“Any basic cookbook has a recipe for shortbread – butter, sugar and flour and almost no one makes it any more. With ice cream it is sublime – a true no-hassle dessert.”
-Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking
‘Shortbread’ means ‘crumbly bread’.
The original idea of shortbread is that it is made of just three ingredients in the same proportion – ie one part sugar to two parts butter to three parts flour (or, at the beginning of its development, breadcrumbs). This is a lot of butter (hence the choice of butter is important – follow this link for what to look for when buying butter).
It’s this high proportion of butter which gives it the name ‘shortbread’ – ‘shortening’ is another name for fat which is solid at room temperature and used to give pastry a crumbly texture.
Where does shortbread come from?
Shortbread was considered a delicacy, and, although it is now widely associated with Scotland, it hails from France. In fact it was Mary, Queen of Scots who introduced it to Scotland when she returned from France, accompanied by a bevy of her French chefs. They baked it in rounds and decorated it with pastry representations of their boss’s petticoat tails.
What is the connection between shortbread and New Year?
Shortbread was a luxury reserved for high days and holidays. In particular shortbread is offered to ‘first footers’ – the first people to cross the threshold on New Year’s Day – who were supposed to bring luck. This custom began with celtic Yule cakes which symbolised the sun. Yule is the shortest day, the winter solstice, and in pagan times Yule cakes were baked and offered to guests on that day.
You can add additional interest to shortbread by:
- adding a tablespoon of lemon juice and topping with lemon zest (good with thunder and lightning ice cream). Some people also add candied lemon peel. And of course, you can do the same with orange…. or even bergamot.
- adding chopped pistachios for a middle eastern feel – add to the dough, or coated in melted dark chocolate and sprinkle the chopped pistachios over. Or do the same with almonds or hazelnuts. Try adding also blackberries.
- by adding 6 green cardamom pods and about 50g/⅓ cup roughly chopped pistachios and serving with (as Laurie Colwin suggests in the quote at the top of this post- a sublime partner) vanilla ice cream.
- add a couple of tablespoons of good quality Dutch cocoa to the dough
- Honey & Co roll theirs in a coating of equal proportions of sumac and granulated sugar
Peter Eaton, head chef at The Woodspeen suggests making shortbread with strong flour and a little rice flour; then mix quickly, less than three minutes.
Herbalist and broadcaster, Judith Hann, suggests adding aniseedy seeds of sweet cicely.
The traditional recipe
Nowadays, the largest manufacturer of shortbread is Walkers, based in Aberlour in Scotland. They sell 40,000 of shortbread every year to 90 countries including the US, Japan and Australia. Now the company only sells through Waitrose and Ocado supermarkets (as well as Harrods, airports etc).
“Shortbread – it’s never in fashion and never out of fashion…. Everybody likes it and we make it in exactly the same way it was made in the village bakery. Cream the butter and the sugar, add the flour and bake” said Jim Walker, interviewed recently in The Telegraph.
He suggests a traditional recipe comprising 500g plain flour, 240g caster sugar, 250g semolina, and 500g butter (plus extra for greasing) and baking for an hour in a coolish oven – 150°C.
It may be traditional, but after much experimentation Saucy Dressings has come up with a slightly different, more beguiling recipe.
Saucy Dressings’ recipe for specially good shortbread
Makes 12-15 biscuits
- 125g/half a packet butter (ideally unsalted, and if you are in paradise you would be able to use Echiré – both Waitrose and Marks & Spencer stock this butter – or the fabulous British Longley Farm. It’s worth the additional cost because proportionately there is a lot of butter in shortbread – it’s what makes it ‘short’ – and it’s what gives it its richness and texture)
- 55g/¼ cup golden caster sugar
- 120g/1cups plain flour
- 60g/½ cup cornflour (this finely milled maize flour gives the shortbread a softer, crumblier, ‘melt in the mouth’ texture) – some people use semolina instead to give extra ‘bite’ (can be a bit gritty). It’s fine to use plain flour instead if you don’t have any cornflour.
- sea salt crystals/flakes – I used some wonderful gold salt flakes sourced from Hediard in Paris
- preheat oven to 180°C.
- cream together butter and sugar until a lighter ivory colour – use an electric whisk.
- beat in the flour and the corn flour.
- roll out into a rectangle and then cut up into shapes.
- put onto a greased baking sheet.
- prick with a fork (this allows the steam to escape and stops the shortbread from bubbling as it bakes).
- sprinkle with the salt.
- bake for about 15-20 minutes – until just golden.
This post is dedicated to Una Stevens, who came over for some tea one afternoon, accompanied by Walkers’ shortbread and some sticky cake (post to come).