Shortbread

Moving house has forced me to face an uncomfortable fact: I have, at a guess, 20 bags of various sorts of flour stashed away in the pantry. Of these, about ten are half-used bags of plain and self-raising flour: I have a bad habit of forgetting how much flour I have and, on deciding to bake a cake, will generally go out and buy a new bag before checking in the cupboard. Clearly, my hoarding instinct knows no bounds (I haven’t even mentioned the sugar stash, have I?).

Feeling in need of a simple way to use up at least some of this flour mountain, I turned to my grandmother’s shortbread recipe. Now, my grandmother could bake for Scotland. Growing up in an isolated croft on the Isle of Mull, with no shops nearby, she was responsible for baking the soda scones which acted as bread for the whole family. This meant at least two daily scone-making sessions, every day, for years. Unsurprisingly, she became particularly skilled, both at this and at baking in general: the scones themselves were wonderful, but she also made pancakes (the proper, small kind), a sticky, dark gingerbread and many other things that I can only hope to emulate. This is her version of traditional Scottish shortbread, and it’s the only recipe we use in our family. I remember eating shortbread elsewhere as a small girl, and being bitterly disappointed that it was so dry and dull: surely that wasn’t right?

The key ingredient in this recipe is the cornflour, which helps to keep the shortbread moist and toothsome.

Finished shortbread: don’t eat it all at once!

You will need:

  • 9 oz (250 g) plain flour
  • 4 oz (110 g) cornflour
  • 8 oz (225 g) butter
  • 4 oz (110 g) caster sugar
  • A small baking tin, about 20 cm by 30 cm

I should note that I typically bake in Imperial measurements, and in this case I have converted the quantities in the original recipe using the table here.

Pre-heat the oven to 150 C and grease the baking tin. Cream the butter and sugar together (I tend to soften the butter slightly to make this easier). Sift the plain flour and the cornflour together and them add gradually to the butter and sugar mixture. The recipe is most emphatic that you should use a metal spoon to do this. I generally use my hand: you want to work the dough together almost as if you were making pastry, but be aware that it will get quite flaky and crumbly as more flour goes in.

Shortbread, partially mixed. As you can see, it’s starting to get flaky, but it’s still holding together like a pastry dough in parts.

Once you have added all the flour, turn the dough out into the greased tin, and spread it out into an even layer, pressing it down firmly with the heel of your hand. Prick it all over with a fork, place in the oven and bake it for about 30 minutes, until it is, in the words of the recipe, “a light golden colour”.

My grandmother’s recipe notebook is known for its somewhat obscure instructions: in the case of the shortbread, it can be pretty hard to tell when the colour is right, as it doesn’t actually change that much. Here are my “before” and “after” photos, to help you judge the difference.

Before baking

After baking: note that the colour is slightly paler, and the texture is rougher.

After removing the shortbread from the oven, sprinkle the surface with caster sugar. Mark it out into squares while it is still in the tin using a dinner knife. Leave it to cool, still in the tin: it will crumble if you try to take it out while it’s still warm.

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5 thoughts on “Shortbread

  1. Love your introduction to the recipe. Julie Powell / Julia Child is all I’m saying!
    Can’t read the recipe itself properly now as I’m on holiday in Lyon, France, staying there with a friend who works at the uni for a year.
    We’re out to discover the realms of Lyon’s culinary treasures noenetheless. There are countless exquisite specialities waiting to be tasted. They favour variety meat (entrails) – not my cup of tea if I may say so – but also lots of different kinds of sausages which are more to my liking. And those simply DIVINE pastries that can be found in pretty much every boulangerie-patisserie in France! J’adore! I breakfasted on an Éclair. Greetings, B.

  2. Have a wonderful time in Lyon: I’m afraid I’m be head-first into the offal if I was there, as I’m a bit of a fan. I’m still eyeing up those trotters in the market! Éclairs sound pretty wonderful too, though…

  3. I am at a friend’s house once more, this time in Bonn, the former capital, and we are just about to try your grandmother’s short bread recipe. My friend is a talented baker so I have no fear of it’s turning out well. Orange-glazed cinnamon buns from a charming Amercian mystery novel (a cat lends a hand for the crucial bit of information that allows for the mystery to be solved) are to be had on the side (also simply to die for!).

    My friend Simone says hello!

    B.

  4. Pingback: Winter nibbles: spiced biscuits | Biographia Domestica

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