I don’t think it’s possible for any child growing up in Scotland to not have encountered shortbread usually over Christmas and New Year. It seems like everyone has an auntie with a perfect recipe and every household drags out a tin of shortbread at New Year. There are traditions involving shortbread all through Scotland from the borders right up to Shetland. In Shetland, it was traditional to break a decorated shortbread cake over the head of a new bride on the threshold of her new home.
One tradition I came across while living in Dundee on Scotland’s east coast is that of eating shortbread with cheese. A sugary biscuit with cheese? I know I couldn’t believe it at first either but trust me, once you’ve tried it… mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm
So what’s the skinny? Where did shortbread appear from?
For those unfortunate souls amongst you who have never had the joy that is shortbread dipped in your tea…… it’s a crumbly, buttery biscuit topped with sugar.
It’s thought to have started life in the medieval period as the leftover dough from bread making which was scraped together and dried on the floor of a low oven, making it into a kind of rusk bread/biscuit (biscuit meaning twice cooked). Gradually over time, the yeast was replaced with butter and the biscuit developed into what we know as shortbread.
Given its high butter content, it was an expensive luxury and a treat rather than something the ordinary folk could enjoy frequently so tended to be kept for special occasions like weddings or New Year. (The custom of eating shortbread at New Year has its origins in the ancient pagan Yule Cakes which symbolised the sun. In Scotland, it is still traditionally offered to “first footers” at New Year. A first footer is the first person to enter your home after the new year has started. Traditionally thought to bring good fortune and luck if they are tall and dark-haired, although fair hair or red hair is seen as unlucky, they bring a gift of coal and whisky to symbolise warmth for the coming year and good cheer.)
Shortbread is traditionally formed into one of three shapes: one large circle divided into segments (“Petticoat Tails”); individual round biscuits (“Shortbread Rounds”); or a thick rectangular slab cut into “fingers.” The “Petticoat tails” style has been attributed to Mary Queen of Scots with two theories regarding the name of these biscuits. It has been suggested that the name “petticoat tail” may be a corruption of the French Petites gatelles(“little cakes”).
However, these traditional Scottish shortbread biscuits may in fact date back beyond the 12th century. The triangles fit together into a circle and echo the shape of the pieces of fabric used to make a full-gored petticoat during the reign of Elizabeth I. The theory here is that the name may have come from the word for the pattern which was ‘tally’, and so the biscuits became known as ‘petticoat tails’.
Shortbread is also a staple of the Scottish tourist industry with its image of traditionally Scottish biscuits being used to sell boxes to tourists, adorned with images of the highland and tartan. This has led to the phrase “having a shortbread tin view of Scotland” usually referred to in terms of tourism where tourists only think of the “image of Scotland” seen on a shortbread tin and don’t see the real Scotland.
So, to make your own shortbread ready for the New Year.
Ingredients (about 20 biscuits)
- 225g unsalted butter (softened) and a little more for greasing the tray
- 110g caster sugar and some for dusting the top
- 225g plain flour
- 110g corn flour
- pinch of salt
1. Lightly butter your baking trays
2. Cream together the butter and sugar in a big bowl until it’s light and fluffy. Then sift in the corn flour and plain flour add the salt and combine together.
3. Tip the mixture onto a lightly floured surface and knead into a soft dough.
4. Roll the kneaded dough out between two pieces of baking paper to a thickness of about 1cm and cut into your desired shapes then prick them all over with a fork.
5. Put your biscuits onto your greased tray and chill for 30 mins.
6. meanwhile heat your oven 170 or 150 for a fan oven.
7. Bake your shortbread for around 20 mins until they are just starting to turn golden on the edges. They will still feel slightly soft, so leave them on the tray for a few moments to firm up before transferring them to a wire cooling rack.
8. Dust with sugar and enjoy.
Shortbread will keep in an air tight container for about 3 or 4 days.