Scotland is said to have a very different culinary history from that of the rest of the UK. Mostly untouched by the Roman influences that England had, they were left to their own devices. Some mistakes were made (haggis), but there are a few triumphs that emerged from that wild 12th century Scotland, shortbread being foremost among them. During Elizabeth, I reign, Scotland’s culinary scene was influenced partly by the French chefs brought there by Mary Queen of Scots. Said to be a great lover of shortbread, under her influence the simple dough reached new heights of refinement.
Originally, the butter in shortbread was yeast, and shortbread was simply the leftover scraps of bread baked earlier in the day dusted with spices and sugar and left to get hard and crackery in the oven post-bake. These scraps were called “biscuit bread” as biscuit means “twice baked” and were used as a “rusk” or baby teething food. With all the butter it smacks a bit of those French chefs we mentioned earlier, but the first recipe is attributed to a Scotswoman in 1736 by the rather stock name of Mrs. McLintock.
In fact, butter is the reason shortbread is called shortbread. The high amount of fat inhibits the gluten development and effectively “shortens” the gluten strands. This produces the crumbly texture we associate with the cookie and is also applied to several other confections (shortcake, shortcrust, shortening etc.) for the same reason.
Shortbread has now become so common that in the 1980s British Parliament threatened to officially change its title of bread to that of a common biscuit (cookie). Under this new classification shortbread would now be under the “biscuit tax”. That’s right England is the place where they tax you on your cookies and it rains all the time. In a moment of solidarity, the bakers fought back claiming the ancestry of shortbread was a long and noble one and distinctly rooted in bread and so could not be considered just another cookie. In the face of such irrefutable facts, Parliament surrendered and the United Kingdom’s favorite “bread” remained tax-free.
There are three typical shapes you still find shortbread in today. One large circle, cut into triangular wedges. The triangles resemble the shape of fabric pieces used to make petticoats during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and were aptly named “Petticoat Tails”. Individual round cookies or “Shortbread Rounds”, and finally the rectangular Slabs called “Fingers”.
Shortbread, that butteriest of cookies, crispy and sweet it may be one of my favorites and is certainly one of the easiest to make.
14 ½ tablespoons Unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup Sugar, granulated
½ teaspoon Kosher Salt
1 teaspoon vanilla paste (if you’re using beans this translates to roughly 1 full vanilla bean or 1 tablespoon vanilla extract.)
Scant 2 cups All-purpose flour
2 tablespoons granulated sugar, for dusting
-Chocolate Shortbread can be made by replacing a quarter of the flour with unsweetened cocoa powder.
Cream butter until smooth, whether that be in a standing mixer or with a hand mixer is up to the chef’s discretion. Add the salt and sugar and cream together until light and fluffy. Add the vanilla, (I like the bolder flavor and the speckles that both paste and bean provide but they are more expensive and can be considered a luxury instead of a necessity).
Add half the flour, mix until just coming together, then add the remaining half mixing again until the dough starts to form a cohesive ball. Empty your bowl onto the counter and using your hands, work it together and form it into a square. Wrap this in plastic and refrigerate for 2 hours or up to 2 days. If making ahead, this dough freezes nicely for up to a month.
Position racks in upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 325℉ (163 ℃). Prepare 2 pans by lining them with parchment paper.
Unwrap the dough and roll out to roughly a 9 x 9-inch square. Frequently turning the dough helps to maintain the shape as you roll.
Using a large knife, score the dough into squares. I like the looks of 2 x 1 inches but the size and shape are once again completely up to you! A cookie cutter works as well.
Dust the tops of the cookies with sugar or leave plain if dipping in chocolate. Bake 13-15 minutes or until a pale gold color has been achieved.