One of my ways of immersing myself in a place I intend to visit is to cook and eat the place’s food beforehand. As the adage goes, the way to my heart (and mind!) is definitely through my stomach.
Since my cooking skills are mediocre at best, desserts were the way to go. The easy choice, then, was Scotch shortbread.
According to the English Tea Store:
Scottish shortbread evolved from medieval biscuit bread, which was a twice-baked, enriched bread roll dusted with sugar and spices and hardened into a Rusk (soft, sweetened biscuit). Eventually butter was substituted for yeast, and shortbread was born. Since butter was such an important ingredient, the word “shortbread” derived from shortening. Shortbread may have been made as early as the 12th Century, however its invention is often attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots in the 16th Century.
It is also associated with various customs: In Shetland, it was broken over the head of brides before they entered their homes, and it was eaten in Scotland on New Year’s Eve, possibly derived from an ancient tradition of eating Yule Cakes which symbolized the sun.
January 6 is also Shortbread Day.
Scotch shortbread has been called the “jewel in the crown” of Scottish baking by Chef John Quigley of Red Onion in Glasgow. It was also chosen to be the representative sweet of the United Kingdom during Café Europe, the cultural initiative of the European Union on Europe Day ( May 9, 2006) in 27 cafés in capitals across the EU to promote the member states’ desserts.
So, knowing all this about shortbread, is it worth the fuss?
The first surprise was the list of ingredients.
Yup, that’s it: one part sugar, two parts butter, three parts flour. Want proof?
It was nice baking with so few ingredients and utensils; normally, I take out all these bowls and tools and a dozen ingredients. Here, I used a single bowl, a mixer, a small spatula, two cups, and a rolling pin. Shortest clean-up ever!
I did intend to be awesome and mix it entirely by hand, but my puny arms couldn’t make the butter and flour and sugar stick properly together, so I resorted to the mixer.
Then came the most fearsome part: rolling it out.
Now, you may wonder what’s so terrible about rolling out dough. Let’s put it this way, I have avoided all recipes involving a rolling pin for about seven years. Why? To make a long story short, one Christmas, my siblings, cousins, and I decided to make sugar cookies, and it ended with flour everywhere and yelling children and dough sticking to the counter and floor and misshapen floury-tasting cookies (which probably also explains my aversion to sugar cookies).
Nevertheless, I steeled myself and carefully floured the counter and rolling pin.
And you know what? It turned out fine.
Alas, I realized that most of my household’s cookie-cutters were Christmas-and-Valentine’s-Day-related, so I was forced to resort to a generic star and a small glass. Still, they came out quite well.
Then, I popped them into the oven for twenty minutes.
Usually, it’s easy for me to figure out when cookies are ready, since they turn brown and sweet-smelling and enlarge nicely. Shortbread cookies, however, hold their shapes and sizes well and don’t really change color, as I discovered. They do begin to smell warm and delicious, but that’s about it. Thus, I checked the time carefully.
Finally, they were finished!
So, what’s the verdict?
The flavor surprised me; the store-bought cookies (Girl Scouts’ Trefoils, anyone?) I’m used to are much sweeter. These cookies tasted like moderately sweetened Flying Biscuit biscuits, as a matter of fact.
As a big fan of Flying Biscuit biscuits, though, that wasn’t a strike against them; on the contrary, once I adjusted, they became quite addicting. I also managed to mentally convince myself that I could eat more of them because of their small size and relative lack of sweetness (never mind the high butter content).
I also like the tininess and sturdiness of them. They came off the ungreased baking sheet in one piece (always a plus) and could be packed tightly in a little container.
My one complaint is that my sweet tooth did yearn for more sugar in the flavor, and my always unsatisfied palate wanted more complexity. Also, when they cooled, while still yummy, they did become a bit bland.
But there are millions of variations on the classic recipe, so I can keep experimenting. And everyone in my family enjoyed them!