Short Bread

I’ve been on a “bread” theme lately – first Stale Bread, then Strong Bread and now finally Short Bread. What next, you ask? String Bread, Sponge Bread, Stick Bread? No, don’t worry. I think I’ve exhausted the theme…for now!

It’s amazing what you can create with three basic ingredients – flour, sugar and butter. Shortbread, generally associated with Scotland today, has a long evolution from its origins as a medieval “biscuit bread” – the twice cooked dry rusks made from leftover bread dough – to its present form as a sweet crumbly biscuit.

Sometime around the 16th century, the leavening agent in the medieval “biscuit bread” was replaced by fat (butter or lard) and became known as short cake. Since fat is a leavening suppressant in baking, it kept the pastry short. This terminology also shows up in shortcrust and the American term shortening.

There are still British regional traditions of short cakes such as Shrewsbury cakes made in Shropshire and Goosnargh cakes made in Lancashire. Of course, these British short cake biscuits should not be confused with American shortcake (as in strawberry shortcake), a confection created in the mid-19th century East Coast USA as a popular cake served at ladies’ tea parties.

During the 18th century, short cakes had a change of name, explained as a result of a tax dodge on the part of Scottish bakers to avoid the levy Parliament imposed on luxury goods such as cakes and biscuits. It’s a plausible story. Luxury taxes were introduced in the 18th century and the Scots are known for their frugality. 🙂 Put these facts together and you get shortbread!

shortbread_3types

Flavored Shortbreads
I make many different flavors of shortbread around the holiday season to give as gifts to friends. Each year, I try out a few new combinations. Some really zing and some fall flat. The three I’m offering below are my tried-and-true shortbread variations, all sharing a basic mix of butter, flour and sugar. If you wish to reduce the amount of flour, many people substitute rice flour or corn flour (= American corn starch) for some of the plain flour – in various proportions up to a half and half mixture. Substituting can, however, change the texture, making it difficult to form the shape described below.

Each type makes approximately 4 dozen shortbread biscuits

Orange Shortbread
1 cup butter (8 oz.)
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 Tablespoons orange liqueur such as Cointreau (I use my own homemade orange liqueur)
Zest from 1 orange

Almond Shortbread
1 cup butter (8 oz.)
1/2 cup sugar
1-3/4 cups flour
1/4 cup ground almonds
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon almond extract

Chocolate Cherry Shortbread
1 cup butter (8 oz.)
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour
2 Tablespoons cocoa powder
1/4 cup finely chopped glacé cherries
1 Tablespoon kirsch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line cookie trays with baking parchment.

For each of the shortbreads, the procedure is the same. Place all but the flour into a mixing bowl and mix until the ingredients combine and become creamy. Add the flour a little at a time and continue mixing until it begins to clump. With a teaspoon, take some of the shortbread dough and roll into a small ball. It should be around the size of a walnut. Place on the baking parchment and continue until you have filled the tray, keeping space between.

With an lightly oiled cookie stamp (like those pictured below) or with an oiled flat bottom of a glass, press each ball down so that they are approximately 1/4 inch thick. The cookie stamp will impress a decoration in the biscuit. If you are using a glass to press your biscuit, use the tines of a fork or the tip of a spoon to create decorations. The blog British Food History gives an example of how to decorate shortbread this way.

shortbread_stamps

Some people sprinkle the shortbread with more sugar before baking, but I don’t. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack and store in an air-tight container once completely cooled.

This year I’m experimenting with a pistachio and dried cranberry combo (perhaps with a hint of cinnamon), a pecan-brown sugar mix that reminds me of pecan pies and a Nutella-like chocolate and hazelnut duo. Will keep you posted as to the results!

More Information on Traditional British Short Cakes

From The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies:
• An original 18th century recipe for Shrewsbury cakes
• A 19th century recipe for short cake

The Slow Food UK web-site
• A recipe for Goosnargh cakes

From British Food History blog:
• A detailed account of the History of Shortbread

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16 comments

  1. If you make short bread with Kerrygold butter then you won’t go back to any other butter, it is awesome!!! Esp the salted. God I wish I could get KG butter! Try it if you haven’t yet

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  2. I adore short bread. I’m afraid to make it because I know I will eat every last morsel the moment it comes out of the oven! I don’t even have that much of a sweet tooth anymore, but it’s just one of those things that makes me go crazy. Your cookies, btw, look gorgeous!

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  3. Ohhhh i love shortbread…. And i want those stamps! …the research starts now!!!! …i have a post about them to post soon… Now i have to add something extra… Well you’ll understand what i mean when you’ll read it! 🙂

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    • Those particular stamps are by an American company called Rycraft. I got mine in the States, but I’ve seen them in Amazon UK, though they are quite pricey. Looking forward to the “mystery” post – shortbread? 🙂

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