at home. This is a common practice. Many working mothers do this.

It is a simple recipe that calls for simple ingredients. Yet, to me (if not my children) making these shortbread cookies is a luxurious indulgence; a small gesture that conveys all my love for them.

A recipe for life
What has the repeated baking of these shortbread cookies, a humble confluence of butter, eggs, flour and sugar, taught me at this point in time?

1. That when we set our hearts to do something that matters to us, we will always find a way. Most of my recipes allow for preparation spread over a number of days because it is the only way I can squeeze it into my schedule. I have the same 24 hours as everyone else in my day. I find ways to segment the process so that it becomes achievable for me.

2. In the process of achieving point 1, I’ve learnt the virtues of patience in a life where immediacy has become the expected norm. I’ve developed a drawn out process of refrigerating, then rolling, freezing, cutting and freezing the dough for our unforgiving tropical climate because it results in the best cookie cut-outs I can achieve with my own hands. The effort pays off in my children’s smiles, giggles and enthusiastic jostling for a greater share of the cookies in the cookie jar.

3. There is strength in subtlety. By revisiting this recipe constantly, I’ve discovered how the small choices we make in terms of the ingredients we use can impact the outcome. By choosing with intention to use a block of salted SCS Butter (which my father, a son of postwar Singapore, ate in cubes with a toothpick as a childhood treat) or a fancy pat of Echire butter; vanilla seeds or pure vanilla extract; lemon zest or ground tea leaves; we can transform our outcomes. I don’t mean to imply that one ingredient is better than the other. But with one recipe (similar to remaining true to one’s values), we can create many different forms of deliciousness.

4. Practice brings us closer to perfection. But life isn’t always just about the pursuit of perfection. In repetition, we discover beauty in the fallibility of human hands. Let us not close ourselves to that possibility. Life isn’t all black and white, pass or fail. Through practice we also learn to be versatile. While we hold on to what we believe in, it shouldn’t close us to the possibility of tempering our perspectives, adapting to who and what we have to work with.

5. Allow yourself the space for creativity. I make this cookie most frequently for small hands, to offer a small, daily pleasure. But it can just as easily be transformed, with a little icing, into a celebratory treat for birthdays, weddings, and other sweet moments in life.

Baked uncut, then blitzed in a food processor, it is transformed into cookie soil that keeps ice creams from sliding on a plated dessert. It is also a great base for elaborate individual entremets if you decide to attempt an ambitious project one day.

Substitute the lemon zest and vanilla bean with approximately 2 tablespoons of ground coffee beans, ground tea leaves (my favourites are Japanese hojicha and Earl Grey) or something else that catches your fancy, and you have a new cookie in your hands.

6. When I can, I gather the cookie trimmings and give them to my children as an invitation to play. They get to shape their own cookies (I restrain myself from judging them), and I offer them the time and space to create.

Similarly, in life, even as you take to well-worn paths, allow yourself the levity to play, explore and make new discoveries.

7. The greatest lesson of all: should this recipe not work for you, don’t give up. Keep searching. Keep trying. One day you’ll find or develop one that fits you.

About Su-Lyn Tan

Su-Lyn is Aun's better half and for many years, the secret Editor behind this blog known to readers simply as S. Su-Lyn is an obsessive cook and critical eater whose two favourite pastimes are spending time with her three kids and spending time in the kitchen. She looks forward to combining the two in the years to come.