21/03: How weird it feels to be somewhat stranded in my own home, wearing a mask and maintaining distance from my own family members. Weirder still to know there is potentially something incredibly deadly I’m harbouring in my own body, because ‘statistically speaking, there was definitely someone with Covid on that plane…’, in the parlance of my friend! Day 1 of my quarantine started at 8pm last night, after a groggy long flight home. I remember the very sudden, very sad decision I had to make back in Oxford just a couple of days ago, to come home. Mostly to appease family, to at least be (nearer) them during such a strange and curious time. Anyway, walking around the city centre was not the same anymore, this virus which has manifested itself as the anomie of the new decade turning every city we know and love into practical ghost towns.
Maybe you’ve all have seen the statistics, but it’s still worrying to know that despite Italy’s early efforts to contain the virus by shutting down many of its schools and quarantining a dozen towns in its northern regions, 600 people died by 10 March, up from just 100 on 4 March. It’s clear to see how Covid-19’s course has put us all on a trajectory of uncertainty and stress. As imprisoning as it felt to sign the 14-day quarantine form, it was pretty relieving to face the familiar, vigilant, Singaporean healthcare system, knowing I’ll be able to walk and visit cafés (as you do), and see dear friends afterwards. More than 12 hours in and feeling fine, and hopefully some planning and scheduling of distracting yet enjoyable hobbies, together with some mind-ticking activities, will dampen the stress and anxiety that has yet to build up over the course of the next few days. I am lucky enough to have a space at home large enough to see me through hours of sleeping, exercising and writing, with the occasional trip to kitchen because these baking fingers won’t calm down by themselves. These things help. Baking, can help.
A close friend mentioned his penchant for Millionaire’s Shortbread, something I have only tried once on a whim from a corner store, and only ever seen in the UK (although it’s apparently Australian). It seemed too simple not to try, with its pleasing three layers of crumbly, buttery shortbread, caramel and milk chocolate, in that very order from base to top. I toyed around with a few recipes and utilise a very handy microwavable caramel, an experiment which arose from a combination of laziness and curiosity. And it’s during times like these that that very combination can be so rewarding.
Easy Millionaire’s Shortbread (makes 16 squares)
For the shortbread:
226g (1 cup) salted butter (add a half teaspoon of salt to the flour if your butter is unsalted), at room temperature
100g (0.5 cup) white sugar
250g (2 cups) plain flour
For the caramel:
113g (0.5 cup) salted butter
1 tsp extra salt
300ml (1.25 cup) heavy/double cream
350g (1.75 cup) brown sugar
For the chocolate layer:
200g (2 thin bars) milk chocolate
Preheat your oven to 180C and line an 8×8 or 9×9-inch baking pan with parchment, with two longer sides to help you lift the squares out of the pan easily later on. In a medium bowl, cream together the room-temperature butter and sugar with a fork or whisk. The butter should either be a little too cold or just about room temperature, not melting. Add the flour (and salt if you did not use salted butter) and mix everything together with a spoon until it all just about comes together. You should have a crumbly mixture that holds together when you squeeze it with your hands. Tip this mixture into your baking pan and press down until you get an even layer of shortbread. Bake in the oven for 20 minutes or until you see the edges go a very light golden.
While that is baking, make the caramel. Melt the butter by putting it in a microwave-safe bowl and microwaving it for 30 seconds or until just melted. Then add the salt, cream and brown sugar and mix everything together until well combined. Microwave this on high for 3 minutes, then take it out. The mixture will be very hot and bubbly so just be careful here. Stir the caramel briefly, then microwave it on high for another minute. Open the microwave door and leave the caramel to cool for at least 15 minutes.
Once the shortbread is done, take it out of the oven (you don’t need the oven anymore at this point so you can turn it off) and leave it to cool for half an hour before pouring on the cooled caramel.
Now for the easiest part of all the easy parts: Break up your milk chocolate into another microwave-safe bowl and microwave it for 1 minute on high. Take out the bowl and use a fork to mix the chocolate to spread out the heat which will continue to melt the remaining chunks of hard milk chocolate. Leave the chocolate to cool for 10 minutes or until it’s just warm to the touch, before pouring it on the caramel layer. This is an important step because pouring on too-hot chocolate will melt the hardened caramel layer and the chocolate and caramel will merge into one homogenous mess. Not that it won’t taste good, but you want the three separate layers for taste and visual impact.