If you’ve ever visited Scotland you’ll remember that just about every shop with a focus on tourism has shortbread on its shelves. Shortbread is often given as a Christmas gift but it is a definite feature of Scotland’s New Year festivities. A Scottish New Year (Hogmanay) custom is to eat shortbread on New Year’s Eve. As with many traditions, it derives from the ancient pagan ritual of eating Yule cakes initiated by the Vikings.
It usually comes in packaging featuring graphics of tartan (plaid) , thistles and images of deer or highland cattle (long reddish brown coat with huge horns).
Scottish shortbread actually evolved from a medieval biscuit bread made with yeast. As time went by butter replaced the yeast and the shortbread we know today was born.
Shortbread is a biscuit (cookie) and a huge amount of butter is used for shortening and, of course, all the glorious butter gives it that wonderful melt-in-the-mouth texture.
Although it may have been made in the 12th century it is also attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots, in the 16th century.
It comes in many shapes and sizes but “Petticoat Tails” was the form enjoyed by the Queen. It’s baked as a round shortbread was flavored with caraway seeds and cut into triangular wedges, which resembled the shaped pieces of fabric that was used to make petticoats during the reign of Elizabeth I of England.
There is a round biscuit shaped shortbread and it can also come in a rectangular slab cut into fingers. It’s quite unusual for a foodstuff to have such a history. All of these various shapes and sizes are still made today.
Here’s a recipe for classic shortbread:
- ½ cup of butter (room temperature)
- 1/3 cup powdered sugar (unsifted)
- ¼ teaspoon vanilla (optional)
- 1 cup of flour (unsifted)
Using a wooden spoon or hand mixer, combine the butterand sugar in a bowl until the mixture is light, fluffy, and creamy.
Add the flour and, using a round bladed knife, for it into a dough. Use your hands to form the dough into a ball.
Flour a flat surface and your hands then place the dough on the surface knead it into a round turning it over (don’t handle it too much).
Flour the dough and surface again and form the dough into a round with a rolling pin until it is have an inch (1 centimeter) thick. When rolling, turn the dough at 45 degrees each time it is rolled. This will prevent shrinkage when baking.
Place the round onto a greased and lined baking tray.
Using the back of a spoon handle, make slight indent all the way around the edge of the round, scoring it into eight segments using a sharp knife, and finally sprinkle it with some icing sugar.
Chill in a fridge for about 20 minutes and then place in the middle of a preheated oven to 375˚F for 15 to 20 minutes, leaving it to bake until it is slightly golden at the edges but still quite soft in the middle.
When the shortbread is ready, take it out of the oven and cut it into segments immediately.
Leave it to cool for about 10 minutes and then sprinkle with sugar.
This delicious treat can be eaten warm or cold.
For Lemon Shortbread add 2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
For Orange Spice Shortbread add 2 teaspoons grated orange peel, ¼ teaspoon of ginger and 1/8 teaspoon of cinnamon.
As you can see, although the ingredients are simple, the actual making is a practiced knack.
By the way, Scottish bakers used the name shortbread to argue the case against paying the government a tax on cookies. And, today in the United Kingdom that recent political tax, Value Added Tax, is not paid on cakes and cookies, since they are deemed a necessity by U.K. law. However, cookies that are covered with chocolate are considered luxuries and are, therefore, taxable.