January is an odd month. Many people spend it trying to be extra healthy after the indulgence of Christmas and New Year. Dry January and Veganuary are becoming increasingly popular as people try to cut back on unhealthy foods so it is a little sad that the National Shortbread Day is on the 6th of January when lots of people won’t appreciate it.
The first recipes for shortbread date from the 12th century; however the version which we eat today was actually invented in the 16th century and is accredited to Mary Queen of Scots Before her, shortbread was real bread which was covered in spices and sugar before being twice baked – Queen Mary replaced the yeast with butter which stopped the bread from leavening and turned it into a biscuit. The original flavouring in shortbread was caraway seeds – I am incredibly thankful that this is no longer the case – however now you can find vanilla, chocolate, orange and ginger shortbreads amongst many others.
One of the most distinctive things about shortbread is its texture. It is super crumbly as a result of minimal kneading. As the dough isn’t worked very much, gluten can’t build up so the shortbread stays very fragile. The addition of semolina or rice flour helps increase the crumbliness whereas cornstarch makes the biscuits denser and therefore harder. Adding semolina also a good way to prevent yourself from picking at the uncooked dough as it gives it a gritty texture which disappears during cooking but, whilst raw, is really quite unpleasant.
There are several classic shapes of shortbread: the classic shortbread finger (as given below), individual round biscuits (these are rolled to about half an inch thick and then cut) and the classic wedge. These are the easiest to make without any sort of tin as it involves pressing the shortbread into a large circle, baking it and then cutting the biscuits when they are removed from the oven but are still soft. The recipe below gives enough dough to make two large circles eight inches in diameter. The high butter content causes shortbread to spread in the oven which is fine if you are making circular biscuits – just make sure you leave enough room between them – but if you are making fingers, this can be very detrimental to the shape. The best way to get perfect shortbread fingers is to cut the dough but leave it as a block, do not separate the pieces. This prevents them spreading and when you remove the shortbread from the oven, you can just recut along the lines left over and neaten out the edges.
Although it started in Scotland, shortbread has spread around the world and for good reason – it is delicious! I hope you enjoy making it as much as I did and that it becomes favourite for you to bake and eat.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cook time: 25 minutes
Makes about 20 fingers
225g (8oz.) unsalted butter
112g (4oz.) caster sugar
225g (8oz.) plain flour
112g (4oz.) semolina (or fine rice flour)
1 tsp vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 180°C (gas mark 4).
Cream the butter in a bowl.
Add the sugar and the vanilla and beat until light and fluffy.
Pour in half of the flour and half of the semolina and mix on low until they start to combine.
Add the rest of the flour and semolina and slowly beat until all of the ingredients are just combined. You do not want to overwork the shortbread.
Pour the dough onto a sheet of baking parchment and press out with your hands into a rectangle measuring 11”x6” (25x 15 cm).
Cut the shortbread into 1”x3” (2.5×4.5 cm) rectangles. The easiest way to do this is one long cut lengthwise down the middle and then measure out one inch blocks along the edge of the dough before cutting. DO NOT SEPARATE THE SHORTBREAD!
Take a fork or a skewer and prick the dough all the way to the base with a pattern of your choosing.
Slide the baking paper onto an oven tray and place in the oven and bake for around 20-25 minutes until the shortbread turns a pale golden colour. Do not let it brown any more than this.
Take the shortbread out of the oven and slide the baking paper off the tray onto a cutting board.
Cut along the lines of the biscuits as they will have sealed up during baking. By cutting the biscuits before you bake them, you will leave a mark in the final product which can then be recut to ensure straight edges and perfect shortbread.
Separate the biscuits and move them onto a cooling rack to cool completely.
These are delicious by themselves but are a real treat when dunked into a cup of tea. You could also jazz these up by dipping the ends into melted chocolate to make the biscuits really special. They make an excellent gift too. Just take a large sheet of clear plastic and place the biscuits in the middle. Gather up the ends and tie them off with a ribbon to make a beautiful present at Christmas.
I hope you enjoyed the recipe. If you liked this, you should check out how to make macarons. They are a little more technically challenging but if you can master them, there is nothing you can’t do in the kitchen. If you are looking for something a little bit more savoury, why not treat yourself to some delicious onion soup? It’s easy to make and is packed full of flavour.
Have a good one and I will be back next week with a recipe for a fab on the go lunch