A little background on this
Full disclosure. I’m Scottish, and grew up there for most of my childhood. Consequently there are some foods that are part of who I am, even if I only eat them a couple of times a year. Shortbread is one of them. One of my favorite taste memories is dipping fresh shortbread into custard and letting it all melt slowly in my mouth.
But I’m not talking of your usual christmas shortbread cookies all bejewelled in frosting and seasonal decorations, sweet and buttery beyond imagination, and almost crumbly to the touch.
No. The shortbread I grew up with is almost peasant like. Hard, but breakable, it will melt in your mouth, gently releasing its essential yet understated buttery bomb.
Until a few years ago, I had not been successful at copying what I remember of my grandmother and father’s magical creations. Too hard, not the right texture – not the right taste. I was told it was all in the kneading. There was too little, too much. Somehow I was not nailing it.
A decade ago when I visited my parents, I was shown a slim and decaying cookbook: Reliable Cookery by Mrs. Lawrie (I kid you not. We shall never know Mrs. Lawrie’s first name!) This cookbook according to my dad, was published in the early 1900’s and functioned as a home economic textbook for ALL Scottish girls. (Think of the implications: it defines Scottish cuisine of that generation.) It was extremely practical,providing essential kitchen directions for future scullery maids and housewives, and simple recipes intended to provide an essential baseline of cooking expertise. I’ve uploaded and am sharing it here. I wonder what she would have thought of her modest book being shared in this way.
A little after this, I purchased Michael Ruhlman’s Twenty – an amazing book that shows how far we have all come in both embracing tried and true classical culinary techniques with a bold and new imagination. Along with Ratio, it is an essential cookbook by one of America’s most influential culinary teachers.
I then set about to figure out the definitive shortbread recipe. My usual M.O. when I set out to figure out a recipe is to research. I usually start with the print resources I have at hand. In this case I decided to look at the pdf printout I had made of Reliable Cookery and my two versions of the Joy of Cooking- 1949 and 1997.
The JOC versions seemed to me to be fairly typical butter cookies: 100% wheat flour, and also baking soda and vanilla (1949 edition). The 1997 version was more back to basics, with butter, flour, and sugar. Cream the butter and sugar, add in flour, roll out, cut, bake. Reliable Cookery differed in one important element, one I remembered from childhood: it included rice flour. (Strange, isn’t it. Rice is not a Scottish staple. Why would there be rice flour? And no explanation either.) In this recipe, the dry ingredients (including the sugar) are mixed, the butter is creamed, then they are combined, kneaded, rolled out and cut.
I decided to go with this latter recipe as I reasoned it would be the closest to what my Gran had made eons ago. Here it is. The ratio is something to take note of: 1 part each sugar and rice flour, 2 parts butter, 4 parts flour.
6oz. flour (188g)
2oz rice flour (62g)
4 oz butter (125g)
2oz sugar (62g)
Pinch of salt
- Mix dry ingredients
- Add butter and work in
- Roll out
- Bake in a ‘moderate’ oven for 1 hour.
Here is how it appears in the book.
With these quantities and process, it did not ‘roll out’ – it was rather a ‘press into the pan’ job. No surprise. After all there is no water to get the gluten going – indeed there are gluten inhibitors. I took the moderate oven to mean 325-375F. In initial experiments I used 375F (175C) following the JOC and watched it carefully but ultimately I prefer 350F.
As it was cooking, I decided to thumb through Ruhlman’s Twenty – looking for new ideas and new things to try. Lo and behold, there it was, his take on Scottish Shortbread. This was definitely interesting- especially as he noted it was a recipe that had come down through the family of a Scottish friend. No doubt a shared ancestry leading back to Mrs. Lawrie’s tome. http://ruhlman.com/2010/03/scottish-shortbread/
This recipe has a considerably higher ratio of sugar and butter, and uses a lower gluten cake flour. I appreciated the explanation about the gluten: that the unique crumb is achieved through lower gluten. His solution is the cake flour. Mrs. Lawrie’s was to cut in the rice flour.
My final go-to shortbread recipe
There was however a missing element in all of these recipes. The problem with shortbread is how to keep it firm, and not crumble away. You also want it to easily break apart in neat rectangles, approximately ¾” (2cm) in height. The fork pricks are important to release water vapour. The thickness too is important for the integrity of the biscuit. The key is the thorough and even compacting of the dough. If it is at all loose, it will crumble. Here is the solution, and my current recipe, somewhat modified from Mrs. Lawrie but with metric weights and a lot more specificity that should assure success:
60g rice flour
125g unsalted butter
- Mixing bowl
- Weigh scale
- Parchment paper
- Empty 500ml salsa or round mason jar
- 6”x8”/15x20cm (@ 50”2 /125cm2 ) baking dish for this recipe amount. This will yield shortbread that is an ideal thickness – about ¾” (2cm) thick.
- Knife and/or pizza wheel
- Let butter soften to room temperature
- Heat Oven to 350F/175C
- Weigh out and mix dry ingredients
- Add room temperature butter and knead until the dough is fully integrated
- Loosely press parchment paper into the baking dish
- Press shortbread dough into all corners of the pan – compact it as much as possible
- Lay another sheet of parchment paper on top of the dough and find a round jar that can fit into your pan (i.e. a 500ml mason jar or salsa jar) to use as a mini rolling pin.
- Roll out and compress the shortbread until it is even. You will also need to press in dough that creeps up the sides with your fingers.
- Using a knife or pizza wheel, cut it into desired sized pieces then poke holes with a fork all over. You can also sprinkle sugar on top.
- Bake 35-40 minutes. It should be a little brown on the edges. As soon as you begin to smell it, it’s probably ready.
- Allow to thoroughly cool before gently removing the parchment paper with shortbread from the pan. It will break cleaner if it is chilled.