A perfect combination of butter flavour and crumbly texture, shortbread is a traditional Scottish biscuit that is easy to make and adapt. And although its origins may not necessarily be solely north of the border, Scotland has made it truly a national dish.
Historians believe that shortbread, in one form or another, has existed since medieval days. Back then, it bore only a faint resemblance to what we now enjoy. The earliest versions are thought to have been leftover pieces of bread dough that were cooked as a treat. The word “biscuit” means twice-cooked.
The recipe eventually became more refined and gained popularity in the court of Mary Queen of Scots. By this time, it may have used the same three ingredients that we use today: flour, butter, and sugar. Some recipes also call for a small amount of rice flour.
Shortbread usually comes in one of three forms – fingers, rounds, or petticoat tails. The latter dates back to the queen’s court although the name is disputed. Some say the round shape refers to the full petticoats worn by upper-class ladies in the 16th century. Others believe it is a derivation of the French “petites gatelles” (little cakes).
The buttery treat’s recipe first appeared in print in 1736 in a Scottish cookbook by Mrs McLintock. Now, variations on the basic shortbread include the addition of caraway seed, lemon zest, nuts, or even chocolate chips. The most famous manufacturer, Walkers, exports an estimated £50 million of product each year.
Other fun Scottish shortbread traditions:
- It is frequently associated with Christmas and Hogmanay, and is given to first footers at New Year.
- In the Shetland Isles, a decorated shortbread was often broken over a newlywed bride’s head as she entered her new home for good luck.
- Technically it’s not a biscuit. Following attempts to tax it as a biscuit several years ago, Scotland succeeded in having shortbread recategorized as a specialty flour confectionery.
Basic Butter Shortbread
6 oz plain flour
4 oz good-quality salted butter
2 oz caster sugar
Cream the butter and sugar together. Add the flour and mix to form a dough. Roll out and form into the shape you want – a round for petticoat tails or cut into small rounds or fingers. Decorate with fork marks, and place into the fridge to chill for about 30 minutes.
While the dough is chilling, preheat the oven to 180C or Gas 4. Cook the biscuits for 15-20 minutes. They should be firm but NOT brown.
Remove from the oven. Leave for 10 minutes. Then sprinkle with a little sugar and move to a wire rack to finish cooling.
This makes an excellent accompaniment to cranachan.
Having trouble finding any of the ingredients you need? Look no further than the British Corner Shop – there’s a link on the right of this page. They ship within the UK and worldwide, so wherever you are, you never need to go without your favourite shortbread or baked beans ever again!