MY FATHER’S SHORTBREAD: A Cherished Legacy
By Sydney Eddison
Cuisine magazine, December 1983
[This is a long-cherished article and recipe that is no longer available from any source that I've been able to search, and so I assume a bit of license to reproduce it here so that others can also take pleasure in both the prose and the recipe.]
In Scotland, no celebration of the Christmas season is complete without shortbread. This was also true in my father’s house, although he wasn’t Scottish. He was Canadian-born of American parents. But as a doctor during the First World War, he had been attached to the Royal Infirmary in Edinburgh. There he fell in love with the Scots, their landscape, and the institution of high tea complete with thick wedges of crisp shortbread.
Every Christmas thereafter, he made his own version of this typically Scottish specialty. Wrapped first in waxed paper, then sealed in tins, most of his output went to friends, but some was always saved for home consumption. It was stored in an aluminum container with a secure lid and doled out sparingly. Shortbread wasn‘t a common cookie to be wolfed down by the handful, it was a once-a-year treat to be savored. So early in December my father would begin to bake, and his friends would begin, rather sheepishly, to return their tins from the previous year as a gentle reminder.
While my father was alive and well, he was the one who made the shortbread. He never offered to share the recipe or his method, and I never asked. Finally, the last Christmas of his life, though very ill and confined to a hospital bed in our guest room, he suggested that I make a batch under his supervision.
There were frequent trips to his bedside to see if the pieces were the right size, shape, and thickness, and—most important of all—the right color at the end of the baking period. My father was very particular about that. The pieces had to be the color of sand with a rosy-beige hue, never brown. That’s one of the tricks with shortbread. The dough has to be completely cooked, but not brown. Timing is crucial.
After many tries, I managed to produce a batch that… (article is missing words)
…plored my use of an electric mixer. He had a theory that his warm hands were the secret of his shortbread.
The idea made me smile fondly, but I didn’t believe it for a minute. In fact, I half suspected the notion might be vanity. My father was proud of his hands. They were surprisingly large for a man of his small stature, beautifully shaped, meticulously kept, and always warm. Quite rightly, he thought them one of his best features. Hands, after all, are important to a doctor.
In any case, he attributed to them the success of his shortbread, and I learned later, to my cost, that there was something in his theory after all. It wasn’t until I began making shortbread commercially that I discovered the critical part played by temperature in the forming as well as in the baking stages. I realized then that my father’s warm hands and cool kitchen may easily have accounted for the excellence of his product.
Under his tutelage, however, I did learn to make a reasonable facsimile of the shortbread, and for the next ten years experienced the pleasure of having my friends sheepishly turn up in early December with empty tins.
Making shortbread for Christmas presents eventually led to producing it for local shops. In the course of this transition from home to marketplace, I found out that making consistent first-rate shortbread isn’t as easy as one would think.
The Nature of the Beast
It’s simple enough to produce a nice, butter-rich cookie with brown edges, but the charm of shortbread is its romantic pallor and the delicate texture of perfectly blended particles of butter, flour, and sugar. This achievement is the result of hawk-like attention to the temperature of the oven, the temperature of the butter-flour-sugar mixture before it goes into the oven, and other factors I will explain later—but suffice to say here that it doesn’t take kindly to a casual approach.
When I first began offering it for sale, I made another interesting discovery—people didn’t know what shortbread was. The name is certainly misleading. It isn’t “bread” any more than shortcake is “cake,” and the confusion is compounded by differences in British and American usage of the terms “cake,” “cookie,” “biscuit,” and “bread.” For instance, Highland slim cakes are cooked on a griddle like our flapjacks or pancakes. Eccles cakes, a specialty from the English county of Lancashire, are in fact envelopes of puff pastry full of fruit. Rock cakes, also English, are a hard, uninteresting cookie made with currants. In Britain, “biscuits” are the American equivalent of cookies.
But back to shortbread. Because it is unique, it’s easier to say what it isn’t than what it is. It most emphatically is not “shortnin’ bread,” which is made with cornmeal and is a regional specialty of our Southern states. It isn’t bread in the context of yeast baking, and it isn’t a cake, if cake means a baked combination of flour, fat, sugar, and eggs. There are no eggs in classic shortbread. Nor is shortbread a relation of the shortcake, the flaky biscuit raised with baking powder and soda and topped with fruit. It isn’t quite a cookie either, though the two are related.
My dictionary describes shortbread as “an article of food in the form of flat (usually round) cakes, the essential ingredients of which are flour, butter and sugar mixed with proportions as to make the cake “short” when baked.
I don’t find that a very satisfactory definition either. Shortbread is a delectable cross between a very densely textured cake and a crisp cookie. It’s thick but crisp, firm yet tender. The texture is close grained but melts in your mouth. It’s a sweet that’s not too sweet, and it’s an excuse to eat pure butter trapped in an intricate network of delicate crumbs.
The origins of this wonderful confection can be traced to the ancient Scottish oatcake, or “bannock.” Oats and oatmeal were staples in Scotland, the climate not being favorable for wheat, and while “bannock” may once have meant Communion bread, it came to mean any flat round of dough, usually made with oats and baked on a griddle. Traditionally, it was Christmas fare. Yule bannocks were baked in honor of the Virgin’s delivery and bore the sign of the cross, but they are thought to be of much earlier origin. The cross was a pagan symbol for both sun and fire, and in pre-Christian days a circular cake divided into quarters represented the four seasons presided over by the power of the sun
The authentic shapes in which Scottish shortbread is baked derive from these ancient designs. Large rounds are notched at the edges to represent the sun’s rays, or a circle is subdivided into eighths around a smaller circle, in a sun-burst pattern. The individual triangular pieces are the oddly named “petticoat tails.” But, my father preferred to make his shortbread in the form of fingers, a pattern now acceptable even to purists.
While the Yule bannock was associated principally with Christmas, shortbread played an even more important part in the celebration of New Year’s Eve, or Hogmanay. In Scotland the New Year is ushered in by opening the front door to a guest, or “first footer.” The first footer must be a dark-haired man (both sex and hair color seem to be important) armed with a cake of something cheering for the host, and a lump of coal for the fire.
These gifts symbolize prosperity and good luck for the household and are accompanied by the first footer’s toast which begins, “Long may your chimney smoke and your soup pot boil, and may the mouse never leave your bag of oatmeal with a tear in its eye.” Although this appealing custom was never practiced in my father’s house, the making and giving of shortbread was still surrounded by ceremony and remains one of my pleasantest memories.
As with all foods steeped in history and tradition, there are many variations on a basic theme. Some recipes include exotic flavorings and the addition of raisins and candied fruits, but only three ingredients are indispensible—butter, flour, and sugar.
I’m going to pass on some facts and phobias about this trio not as a scientist, but as a practical experience-scarred baker. Shortbread is easy to make and easy to ruin by careless handling of the ingredients. Of these, butter can be most temperamental. It is also the most important in certain respects.
By weight, my father’s shortbread is more than one third butter. In his recipe and in a sampling of traditional Scottish recipes, butter is the only flavoring. Therefore, it has to be the best available. Taste, of course, is a subjective matter, but even the U.S. Department of Agriculture has to rely on the rather inexact criteria of taste and smell: if butter has a “highly pleasing” flavor and aroma, it is given a Grade AA or 93 score rating. The best butter must “cut clean when sliced, be “attractive in appearance,” and possess a “firm waxy body.” These attributes are more than standards of physical beauty; they substantially affect baked goods, especially shortbread—in which butter is the only shortening agent and the only source of moisture.
While the fat and water content of butter are controlled by law, improper storage can result in its absorbing additional moisture, and too much moisture toughens shortbread. Scottish recipes often recommend squeezing the butter to get rid of any excess water, but the best safeguard is just to buy good butter in the first place and to keep it well wrapped. Butter is notorious for taking on the flavor of its neighbor in the refrigerator, which is another reason to protect it.
Even properly stored butter should be used as soon as possible. It’s true that according to the National Dairy Council it will keep in the refrigerator at 39˚F or lower for several weeks and in the freezer at 0˚F or lower for six to nine months, but I’m sure these periods would horrify my father! I prefer to use refrigerated butter within ten days and frozen butter within a month.
Perhaps these cautions about butter are obvious, but it is an ingredient that has a few tricks and secrets in store for the unwary. Without getting too technical, it’s worth knowing that under that bland primrose façade lurks a variety of fats that react to heat in very different ways. Some of these fats will tolerate heat as high as 100˚F and remain solid; others are still liquid at well below the freezing mark.
What this means to the shortbread maker is that temperature is critical and a hot kitchen disastrous. Butter begins to melt at only 80˚F. In effect, it starts to “clarify” as the oil separates from the milk solids, and once this has begun to happen its properties change irrevocably. The shortbread dough becomes soft and oily and no amount of chilling repairs the damage. When separates, that‘s that! The shortbread spreads during baking and becomes thin and brittle.
Another heat-related hazard is the use of an electric mixer. Although my father’s prejudice was unscientifically founded—he just disapproved of machines doing the work of human hands—it proved justified. Creaming the butter and sugar at high speed creates enough heat to start the melting process. So now, I cream small batches by hand.
Scottish recipes also recommend working the ingredients by hand and include warnings about the summer and hot kitchens, though it’s hard to imagine either in Scotland! Since my father made shortbread only at Christmas, the kitchen was invariable cold and a bit Spartan for comfort, but ideal for baking.
Before leaving the subject of butter, I’d like to mention another arcane facet of this remarkable substance—seasonal variation in the ratio between hard and soft fat. When cows are eating fresh forage, there is a noticeable rise in the proportion of liquid to solid fat, and the butter is much softer. Rations of silage and grain have the opposite effect, and the butter is considerably harder. In the era when dairy cows are pastured in warm weather and given winter fodder the rest of the year, there was a marked seasonal difference, and though dairy-cattle rations are becoming increasingly standardized the year round, some batches of summer butter may still be too soft for good results. I learned this the hard way trying to fill shortbread orders in July and August. Given the sometimes uncertain quality of the butter itself and the problems of a hot kitchen, my advice is just not to bake shortbread during the summer.
Other Crucial Ingredients
So much for the butter. As for flour, Scottish and English wheats are “soft” wheats and make into a more delicate flour than our all-purpose flour, which is a combination of soft and hard wheats. These terms accurately convey the nature of the flour. Soft wheats produce a silky product relatively low in the protein known as gluten; the hard wheats make slightly grainy flour with higher gluten content bread flour, which is 80 percent hard wheat, should be avoided for shortbread making. The aim in yeast baking is the development of long, elastic strands of gluten to contain the expanding gas caused by fermentation. In making “short” bread or “short” pastry, the opposite is desirable—the goal is to combine butter and flour in such a way that the gluten strands are surrounded by the fat particles and literally kept short. The result is a texture corresponding to the dictionary definition of “short” in reference to baked goods: “friable” or “easily crumbled.” (Believe it or not, there’s even such a thing as a “shortometer” to measure this quality in pastry and cookies, but it doesn’t take any special instrument to judge shortbread. It is as good as the butter that’s in it and as firm or delicate as the flour that’s used.)
Cake flour, that highly refined, snow-white product milled from soft wheat, makes a fine-textured, rather fragile shortbread. A similar consistency can be achieved by substituting for 25 percent of the all-purpose flour in any given recipe. Cornstarch is ground from white corn and is virtually gluten-free.
Scottish recipes usually call for a proportion of rice flour (also very low in gluten), which contributes to the smooth, dense type of shortbread that is traditional.
My father’s recipe can be adapted to a combination of these flours, depending on the texture desired. I’ve tried several but still prefer the somewhat sturdier, crunchy quality imparted by the all-purpose flour.
Sugar, the last ingredient of any consequence, comes in different particle sizes. The larger the sugar crystal, the crunchier the shortbread. My father used to use plain granulated sugar, but it must have been quite fine, because his shortbread had a pleasant crunch and yet it wasn’t at all coarse textured.
Scottish recipes—which usually contain less sugar than their American counterparts—employ fine castor sugar, which is the closest thing to our superfine. I’ve taken to using superfine in preference to regular sugar, which varies in granule size from brand to brand. Superfine has the same sweetening power, cup for cup, as granulated.
Confectioner’s sugar, on the other hand is much less sweet. It has a powdery texture and is already combined with a small amount of cornstarch to prevent it lumping. It can be used successfully in shortbread making, and indeed it is preferred by people who aren’t partial to sweets. Substitute it for granulated sugar, cup for cup, to achieve a less sweet shortbread with a slightly finer, more crumbly texture.
Salt in shortbread is another matter of personal taste. Sweet or lightly salted butter can be used interchangeably. My father used lightly-salted butter, and his recipe includes a little additional salt, which improves the keeping quality. I find its presence reassuring, since salt acts as a preservative and I have a perfect horror of rancid shortbread.
Understanding the function of the three essential ingredients is a guarantee of success in shortbread making. The recipes are simple and impossible to improve upon. To quote from a true Scot, Sheila MacNiven Cameron, in The Highlander’s Cookbook: “The creative cook who feels the recipe is too naked as it stands, and dresses it up with vanilla, eggs, nuts, chocolate chips or what have you, may be creating something. But it won’t be shortbread.”
The Steps of the Process
Like all proper shortbread, my father’s version contains only butter, flour, sugar, and salt in the following proportions: 1 pound lightly-salted butter; 1 cup sugar; ½ teaspoon salt; 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour.
A quick rundown of other shortbread recipes, both Scottish and domestic, reveals only slight differences in the proportions of butter to flour, the type of flour or flours, and the amount of sugar. It was my father’s handling of the ingredients that was unusual. It had more in common with pastry making than the more usual cookie-making techniques commonly found in shortbread recipes.
He worked the cold butter with his warm hands until it was soft but in no sense melting, then added the sugar and creamed the two. The flour and salt were mixed together and worked into the butter mixture with the tips of his fingers until the particles began to cling together. Then he gathered the dough into a ball which he kneaded gently until it became smooth and soft but never oily. Unlike the rough-and-tumble kneading that suits yeast dough, shortbread requires a light touch in order to prevent overdevelopment of the gluten.
When my father was instructing me in the mysteries of shortbread making, I forgot to ask why he chilled and pricked the dough, but I soon found out. Dough that is at room temperature when it goes into the oven spreads. Failure to prick the dough results in its blistering. Although there is no leavening in shortbread, the moisture from the butter and the air incorporated into the dough are enough to make the pieces rise and lose their neat appearance unless they are pricked. Moreover, I wouldn’t be surprised if pricking made the shortbread cook more uniformly by increasing the surface area exposed to the heat. This, however, is my own theory, based on what I’ve learned about heat exchange from an engineer husband. In any case, chilling improves the texture and appearance, and pricking keeps the surface flat.
In forming the dough into individual pieces, I have the advantage of a set of frames devised by my husband for marking off rectangles with the aid of length-wise and cross-wise cutting guides (the actual cuts are made along the marked lines with a pizza wheel). In lieu of this device, you can simply pat and roll the dough into a 15-1/2 x 10-1/2 x 1 inch jelly-roll pan, lightly mark off 54 pieces 1 inch wide and 2-1/2 inches long, prick them, chill them, and finally cut them apart and put them on an ungreased baking sheet ½ inch apart.
Of all the steps, baking requires the most vigilance. My father used a slow oven in order to preserve the delicate color he admired. The chilled shortbread was baked on the middle shelf at 275˚F for 30 or 40 minutes. At the end of half an hour, he would begin to hover about, peeking into the oven every few minutes until something told him the shortbread was ready.
I’m not sure that my system is any more accurate, but I preheat the oven to 325˚F, put in the shortbread, and immediately turn the temperature to 275˚F. Then I resist looking for 30 minutes. When the time’s up, I turn the cookie sheet once to insure even baking and give it another 5 to 10 minutes, keeping an eye on it through the glass window.
Finally, I take it out and cautiously lift one piece from the center with a spatula. If it’s golden on the bottom and sand-colored on top, the chances are that it’s cooked, and all that remains to be done is to put the shortbread on wire racks to cool while it fills the kitchen with its heady scent.
That wonderful smell of baked butter instantly transports me to the kitchen of my childhood. I can hear my father whistling Christmas carols, and in my mind’s eye I can see him bustling back and forth between the oven and the table with trays of perfect shortbread.