A reader has asked for my recipe for Shortbread Biscuits. These are the slim buttery discs that are perfect for serving with espresso coffee or afternoon tea. And although I always enjoy them in their classic version the recipe is capable of endless variation depending on the time of year.
When I baked for my year long cakestall in Tiverton Pannier Market, the Scottish shortbread biscuits sold out in a flash. Yet the recipe couldn’t be simpler: the ingredients are in a 1/2/3 proportion of just sugar, butter and flour. No kitchen machinery is needed – just a bowl, wooden spoon, rolling pin, cookie cutter, pastry board and baking sheet. No extra ingredients such as semolina or ground rice are required to make these biscuits crisp and crumbly. When you eat them, the flavour of butter predominates. The skill is in mixing and baking which is quick yet requires attention.
This is, of course, the essence of baking which is why I’m always fascinated by the activity – it benefits from experience and judgement.
Like many classic recipes Scottish shortbread has a long and interesting history as explained in the work of Catherine Brown, notable food historian and acknowledged authority on the Scottish kitchen.
In her book, Broths to Bannocks, Catherine describes a typical afternoon for ladies of leisure in 18th century Edinburgh: “It is nearly six o’clock …The ladies will still be at the tea and cards … the japanned tray which the tea things are set out on, the light crisp little common biscuits made with eggs and sugar, the heavier buttery shortbread, the rich and spicy plumb cake.”
Traditional Scottish shortbread is made thicker than a biscuit and is either pressed into a carved wooden mould then turned out to reveal the pattern. Or a circular disc of the rolled mixture is crimped at the edge and scored with a knife into portions.
Shortbread requires a gentle oven heat and in the past was baked in the slowly reducing temperature of a bread oven after the loaves had been removed. In this 1710 shortbread recipe, which is sugar-free and quoted by Catherine, the baking is carefully described: “Take 2 pound of butter and put it in a pan with water and let it be at the boiling then take a peck of flower and knead it up and roll your cake and see that you give it a soft oven and let them not stay in the oven until they be burnt.” [NB: 2 lb = 900 g and a peck = 16 UK pints]
Makes about 20 biscuits, or fewer thinner biscuits and 24 petit-four size nibbles
120 g/ 4 oz unsalted butter
60 g/ 2 oz white caster sugar
175 g/ 6 oz plain flour
1 tablespoon white caster sugar for dusting the biscuits
Preheat the oven to 160’C 325’F Gas mark 3 In a warmed mixing bowl, beat the butter until soft. Beat in the sugar until well mixed. Gradually add the sifted flour and continue beating until the mixture binds together in a lump. On a floured board or cool work surface, roll out the dough until 5 mm/ ¼ inch thick. Use a 6 cm/ 2 1/2 in diameter fluted cookie cutter to cut out as many biscuits as possible and arrange them slightly spaced on a lightly buttered baking sheet. Gather together the pastry scraps and reroll the mixture to cut out more biscuits. Use a fork to lightly prick each biscuit a couple of times.
Bake the biscuits in the centre of the oven for 14-16 minutes until just starting to change colour at the edges. Do not overcook or the subtle buttery flavour will be lost.
Cool on the baking sheet for 3-4 minutes then use a palette knife to carefully transfer the biscuits to a cooling tray and dust with the extra sugar. When cold store the biscuits on a sheet of baking paper in an air-tight plastic cake box.
Lavender Shortbread Biscuits – add ½ teaspoon of finely chopped fresh lavender flowers or young leaves to the butter
Orange Shortbread Biscuits – add ½ teaspoon finely grated orange or tangerine zest to the sieved flour
Ginger Shortbread Biscuits – add 45 g/ 1 ½ oz finely chopped preserved or candied ginger to the sieved flour
Lemon Shortbread Biscuits – add ½ teaspoon finely grated zest of lemon or 30 g/ 1 oz finely shredded candied lemon or citron peel to the sieved flour
Cherry Shortbread Biscuits – add 45 g/ 1 ½ oz chopped dried cherries to the sieved flour – glacé cherries can be used instead but are rather sweet Rosemary Shortbread Biscuits - add ½ teaspoon of finely chopped fresh young rosemary leaves to the butter