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Shortbread Facts and Recipes: A Traditional Christmas Treat

Updated on December 14, 2016
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys exploring nutrition as well as the culture and history of food.

Shortbread fingers
Shortbread fingers | Source

Delicious Biscuits or Cookies

Shortbread is a wonderfully rich and buttery biscuit with a melt-in-your-mouth texture. It's available in stores at any time of year but is traditionally associated with the Christmas season. It's a lovely treat on its own or with a cup of tea or coffee.

Single-serving shortbread biscuits or cookies are easy to make at home. The recipe contains only three essential ingredients - sugar, butter and flour - and produces a delicious result. Extra ingredients can be added to produce a wide variety of flavours.

Shortbread has been popular for a long time and has an interesting history. It's associated with Scotland and is very popular in the United Kingdom. The joy of eating the biscuit has spread to many other countries, however. I always have some in my home at Christmas. Like Christmas cake, Christmas pudding with custard and mince pies, shortbread is a traditional part of my family's holiday celebration.

Butter is an essential ingredient in shortbread.
Butter is an essential ingredient in shortbread. | Source

Why is Shortbread "Short"?

Shortbread is thought to have originated in medieval times, but the recipe may have been discovered even earlier. The reasons why the biscuit is known as "short" and as "bread" are somewhat puzzling. Food historians have given some possible explanations for the puzzle.

In baking, short is an old term meaning crumbly. The high fat content provided by the butter in shortbread stops gluten strands from developing and produces a crumbly texture. Gluten is a protein complex in wheat and some other grains which acts as a binder in baked goods.

Shortcrust pastry in another example of a high fat product that has "short" in its name. This pastry is made with half as much fat as flour and has a flaky texture. The traditional ingredient ratio in shortbread is one part sugar, two parts butter and three parts flour. Today the flour is generally all purpose wheat flour, but it was once made from oats.

A treat for Christmas or any other time of year
A treat for Christmas or any other time of year | Source

Why is Shortbread a "Bread"?

It's believed that the first stage in the formation of shortbread involved bread dough. This dough was first baked like bread at a relatively high oven temperature and then dried in the oven at a low temperature. This double cooking process produced a dry, rusk-like biscuit that stayed fresh for longer than bread.

The rusk created from the bread was known as biscuit bread. The word "biscuit" is an Old French term. "Bis" comes from Latin and means twice, and "cuit" is a French word meaning cooked.

It's thought that at some point in time, butter was used in the biscuit bread recipe instead of yeast. The biscuit then became known as shortbread.

Somewhat confusingly, in North America today a biscuit is known as a cookie. The word biscuit is reserved for a soft, cake-like product that is something like a scone but doesn't contain sugar.

Coffee with a petticoat tail is nice, but I think that tea with shortbread makes a delicious snack.
Coffee with a petticoat tail is nice, but I think that tea with shortbread makes a delicious snack. | Source

Rounds, Wedges and Fingers

Shortbread is traditionally served in the form of large rounds, triangular wedges and thick rectangles or fingers. Modern shortbread is also sold in biscuit (or cookie) shapes.

Shortbread triangles are known as petticoat tails. The triangular pieces of shortbread are thought to have reminded earlier people of the flared fabric in an Elizabethan petticoat. Ladies wore this garment under their dresses.

Hogmanay fireworks in Edinburgh
Hogmanay fireworks in Edinburgh | Source

Shortbread Traditions in Scotland

Shortbread is strongly associated with Scotland today. It's a part of the Christmas and Hogmanay (New Year's Eve) celebrations in that country.

Shortbread is also part of the "First Footing" tradition. In this tradition, the first person who steps into a home in the new year (thereby putting the first foot in the home) has the ability to bring good luck for the coming year. The person must carry certain items with them to ensure good fortune. One of these items is shortbread.

Breaking shortbread over a bride's head is another old tradition that's still followed in some parts of Scotland today. Another is to eat shortbread with cheese, especially during the new year clelebrations.

January 6th is National Shortbread Day in the United States. Any day is a good day for eating shortbread, though!

A stylized thistle flower is often imprinted on modern shortbread.
A stylized thistle flower is often imprinted on modern shortbread. | Source

Modern Shortbread

Early petticoat tails contained caraway seeds, which are generally left out of modern mixtures. Today's shortbread is available with added fruits, nuts, spices, citrus zest, and vanilla essence. The shortbread may also contain chocolate chips or be covered with chocolate.

Shortbread with additions is very nice, but I also like the plain versions. The buttery flavour is sometimes more pronounced in these versions, assuming the maker has used butter instead of vegetable oil in their recipe. Shortbread made with vegetable oil isn't really shortbread!

Makers of shortbread today may substitute icing sugar (powdered sugar) for some of the regular sugar and rice flour or corn starch for some of the flour. They may also add a little salt to the shortbread to bring out the flavour. The surface of modern shortbread is often decorated with a pattern that is created with a mold or the tines of a fork.

Quick and Easy Shortbread Cookies Recipe from a Chef

Making Cookies or Biscuits at Home

The basic recipe for making shortbread cookies is very simple. All that's required is to mix butter, fine grained sugar and flour together to form a dough and then bake the dough in an oven.

The shortbread cookie recipes in the videos above and below are quick and easy. They are great recipes for people who are new to making shortbread or for people who don't have much time for baking. They are also versatile recipes that allow the addition of tasty extras like dried fruit, spices and essences.

Since the characteristics of shortbread depend on its butter content, it's important to buy the most flavourful butter that you can find if you're making cookies at home. I prefer to buy organic butter containing only natural ingredients and no added colour or salt. It's not something that I have in my kitchen all the time, but when I do buy butter I like it to be of high quality.

Cranberry Pistachio Shortbread Cookies Recipe

Shortbread Wedges Recipe From America's Test Kitchen

Making Wedges or Petticoat Tails at Home

Making petticoat tails is not quite as foolproof as making shortbread cookies. There are several factors that can result in disappointing shortbread when a round for wedges or petticoat tails is baked. Some recommended precautions are described below.

  • Follow the instructions in the recipe carefully.
  • Treat the dough gently once it's formed. Pat it into the tart pan or another round container.
  • Don't fill the container completely so that the dough can spread as it bakes.
  • Score the dough into pieces as though cutting a pie. "Scoring" means making shallow cuts in the dough so that it's easier to cut without disintegrating once it's baked.
  • Pierce the surface of the unbaked shortbread with a fork, toothpick or skewer. This creates a decorative pattern, but more importantly it allows steam to escape from the shortbread as it bakes and prevents it from puffing up. Pierced shortbread is said to have been "docked".
  • Consider removing the centre of the shortbread round, since this sometimes refuses to harden during baking. The centre can be baked on its own to make a cookie.

Some recipes recommend chilling the shortbread round in the refrigerator for at least twenty minutes before putting it in the oven.

Tips for Making Petticoat Tails From Sue Lawrence

Store-Bought Cookies

I think that anyone interested in shortbread cookies should make them at home at least once before they buy a commercial brand so that they know what the cookies should taste like. Some commercial cookies are quite bland in taste or are overly sweet and may discourage someone from eating shortbread again.

I've discovered that there is at least one good type of commercial shortbread available. My favourite brand out of all the ones that I've tried so far is the Walkers brand. Their shortbread comes in different varieties, but all of the plain kinds contain only wheat flour, butter, sugar and salt. Walkers is a Scottish company that sells gluten free shortbread as well as the traditional type.

Walkers cookies are available in stores all year long where I live, but special packages are available at Christmas time. This year one of the teachers in my school found the cheerful cookie container shown below.

A snowman container for Walkers shortbread cookies
A snowman container for Walkers shortbread cookies | Source

Millionaire Shortbread

Millionaire shortbread is not at all traditional, but it's delicious! It's a triple layer bar made of a shortbread base, a caramel centre and a chocolate topping.

The caramel is made by heating sweetened condensed milk for at least an hour. The heat causes the milk to change into a creamy brown sauce with a wonderful taste. The sauce is known as dulce de leche. The longer the milk is cooked, the thicker the sauce will become.

Millionaire shortbread is also known as millionaire's or millionaires' shortbread and as caramel shortbread. It can be time consuming to make, but the effort is very worthwhile. When there's no time to make millionaire shortbread, though, a piece of plain shortbread is a lovely treat at Christmas or at any other time of year.

How to Make Millionaire Shortbread Bars

© 2014 Linda Crampton

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    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I love buttery shortbread, so I'm sure I'd like the version sold in your country! Thank you very much for the comment and for sharing the information.

    • Charito1962 profile image

      Charito Maranan-Montecillo 2 years ago from Manila, Philippines

      I've tasted shortbread from the U.K. and loved it, Ms. Linda!

      I have yet to taste petticoat tails and millionaire shortbread bars. (They look so yummy!)

      In my country, one local cookie manufacturer has also come up with its own version of the shortbread. You should try it! You'll love its buttery flavor.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, vespawoolf. I agree - shortbread can be very addictive! It's often hard to stop at just one piece. Thanks for the visit and the comment.

    • vespawoolf profile image

      vespawoolf 2 years ago from Peru, South America

      Shortbread is so addictive and delicious! I also like Walker´s of all the commercial brands available. But homemade is even better. The millionaire´s shortbread looks fabulous. I hope to try it next time I make shortbread. Thank you for this useful Hub!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, the votes, the share and the hugs, Maria! The millionaire shortbread is certainly a guilty pleasure, but it's a delightful one, too! I hope the week ahead is a great one for you and that your enjoy your semester break.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, the votes, the share and the hugs, Maria! The millionaire shortbread is certainly a guilty pleasure, but it's a delightful one, too! I hope the week ahead is a great one for you and that you enjoy your semester break.

    • marcoujor profile image

      Maria Jordan 2 years ago from Jeffersonville PA

      This post is not "short" on detail, information and the incentive for me to get some shortbread in this house STAT!

      The Millionaire Shortbread looks like a guilty pleasure I could enjoy on January 6th and any other day of the year it was available...I look forward to giving this a try over semester break.

      Voted UP and UABI and sharing. Hugs, Maria

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the comment, Kim. Merry Christmas to you, too! Scottish shortbread is certainly delicious. I love it.

    • klidstone1970 profile image

      இڿڰۣ-- кιмвєяℓєу 2 years ago from Niagara Region, Canada

      Hi Linda. I remember making shortbread as a teenager after learning to do it in home-ec class at school and did a pretty decent job. Although, my sister-in-law's mom is originally from Scotland and made some one year and it was to die for! Maybe I'll try it again. Thanks for sharing! Merry Christmas! Kim

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, VioletteRose. I think that shortbread is a delicious dessert, too! Thank you very much for the comment.

    • VioletteRose profile image

      VioletteRose 2 years ago from Chicago

      Shortbread is definitely a delicious dessert to have for holidays, and of course any day! I actually wondered about how they got the name, thanks for explaining it :) Very informative.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Deb. Thanks for the comment. Scotland has some great recipes to offer us!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 2 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Sounds fabulous. Now, hand over some authentic Scottish recipes, and I will be happy.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, ignugent17. Thanks for the visit. I hope you find some shortbread to try this Christmas!

    • profile image

      ignugent17 2 years ago

      Great idea for the season. I do hope I could taste one. Thanks for the information about short bread. It is nice to know how they made it. :-)

    • itsmesudiksha profile image

      Sudiksha 2 years ago from Nepal

      you are welcome Aliciac!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I love gooey caramel too, Cynthia. That would be delicious with shortbread! Thank you very much for the visit.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, monia saad. Thanks for the comment and for bookmarking the hub.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much, itsmesudiksha! I appreciate your visit and comment.

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 2 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Sounds delicious Alicia. Have to say the millionaire's shortbread is my favourite, especially if the caramel is nice and gooey!

    • monia saad profile image

      monia ben saad 2 years ago from In my Dream

      bookmarked and this is great hubs contain smart idea for christmas

    • itsmesudiksha profile image

      Sudiksha 2 years ago from Nepal

      beautiful article! i had never heard of this before but sounds very interesting. and informative too!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Vellur. I appreciate your comment and vote. Thanks for the visit!

    • Vellur profile image

      Nithya Venkat 2 years ago from Dubai

      An interesting and informative article about shortbread. Never knew there were so many types and now I know what "short" actually means. Voted up, great hub.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      The shortbread that you've described sounds just perfect, pstraubie! Melt-in-your-mouth shortbread made with love is the best kind in the world. Thank you very much for the angels!

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 2 years ago from sunny Florida

      One treat that Momma only made at Christmas time was shortbread. It melted, literally, on our tongue. It was a delight that I make each year too. It takes me back to the little girl who was with Momma when she created this delightful treat each year.

      Thanks for sharing this with us.

      Angels are on the way to you ps

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I agree, Dianna - chocolate does make (almost) everything better! I do love shortbread with chocolate, but my favourite type of shortbread is actually the plain kind. I will probably be eating both types this Christmas, though! Thanks for the comment.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 2 years ago

      I should not read posts such as this before bedtime. You have me wanting shortbread cookies! I love the million dollar version, chocolate makes everything better. Your post is perfect for this season.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for commenting, MsDora. I appreciate your visit.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Isaac Weithers 2 years ago from The Caribbean

      The shortbread cookie turns out to be a rather interesting item after all. Thanks for all the shortbread information and the recipe variations.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Pamela. Thank you very much for the visit and the comment. I hope you enjoy the upcoming Christmas season!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 2 years ago from United States

      I love shortbread and thought maybe it had a long history, but really didn't know. I think it is delicious and the Millionaire Shortbread Bars mayb not be traditional, but they look good. Very good hub at the perfect time of the year.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the lovely comment, Martie! I appreciate your visit and votes a great deal. I usually eat shortbread with tea. I'll have to try it with coffee again!

    • MartieCoetser profile image

      Martie Coetser 2 years ago from South Africa

      Oh, Alicia, you deserve a golden medal. Who, but you, can write such an informative and excellent article about shortbread - something we take for granted. The meaning of 'short' in bakery was quite a surprise. Voted up, informative and delicious with coffee :)

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, poetryman6969. I actually like caraway seeds, although I'm not sure that I'd like them in shortbread! Thanks for the visit.

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      Looks tasty. Glad they deep sixed the caraway seeds. I don't like them.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bill. It's nice to hear from someone else who loves shortbread as much as I do! Thanks for the comment. I hope you have a great week as well.

    • bdegiulio profile image

      Bill De Giulio 2 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi Linda. I absolutely love shortbread. When I was a kid my aunts would make it around the holidays. I like it plain and simple with nothing added. Great hub for the holidays, have a great week.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I hope you and your hubby enjoy the recipes, Peg!

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      We were just in the grocery store today when the hubby looked longingly at a box mix for shortbread cookies with Hershey's kisses on top of each. I balked at the price and promised him I'd make some from scratch. Thanks so much for the recipes.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Peg. Thank you very much for the comment and the pin! I like many different types of shortbread, but the plain varieties are my favourite. Like you, I think that any day is a good time to eat shortbread!

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 2 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Bookmarking and pinning this great source for a variety of shortbread recipes. I can't wait to try the plain buttery one. Any day is a good day for shortbread or cookies.

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      You're welcome, Audrey!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 2 years ago from California

      I will have to try it! Thank you!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Audrey. Most shortbread contains gluten, but luckily there are gluten free versions available. Walkers sells gluten free shortbread. Bob's Red Mill sells a gluten free shortbread cookie mix which is very convenient for home bakers to use.

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 2 years ago from California

      So can those of us who are gluten free eat short bread? I love it, but tend to stay away from gluten products

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the vote and the share, ologsinquito. When I eat shortbread with a beverage, it's nearly always tea instead of coffee. The flavours of shortbread and tea seem to go together very well.

    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 2 years ago from USA

      I agree that shortbread would probably taste much better with tea than with coffee. Voted up and shared.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the comment, Flourish. I was surprised when I discovered that there was a National Shortbread Day, too!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 2 years ago from USA

      I've wondered about the name a time or two, so thanks for answering that! That recipe looks really good! And who knew there was a National Shortbread Day? Great hub!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, Maren Morgan. I appreciate your comment.

    • Maren Morgan M-T profile image

      Maren Elizabeth Morgan 2 years ago from Pennsylvania

      Very informative - thanks!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Bill. Shortbread is certainly worth trying! Thanks for the visit.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I don't think I've ever had shortbread, Alicia, but I might have to try it now. Thank you!

    • AliciaC profile image
      Author

      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, peachpurple!

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 2 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      i didn't know there are so many versions of short bread, voted up

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the votes, Devika. I appreciate your visit.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, pinto2011. Thank you very much for the visit and comment.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 2 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Short bread is an excellent treat. I enjoyed reading much more from you. Voted up, interesting and useful.

    • pinto2011 profile image

      Subhas 2 years ago from New Delhi, India

      This is a resourceful hub which is equally intriguing and interesting for me as breads are made differently in India.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Venkatachari M. I appreciate your informative comment and votes. It's interesting to learn about special foods and celebrations in different countries.

    • Venkatachari M profile image

      Venkatachari M 2 years ago from Hyderabad, India

      Very useful and interesting information. Though I am not aware of these recipes, I now come to know much information about making these Christmas recipes. We in India prepare some similar pie recipes at Holi and Diwali festivals.

      Thanks for sharing the information. Voted up and interesting.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Rachel. Thanks for the comment and the votes. It's great that there are so many gluten free recipes available now. When I was at the supermarket today I noticed a magazine filled with gluten free recipes for cookies and other treats. Good luck with your Christmas baking!

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks so much for the vote and all the shares, Faith! Like you, I enjoy eating shortbread as a treat all year long. I've eaten it since childhood, too. I hope the week ahead is an excellent one for you, Faith.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Hi, Jo. Thanks for the visit and the kind comment. Yes, the millionaire shortbread is delicious. I'm planning to make some for Christmas, too!

    • RachaelOhalloran profile image

      Rachael O'Halloran 2 years ago from United States

      We are gluten free at our house and there are so many great recipes for gluten free shortbread cookies. This time of year is my busy baking season, and cream cheese topping is yummy. I enjoyed reading this article. Voted up and interesting :)

    • Faith Reaper profile image

      Faith Reaper 2 years ago from southern USA

      Oh, I have always love shortbread and especially shortbread cookies. However, I have never make any, but that is going to change this year. Thank you for posting all of the delicious shortbread cookie recipes. My mother loved shortbread, and we always had it growing up.

      Christmas is a wonderful time to make shortbread, but I do love it all year long.

      Up ++++ tweeting, pinning, G+ and sharing

      Enjoy!

    • tobusiness profile image

      Jo Alexis-Hagues 2 years ago from Bedfordshire, U.K

      I've been loving shortbread for years, now I know all there is to know about this delicious Scottish export. Maybe I'll try my hand at making the millionaire shortbread for Christmas, it looks yummy. I just need a nice cup of tea now. A useful and very informative article, well done.

    • AliciaC profile image
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      Linda Crampton 2 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, the vote and the share, chef-de-jour. Dunking a shortbread biscuit in tea is a great way to eat it! I love doing that. I've never eaten shortbread with cheese, but I'll certainly be trying that this Christmas.

    • chef-de-jour profile image

      Andrew Spacey 2 years ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      A wonderful informative article on shortbread, thank you. My family really love shortbread; for one you can dunk it in tea plus you can also eat it with cheese as a sort of sweet and savoury duet. Delicious.

      Voted up and shared.