Make no mistake — I love sweets. Yet, after several holidays spent gorging on candy, pies, cookies and cakes, my sweet tooth starts to develop a major toothache. Rather than abstain from desserts altogether, I reach for a tin of golden shortbread. Rich, delicate and only slightly sugary, this Scottish baked good is the perfect replacement for all those cloying treats.
A rich history
Shortbread dates to the Renaissance and the baking of crumbly cakes known as shortcakes. Like shortcakes, this small, pale cookie gets its fragile texture from the generous amount of butter used to make it. Both take their names from an antiquated definition of short, which refers to brittleness.
Although its exact birth date remains unknown, shortbread appeared in the first Scottish cookbook, which was published in 1736, “Mrs. McLintock’s Recipes for Cookery and Pastry-Work.” Since it was festive and easily transported, shortbread was often given as a gift, and came to be associated with the Christmas season and Scottish New Year’s Eve or Hogmanay. It later shrugged off its special, holidays-only status and became an integral part of everyday teas throughout Great Britain.
Everything is better with butter
Traditionally, shortbread derives its luscious taste simply from the inclusion of high-quality, unsalted butter. In fact, its original ingredient list consisted solely of three parts flour, two parts butter and one part sugar. The small amount of sugar and overall simplicity of the recipe no doubt influence why I think of shortbread as the ideal, not-too-sweet goody.
To enhance shortbread’s velvety yet fine nature, recipes customarily call for a mixture of flours. For softer cookies, plain wheat flour is combined with rice or corn flour in a ratio of 2:1 — two parts wheat, one part rice or corn flour. When crunchiness is the goal, semolina flour replaces the rice or corn. To give either type of cookie a light, melt-in-your-mouth aspect, the flours are sifted together.
The shape is up to you
Once the flour, butter and sugar have been combined, the dough is pressed into and baked in a round, carved, ceramic mold. After cooling slightly, it’s cut into wedges. That is the classic way to make shortbread.
However, you can also form the dough into a rounded or squared log and slice off individual cookies. When I make shortbread in this manner, I prick the cookies’ tops with the tines of a fork to add a bit of decoration. Then bake the rounds or squares on a baking sheet.
Sometimes I opt to press the dough into a square baking dish, decorate the top with sugar, dried fruit or chopped nuts and bake it as a block. After allowing it to cool for 30 minutes, I slice the shortbread into squares or slender sticks. These cookies can then be dipped in melted chocolate or served as is.
The variations don’t end with cookie shape or ovenware. There are the vast flavorings to consider. I could take a tip from history and season my cookies with salt as Queen Victoria’s Balmoral shortbread recipe did, or I could copy the bakers of the 19th century and include ground coriander and whole caraway seeds.
If historical recipes leave me uninspired, I could follow the regional route. Pitcaithly bannock, which hails from Pitcaithly, Scotland, is enhanced with blanched almonds and candied citron and/or orange peel, while Dorset shortbread is made with light brown, raw sugar known as demerara.
Because shortbread marries nicely with a diverse range of foods, you can flavor it with anything from almonds or anise to toffee or thyme. Herbs, cheeses and nuts all compliment its rich wholesomeness. Sweet ingredients such as dried berries and chocolate likewise boost its buttery taste. Truly, the only limit to good shortbread is your imagination.
When sealed in an airtight container, the cookie will keep for four weeks. However, with something as tasty as shortbread in my house, it never lingers long enough to reach that use-by date.
Makes 1 dozen cookies
- Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease an 8-inch-square baking dish.
- In a food processor or blender, pulse ¼ cup of the blanched almonds and 1 teaspoon of sugar until finely ground. Sift the ground almonds into the flour.
- Using an electric mixer and in a large bowl, beat the butter until soft and creamy. Add the sugar and beat again until fluffy. Add the almond extract and blend until incorporated.
- With a spatula, mix in the flour until just combined. Don’t overmix the ingredients or else you’ll end up with a tough cookie.
- Press the dough evenly in the greased baking dish. Spread the remaining ¼ cup chopped almonds over the top of the dough and press lightly on top to set. Bake until golden on top, 15 to 18 minutes.
- Place the baking dish on a wire rack and cool for 30 minutes. Cut the shortbread into 12 squares, remove the squares from the baking dish and place on the wire rack. When the shortbread has completely cooled, either serve or place in an airtight container for up to 4 weeks.
Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt is a syndicated food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. She currently is working on her first cookbook.
Top photo: Homemade shortbread. Credit: Kathy Hunt