I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth but I can never resist a good homebaked shortbread. So much better than shop bought and so incredibly easy to make. The moreish nature of the Scottish biscuit is achieved through a mix of three parts flour, two parts butter and one part sugar. How simple is that? To celebrate National Shortbread Day let’s take a look at one of the nation’s favourite sweet treats, starting from the very beginning.
Biscuit, cracker or hardtack?
In their earliest form, biscuits (Latin for twice baked) were made from a bland paste of flour and water, spread thinly and baked until hard. Longlasting and filling, this bland confection historically formed a large part of the military diet – from conquering Roman soldiers to the beer and biscuit rations of the British Navy.
A royal favourite
In Tudor times we see the arrival of sugar and spices, though they are only available to the very rich and those in attendance at the royal courts. Indeed, shortbread is thought to have started life as “an enriched bread roll, dusted with fine sugar and spices before being hardened into a rusk like texture”. (thenibble.com – The History of Shortbread)
Shortbread has appeared in cookery books across Britain, but its traditions and heritage lie at the heart of Scotland. Mary Queen of Scots is reported to have been a big fan of the petticoat shape, and the first printed recipe appeared in a Scottish cookbook written by Mrs McClintock in 1736.
A biscuit of celebration and ceremony
Using expensive ingredients like sugar and butter, shortbread became associated with special occasions such as Christmas and Twelth Night. At Hogmany, the first person to step over a threshold is still offered some as a thank you for the luck they bring with them. It continues to be associated with good luck in Shetland, where shortbread cake can be broken over the head of the bride as she enters her new home. In West Yorkshire and the 18th century, proceedings took a more solemn turn as shortbread flavoured with caraway seeds was wrapped and handed out to funeral guests.
Bake your own shortbread
The 3:2:1 ratio of a classic shortbread biscuit makes it very easy to adapt, even for the beginner. My recipe is based on the foolproof proportions in the faultless BeRo baking books. The trick is to handle the dough as little as possible and start with cold diced butter, not unlike a good shortcrust pastry. Once you get the hang of the basics you can play around with additional spices or flavourings. Nuts, caraway seeds and citrus peel all made good additions – as do ginger and cinnamon.
To get you started, here is my latest recipe for lemon shortbread rounds.
260g of plain flour
50g of icing sugar
175g of cold, diced butter
The zest of two lemons
2 tablespoons of lemon juice
How to make your shortbread
Preheat the oven to 160C/Gas Mark 3. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper and set aside.
Sieve the plain flour into a large bowl and tip in the cold diced butter. Rub in the butter until your mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Stir in the icing sugar and lemon zest.
Add your lemon juice. Roll up your sleeves and press the ingredients into a firm dough.
Tear a second piece of greaseproof paper and place it on your kitchen counter. Put the ball of biscuit dough on top of the paper and roll it to the thickness of a pound coin. Move the paper rather than the dough if you need to turn as you roll. Cut out small rounds and place them on your lined baking tray.
Bake for 20 – 25 minutes until lightly golden on top. Leave to cool slightly before moving them to a cooling rack or your shortbread may break apart. Dust with a sprinkling of icing sugar before serving to guests with a cup of tea.