INTENSELY SATISFYING Traditional shortbread makes a homely and comforting Christmas treat.
As shortbread crumbles in the mouth it gladdens the heart. Delicate and refined, with a beautiful buttery flavour, a shortbread biscuit is an intensely satisfying treat.
The first printed recipe for shortbread appeared in 1736 and has been credited to Scottish woman Mrs McLintock, and the mouthwatering treat has been associated with Scotland ever since.
Today, everyone has their own advice when it comes to making shortbread. ‘Never use anything but good-quality butter’ … ’Shortbread must never be browned’ … ‘Only use un-salted butter’ – or, equally, you could hear ‘My neighbour makes it with margarine and its delicious!’ … ‘Cook ’till browned’ … ‘Even the Scottish use salted butter nowadays’.
Certainly shortbread should never be overcooked, so baking at a lower temperature is advised. For me, a pale golden colour is preferable to golden brown. I used the regular, salted butter and remain satisfied with the results. In fact, I’m happy to see some recipes suggest adding a dash of salt to their unsalted butter. One thing I’m certain of though: do not overwork your mixture too much.
The traditional proportions were one part sugar, two parts butter and three parts flour (you can see where the buttery, sugary loveliness comes from!). Some people nowadays mix in rice or corn flour, which affects the texture.
For a truly handmade look, use a fork to prick surface holes in your shortbread shapes before baking, and then sprinkling them with icing sugar once cooled.
Like all things, the devil is in the detail, and practice makes perfect.
No better time of celebration and the coming together of Christmas to cook up and serve this homely and warming food. You can serve these dry biscuits after a meal with a soft dessert like ice cream or custard, but really I think they come into their own with a cup of tea in the daytime … a little lift in the afternoon, or a sneaky surprise on the kitchen table in the morning. They’d also make the perfect accompaniment to Philip Dunne’s mulled wine.
Shortbread is usually made in three shapes: The thick fingers we are familiar with, small rounds or a larger circular shape broken it into segments when it leaves the oven (French style). You can of course make any festive shapes you want – from stars to Christmas trees.
For the flavouring, I use vanilla essence and powdered cinnamon here. You might also like to try 30g ground walnuts or a teaspoon of ground ginger, or some orange zest, or lemon zest. Whatever takes your fancy. Natural, unflavoured shortbread is just as good!
What you need
- 100g caster sugar
- 200g butter
- 300g flour (sieved!)
- 1 tsp vanilla essence
- 1 ½ tsp powdered cinnamon
What you do
In a mixing bowl place your butter and sugar and mix well with an electric whisk until well fluffy and creamed. Add your flour next, making sure you sieve it in.
If you are using any flavouring, go ahead and add them in. Without undue fuss, mix and bind everything together, using your hands minimally to bind and combine the dough.
Gently roll out your dough onto a work surface to a thickness of about a quarter inch, using flour as you need it. Cut out your shapes with a knife or a cutter, and place them on baking parchment on an oven tray. Some people choose to place the trays in a fridge for a while now, to ensure their shape holds – we did not.
Place the shortbreads in an oven pre-heated to 160°c and cook for anywhere between 35 and 45 minutes, until pale golden brown (not brown-brown). Remove from the oven and place on a wire tray to cool for ten minutes.
If you feel the shortbread it is too crumbly after cooking, do not despair; it will become firmer with cooling. Score your finger shapes or rounds before fully cooled, and these will give you break lines for snapping the biscuits when they dry. Store in an airtight container if you can resist consuming immediately.
Wishing all our readers and writers, cooks and cleaners, shoppers and eaters, a very happy Christmas!
Red Cabot is interested in food, nature and small things. He sells his food at Westport Country Markets in St Anne’s Boxing Club, James’s Street car park, Westport, every Thursday, from 8am to 1pm.