Shortbread Facts and Recipes: A Traditional Christmas Treat
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 celebrations.
January 6th is National Shortbread Day in the United States. I think that any day is a good day for eating shortbread, though.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Packets of Walkers cookies are available in stores all year long where I live. The shortbread is also sold in special tins and other containers at Christmas time. Last year one of the teachers in my school found the cheerful cookie container shown below. The snowman has an uneven base and rolls around when pushed. The tin contains mini versions of the biscuits. I've also seen a Scottie dog and a Christmas tree tin in one of my local stores. Unlike the snowman, they don't wobble.
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.
© 2014 Linda Crampton