Every Christmas when I was a girl, Grandma Alice would show up with a cheque for me in one hand and a foil-wrapped brick for my father in the other. This package was never wrapped in Christmas paper, and was always set aside from the rest of the ‘real’ presents, but you can be sure that dad’s favourite gift was his mom’s shortbread cookies.
A few years ago my grandmother passed away, and if it weren’t for my aunt she would have taken her shortbread recipe with her. One Christmas I decided to make dad some of his mom’s cookies that he missed so much, and now it’s my job to show up each year with a foil-wrapped brick.
These cookies are old school. They are made of only three ingredients – sugar, flour, and butter – and because of that the freshness of the ingredients will show. It’s worthwhile to buy a small new bag of flour for these cookies, especially if you don’t go through flour that quickly, because if it picks up any scents from the cupboard you’ll taste them in the cookies.
Even though this recipe is simple it can take time to master. You need to have some patience as you work the powdery mixture into dough (especially if you are working in a cold kitchen, which makes the dough harder to knead). When you bake these cookies, don’t expect them to rise or melt – they go in the oven looking like little white bricks and they come out looking pretty much the same. You want to be sure not to overcook them – they shouldn’t turn brown – you should aim to take them out of the oven as soon as they are cooked through.
This recipe calls for ‘berry sugar’, which is also known as ‘superfine sugar’. It’s essentially granulated sugar that has smaller particles than standard table sugar. Using pastry flour and berry sugar creates a slightly nicer texture for the cookie, but don’t fret if you can find either of these ingredients – you can substitute all-purpose flour and regular table sugar and they’ll turn out just fine.
You don’t have to slice the cookies into bricks and wrap them in foil, like my practical grandmother did, but I think you’ll find they taste better that way.
Alice Mary’s Traditional Scottish Shortbread
Yield: 4 dozen cookies
- 5-6 cups pastry flour (can substitute regular flour)
- 1 cup berry sugar (can substitute granulated sugar)
- 1 pound unsalted butter
- Preheat oven to 325 F.
- In a large bowl, mix 5 cups of pastry flour and the berry sugar.
- Cut the butter into the flour/sugar mixture with a pastry blender or mixer.
- At this stage the mixture looks like a powder. Working with about 1/3 of the mixture at one time, use very clean hands to knead it until it forms a dough. If you are working in a cold kitchen or find that the mixture is too hard to work with you can soften it by warming it up in the microwave for a few seconds at a time. Be very careful not to melt the mixture.
- Once the dough has been formed, roll it out on a lightly floured surface to be 1/2 inch thick.
- Cut the dough into one-inch by two-inch rectangles and prick three times with a fork. (Alternatively, use cookie cutters to cut other shapes.)
- It’s a good idea to bake a test batch before you bake the rest of the cookies, since different brands of flour give different results. If the cookies lose their shape or ‘melt’, work the remaining 1 cup of flour into the dough and try again.
- Bake cookies for about 20 minutes until the cookies are cooked through and are a golden colour on the bottom. The cookies should hold their shape and remain white on the top. Be careful not to overcook.