There is something about a warm kitchen and the scent of a sweet creation being conjured up, that soothes me. I have many happy memories of helping my mother bake, or being in my grandmother's kitchen while she whirled about.
Today I pulled out my grandmother's shortbread recipe, written in my mother's hand - well used and loved. It's a simple recipe, usually made from memory, and often only at Christmastime. I don't know why the family only makes it once a year. I spoke with my aunt tonight and she gasped at my making it. "All that butter" were her exact words.
Should you too decide to toss your cares about butter to the wind, here is my grandmother's simple recipe:
1 cup of butter, softened
1/2 cup of fruit sugar
2 cups of unbleached flour
English, Scottish, and Irish shortbread are similar. There are untold variations, not just from people to people, but even among family members. All involve butter, sugar, flour. You can use the exceptional Irish butter if you can find it, or true Amish butter, but good-quality, regular butter is perfect too. If your butter is unsalted, add a pinch of salt to the recipe.
We use "fruit" or "berry" sugar which is simply a finer grade of sugar than regular granulated. Regular sugar works too, or you can pulse it in a food processor a few times to make it a bit more fine. Scottish shortbread sometimes calls for brown sugar.
Cream butter with sugar and then add flour 1/2-1 cup at a time, kneading with your hands until the dough starts to crack.
Roll the dough and place in a pan or a cookie mold, or roll into balls and flatten - whatever rocks your shortbread socks.
Cookies - bake 350 degrees for approx 12 minutes
Bars - bake 350 degrees for approx 20 minutes
I am told that it's all about the hand-kneading, with shortbread. Once I've got my butter and sugar together (I use a pastry cutter) I get in there. In the pictures below, the top-right photo is the dough as I am adding flour. It gets a bit crumbly at first - keep kneading!
The picture on the left shows the dough "cracking." Again, it depends on which family member you ask, but kneading takes 5-10 minutes or until you are foolishly bored. I spent the time thinking of my grandmother - I'm sure that is why the cookies taste so good.
I opted for the quickie-cookie route, but you can do whatever you like when the dough is ready. It is more traditional to press the dough into a pan or roll it out, and carve it into bars.
I'm a stickler when it comes to baking time. The perfect shortbread is slightly golden on the bottom - not brown. Don't overcook your shortbread - you want it to melt in your mouth when you eat it.
Today, January 25th, also happens to be Scotsman Robert Burns' birthday. Raise a glass of whisky then, or a cup of milk, and enjoy a bit a shortbread with me. We sung his "Auld Lang Syne" just over three weeks ago, and now let's leave off with his "Grace After Dinner."
O Thou, in whom we live and move,
Who mad'st the sea and shore,
Thy goodness constantly we prove,
And grateful would adore.
And if it please thee, Pow'r above,
Still grant us with such store;
The Friend we trust; the Fair we love;
And we desire no more.