This is a story of love. Of a history of giving. It all started when I decided to make shortbread: that classic mix of butter and sugar and flour, and knowledge and experience. I had plenty of references to the ingredients, but none of the knowledge, or the history. I made a fair fist of it, but there was something missing.
Fortunately there was an easily accessible forum I could go to for advice in those days: the listeners to ABC Radio’s Doug Aiton program. I was a regular, each Tuesday through the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, chatting with Doug about all sorts of food matters. Doug’s audience was vast. I asked for listeners’ help, for their knowledge and experience. The results were astonishing. The letters poured in, each giving long-held family recipes, histories, traditions, biases and passion. You could feel that they wanted me, and by extension, their fellow listeners, to take hold of their recipe, a recipe that they knew was the best, and would be best for the rest.
They came with anecdotes, gentle rebukes (it’s not only Scotland that is famous for shortbreads, but Ireland, and Cornwall), and some sent wrapped examples. There was humour, tips and tricks, and much wisdom, handed down through multiple generations.
The perfect recipe came together from all of the letters, and simple it was too. The familiar flavours come from simple ratios: one part of sugar, two parts of butter, three parts of flour (1:2:3). That’s it: sugar, butter and plain flour, brought together by hand, shaped, and dried out in a slow oven. From those basics, as in all great cooking, a plethora of regional and/or personal choices are possible.
The crunch I felt was missing from my first batch can be fixed by the addition of a little rice flour. Some add more rice flour to the above ratio, making it 1:2:3:1; I prefer bringing the rice flour into the total weight of flours, maintaining the original 1:2:3 ratio. The best result, in that case, is to use five times the weight of plain flour to rice flour (ie, if the total weight of flour is 600 grams, that makes 500 grams of plain flour to 100 grams of rice flour). If you want a finer version, replace rice flour with cornflour or semolina.
Whether you cream the sugar and the butter or mix the lot by hand all at once, whether you want a softer shortbread or a firmer, it’s up to you—just work into the basics, and discover your needs. This, of course, was before the Thermomix could do whatever you want it to do.
All the recipes, from a diaspora from all across the British Isles suggested minute changes over time, depending on climate, availability of product, experimentation, taste, and happenstance. Perhaps somebody’s difficult-to-read handwriting led to more or less butter or sugar or flour; or maybe someone was short of this or that and went for a variation, and discovered it was to their liking.
Sadly, with these letters now more than 20 years old, some of the correspondents may well be tasting shortbreads on the other side of the Pearly Gates.
Patricia Hardy of Portarlington offered a recipe from her Cornish grandmother. Her version is made up of 1 part sugar, 2 parts butter and 3 parts flour.
“The art of shortbread-making is not so much to cook as to dry out.” This also explains why shortbread tastes better after several weeks. “The colour should be just a little more golden from raw. Use oven after other baking has been done, on low. If fine shortbread is wanted, replace (a small part: one ounce of nine ounces in her recipe) with cornflour; if crunchy is wanted, replace one part flour with wholemeal flour or oat flakes. If flavours or nuts are added, they’re biscuits! Like bread, salt is a must. Re-cut divisions when still hot. Remove from pan when cool.
P.S. Both pastie pastry and ‘shortenbread’ had to be hard because if the tinner dropped his lunch down the mine shaft and it broke up his wife was no good!”
Mrs J. Evans of Mt Evelyn offered the recipe of Mr David Donaldson of St Andrew’s, Scotland. “He was a champion shortbread cook. He gave my mother this recipe in 1956 when she visited Scotland.” The recipe adds a teaspoon of water to dissolve the sugar before adding to the rest. D.D’s recipe is a 1:2:4 mix. Note, according to Mrs Evans: “Square shortbread tastes better than round”.
Marion Errey of Colac writes: “This recipe (1:2:2.5:1, with 1/2 teaspoon lemon juice added for flavour) has been handed down in my family since my aunt, who was a nursing sister with the Australian Army in World War 1, brought it back to Australia after a visit to our Scottish relatives at that time.” She advises cooling the rounds in the fridge for half an hour before shaping: “makes them crisper when cooked.” This, I imagine, has much to do with a pre-cooking dry out, as much as anything.
Mrs Marjorie Todd of Mentone laments the loss of the old imperial measurements. “My Grandmother, (I am in my sixties), was a Welsh countrywoman who brought up a family of 12 children, and passed on a number of recipes. She never used scales, but I did translate her spoonfuls to ounces (1:2:3:0.5). She always creamed the butter and sugar, then added the flours, and, using her hands, rubbed in the flours until the mixture resembled fine bread crumbs.”
Melanie Remasden offers a Kiwi-Scots connection: “My Gran is 84 years old and she had a cake shop in New Zealand for many years. This is her grandmother’s shortbread recipe. Her name was Annie Hay and she was from Motherwell in Scotland. My Gran always swore by this recipe (1:2:2:1, using a plain/cornflour mix) and used it in her shop.” The method suggests rolling the mix into a sausage shape, and cutting individual circles from the “sausage”.
Maureen James of Knoxfield: “My grandmother migrated from Scotland in 1920, and lived here in Victoria until just a few weeks ago, when she died in her 97th year. The following recipe for shortbread (1:3:5:1) is the one she brought with her and which she got from her mother.
P.S. Of course the best shortbread is always made on the hottest day—the heat enables more flour to be worked into the butter, and a better consistency is obtained, plus more shortbread.”
I suspect this P.S. has to do with the “creaming” method being introduced into the making of shortbread. Creaming, by definition, lifts the temperature of the butter, and would approximate the conditions that you might have in summer when making the breads.
Elizabeth Brown of Victoria, Australia, born in Scotland and once a teacher of Home Economics (remember that now-defunct course, and the theory behind it?) in Glasgow writes: “Twenty students would produce twenty different results—it all depends on the heat of the hands and the method of kneading!!” Her recipe is from the 1:2:4 (1:2:3:1) school.
Marvellous how life’s experiences can lead recipes, and also provide props to celebrations. She goes on: “In olden times (before my time), a wedding cake in rural Scotland was a round of shortbread decorated with glacé fruits and it was broken over the head of the bride as she entered her new home—pieces were then given to the ‘maidens and boys’ in the assembled gathering. One can only hope that the maker of the shortbread was not a ‘heavy handed’ one.”
And the last word must come from a loyal rep of the country of my forebears:
Olive Wright of Blackburn makes a short, sharp point before her (1:2:3) recipe. “It’s not just the Scottish who make great shortbread, the Irish have a claim to same as well!”