Friday, February 01, 2008
Shortbread is a biscuit ‘shortened’ by the prodigious use of glorious butter. The texture of the biscuit is crisp and snappable- hence ‘short’. The term 'bread' has been used interchangeably with 'cake' for many centuries (cakes, as we now know them, derive from sweetened, yeast-risen breads), and shortbread is the descendent of the short cakes baked from the the 16th century. One story has it that Scottish bakers used the name shortbread to argue the case against paying the government’s tax on biscuits (shades of Jaffa cakes v the VAT man/woman. VAT is currently not paid on cakes and biscuits, as they are deemed a necessity by UK law - the law is not always an ass it seems! - chocolate-covered biscuits, on the other hand, are considered luxuries and therefore are taxable). Short cakes were made from the same ingredients as we would use for a sweet shortcrust pastry (short, again refers to the texture), with the addition of a little yeast. The yeast in these early cakes could result in an uneven rise, remedied by the baker ‘docking’ or pricking the surface of the cake. Some modern biscuits have kept these pricked holes as decoration. Short cakes were eaten across Britain, and many local biscuits (i.e. Shrewsbury cakes, or Goosnargh cakes) are variations on the basic recipe. Shortbread, however, has a definite association with Scotland, and the best of its type has long been an export to the rest of the country, and to the rest of the world.
It is the quality of the ingredients that make shortbread so decidedly delicious, and a lightness of touch in the making. Classic shortbread is made from only flour, butter and sugar, so that gives three opportunities for buying the best, or three chances to produce a disappointing biscuit. F. Marian McNeill writes in 'The Scots Kitchen’ that,
‘Only the best ingredients should be used. The flour should be dried and sieved. The butter, which is the only moistening and shortening agent, should be squeezed free of all water. The sugar should be fine castor. Two other things are essential for success - the careful blending of the ingredients and careful firing.
The butter and the sugar should first be blended. Put eight ounces of butter and four ounces of castor sugar on a board, and work with the hand until thoroughly incorporated. Mix eight ounces of flour with four ounces of rice flour, and work gradually into the butter and sugar, until the dough is of the consistency of short crust. Be careful that it does not become oily (a danger in hot weather) nor toughened by over-mixing. The less kneading, the more short and crisp the shortbread. Do not roll it out, as rolling has a tendency to toughen it, but press with the hand into two round cakes, either in oiled and floured shortbread moulds or on a sheet of baking-paper. The most satisfactory thickness is three-quarters of an inch for a cake eight inches in diameter, or in such proportion. If you make a large thick cake it is advisable to protect the edges with a paper band or hoop, and to have several layers of papers underneath and perhaps one on top. Pinch the edges neatly all round with the finger and thumb, and prick all over with a fork. Decorate with “sweetie” almonds (for small cakes, caraway comfits may be used) and strips of citron or orange peel. Put into a fairly hot oven, reduce the heat presently, and allow the shortbread to crisp off to a light golden brown.’
Jane Grigson suggests having in the kitchen a jar of plain flour mixed with rice flour or cornflour with a 3:1 proportion so that you have this to hand for biscuit making and for light sponge cakes. She helpfully notes that the proportion of ingredients for shortbread are 3:2:1 - flour:butter:sugar.
Advice also comes from ’The Baker’s Repository of Recipes - With Special Reference to Scottish Specialities’, published post-WWII by The British Baker to help reinvigorate the baking trade by providing a comprehensive collection of national recipes:
‘Flour, butter, sugar, and sometimes eggs, was the order of the day at one time, but in shortbread making the type of ingredient used is the chief essential.
There are no spices, fruits, etc., to counteract in the matter of flavour, therefore a good-flavoured butter comes first in importance. Flour would seem to be of next importance, and a very soft flour is not to be recommended. A top-grade winter or blended flour is usually selected. Sugar chosen is usually somewhat hard in the grain.
The ingredients may be well chosen yet the results desired not obtained. This may be caused in the method of making up the dough. Good judges declare shortbread is often spoiled by overworking or overmaking the dough.
The butter, sugar and eggs should be roughly creamed, the flour added, and the dough just formed.
Finally, the baking must be correct. An oven of moderate temperature is used, but the exact temperatures have to be noted from experience. The thickness and type of shortbread being baking govern the baking temperature.’
There are variations on the classic recipe - Ayrshire shortbread also includes cream and eggs, Pitcaithly bannock has chopped sweet almonds and citron peel mixed in with the flour and is decorated with peel. Petticoat tails are a thin form of shortbread baked in a distinctive circular shape with a smaller circle cut from the centre, and then the remainder divided up. Shetland Bride’s Bonn/Bun is flavoured with caraway seeds and baked upon a girdle. I am keen to try out this girdle-cooked shortbread, but I feel that I should give the ‘original’ recipe a go first.
My ingredient quantities came from ‘A Cook’s Tour of Britain’, by the WI and Michael Smith (just a little more butter than Jane Grigson’s ratios), and the method I employed was from Marcus Wareing’s ‘How to Cook the Perfect...’
110g slightly salted butter (or unsalted butter with a pinch a salt) - use direct from fridge
50g caster sugar
150g plain flour
50g rice flour/ground rice
1. Sift the flour into a bowl (along with the salt if you are using unsalted butter), and stir in the ground rice and sugar.
2. Put the bowl of dry ingredients on the scales and return the dial/reading to zero and (here is the clever bit) grate in 110g butter from a chilled block .
3. Work the grated butter quickly into the flour by rubbing first with the fingertips, and then between the palms of the hands. Once the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, stop.
4. Press the mix into a 20cm by 20cm square baking tin and level the surface. Chill in the fridge for about an hour.
5. Heat oven to 160C/320F/Gas 3, and then bake shortbread until light golden (about 40 minutes, but keep an eye on it).
6. Remove from oven and prick all over with a fork, then mark out into pieces (squares or fingers) cutting through to the bottom of the tin. Dust liberally with caster sugar, and then leave to cool in tin.
I thought the idea of grating in chilled butter was a good one, and one that I have since also used for pastry making. It means that the butter needs very little work to properly introduce it to the flour. Putting a bowl-load of buttery flour ‘crumbs’ into the baking tin required faith that the end result would be a biscuit and not crumble topping, but, what do you know, my shortbread was appropriately ‘short’ and the texture was good. The shortbread was very butter-rich, and the scent of butter was also strong (but that might be down to the warmth of my kitchen). The biscuits were perhaps a little sweet for my taste, but that could simply be due to a over-exuberant sugar sprinkle.