The history of shortbread goes back to at least the 12th century and originally started life as ‘biscuit bread’; biscuits that were made from left-over bread dough that was sometimes sweetened and dried out in the oven to form a hard, dry rusk. This practise took place over the whole of the British Isles, not just Scotland.
Over time the leavening was lost and exchanged for butter, making it an expensive fancy treat that was only bought for celebrations such as Christmas and Hogsmanay (Scottish New Year). There are similar ‘breads’ outside of Scotland such as Shrewsbury cakes and Goosnagh cakes.
The large amount of butter is what makes shortbread short: the term short, when applied to biscuits and pastry, means crumbly, like shortcrust pastry should be. It is the reason why the fat added to biscuits and pastries is called shortening.
Mary Queen of Scots
Today, shortbread is made from flour, butter and sugar, though other flavourings are added. Caraway was particularly popular; Mary Queen of Scots was particularly fond of them. Other extra ingredients included almonds and citrus fruits like this 18th century recipe from Mrs Frazer:
Take a peck of flour…beat and sift a pound of sugar; take orange-peel, citron, and blanched almonds, of each half a pound, cut in pretty long thin pieces: mix these well in the flour; then make a hole in the middle of the flour, put in three table-spoons of good yeast; then work it up, but not too much…roll out; prickle them on top, pinch them neat round the edges, and strew sugar, carraways, peel, and citron, on the top. Fire it…in a moderate oven.
In George Read’s 1854 book The complete biscuit and gingerbread baker’s assistant, there are fewer ingredients, but includes eggs for some reason:
1 ¼ lb. of flour, ½ lb. of sugar, ½ lb. of butter, 3 eggs, ¼ oz. of volatile salts…a little essence of lemon
FYI: Volatile salts were smelling salts, that could also be used to leaven dough.
Shortbread usually comes in three different forms: small round biscuits, fingers or large rounds. To make the fingers, dough is cut into a large rectangle and the fingers are scored with the back of a knife so they can be broken up easily after cooking. A pattern made with fork marks is always made too.
To make large rounds, the dough is pressed into a round earthenware mould or a tart tin to make petticoat tails. When making the petticoat tails, the dough is scored into triangular slices like a pizza. The term petticoat tails comes not from the French petites gatelles (‘little cakes’) as many think (though Scottish cuisine did have more in common with French food than English food during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots), but from the term petticoat tallies – the name of the triangular pattern used to make bell hoop petticoats like Elizabeth I would have worn.
You can still buy the earthenware moulds – I’ll be buying one when I move back to England later in the summer.
This recipe makes enough for two petticoat tails rounds made in a seven inch tart tin. It’s hard to say how many biscuits or fingers – it depends on how wide and thick you make them. The important thing is to take them out before they start to brown.
To achieve a nice melt-in-the-mouth crumbliness use cornflour as well as normal plain flour to make your shortbread. Somewhere between a 1:1 and a 3:1 ratio of plain flour to cornflour works well. You don’t have to do this; they are still good with just good old plain flour.
6 ounces flour mix
4 ounces salted butter cut into cubes
2 ounces icing or caster sugar, plus extra
extra caster sugar
Rub the butter into the flour using fingers, pastry blender, food mixer or processor; be careful not to overwork things though if you’re using a food processor – shortbread dough doesn’t like being handled too much. Stir in the sugar and with your hand bring everything together to make a pliable dough – it’ll feel like it won’t form a dough at first, but as your hands warm it will.
Now you can roll or press out your dough into whatever shape you like and then place in the fridge for 20-30 minutes to harden:
For petticoat tails you are best diving the two into two halves and pressing the dough into your fluted flat tin. Score lines to mark out the slices, using a ruler if you want to be really precise. Make a nice pattern with a fork.
For fingers roll out the dough to half an inch thickness into a vaguely rectangular shape. Use a knife and a ruler to cut out a large rectangle and then score the lines with your ruler and knife, making patterns with your fork prongs.
For biscuits you can really do whatever you like; thick, thin, round, square. I think a little under half an inch is a good thickness. Cut out the biscuits and make your all-so-important fork marks.
Heat the oven to 180⁰C (350⁰F). Place the biscuits onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Sprinkle with the extra sugar and bake until cooked but before any signs of browning. Petticoat Tails and fingers take about 15 minutes, individual biscuits can be variable, but usually about 12-15 minutes.
For lemon shortbread add the zest of one lemon when you add the sugar, and for almond shortbread add 5 or 6 drops of almond extract. If you want to try it with caraway, sprinkle in 2 teaspoons of caraway seeds at the same time you add the sugar.