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Thursday
Feb262009

Short But Sweet: A Salute to Shortbread

SHORTBREAD!
Shortbread is certainly one of life's small pleasures: crispy, tantalizingly buttery, and when done right, the perfect combination of sweet and slightly salty.

With only three main ingredients (flour, sugar and butter--with a dash of salt for good measure)--traditional shortbread isn't a complex thing, but we would be hard-pressed to call it simple food. Because certainly there is an art to mixing those ingredients, to yielding the elusively perfect, buttery crumb.
But what else lies beneath this humble cookie? We took some time to think about various aspects of the cookie--here's what we discovered.
First off, where does the cookie come from?

As Historic-UK.com informs us, the story of shortbread begins with the medieval biscuit ("twice-baked"), wherein leftover bread dough was baked a second time to form a type of rusk--this is to say, if you picture a family tree of cookies, this would mean that shortbread, rusks and biscotti all share some relatives.
While by some accounts they existed as far back as the 12th century in Britain, it seems to us that it is truly Scotland where shortbread as we know it was developed: it is here that gradually the yeast began to be replaced with butter, and oat flour, which were some of their agricultural staples. These "short" bread cookies were a fancy dessert, reserved for the wealthy and for special occasions. And certainly their popularity was bolstered by the fact that in the 16th Century, they are said to have been a favorite of Mary, Queen of Scots (she liked a variation which included caraway seeds, in case you were interested).

Dipped Shortbread at Au Bon Pain, Penn Station
Why are they called "short"?
It's all about the butter, baby! According to Everything You Pretend to Know about Food and Are Afraid Someone Will Ask, which is like, our favorite book ever,
short pastry is a nonyeast pastry that has a high ratio of butter to flour. Short pastries bake up crumbly rather than chewy and tend to keep well, owing to their high fat content.
What is the proper shape for a traditional shortbread cookie?
We've seen them round, rectangular, diamond-shaped, and cut into wedges from a larger round--so what gives? Is there a proper shape for a traditional shortbread cookie? Once again according to Historic-UK.com,
Shortbread is traditionally formed into one of three shapes: one large circle divided into segments ("Petticoat Tails"); individual round biscuits ("Shortbread Rounds"); or a thick rectangular slab cut into "fingers."

Of course, having taste-tested each of these traditional variations, we can report that while they may differ in look, each shape is delicious.
Dog Portrait Cookies
What is the best shortbread cookie recipe?
These days, shortbread recipes are available in a dizzying array of flavors and variations: and from chocolate peanut butter to gorgeously decorated chocolate shortbread (above, photo c/o Whipped Bakeshop) to Earl Grey to cherry almond to even lavender vegan variations, we have enjoyed many of them. But moreover, we love this simple, classic recipe, which is a wonderful springboard for variations (note: though it can be made into round cookies rather than a big round, it is a fragile dough so may be harder to handle in that way).


Scottish shortbread in a pie tinShortbread
Classic Shortbread
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Preheat oven to 300°F. Lightly butter 9-inch-diameter springform pan (we couldn't find ours so used a pie plate--it worked just fine!). Whisk flour, sugar, and salt in medium bowl to blend. Add 1/2 cup butter and rub in with fingertips until mixture resembles coarse meal. Gather dough together and form into ball; flatten into disk. Roll out dough on lightly floured surface to 1/2-inch-thick round. Transfer round to prepared pan. Using fingers, press dough evenly over bottom to edges of pan. Using tip of small sharp knife, score dough into 8 equal triangles, then pierce all over with fork. Bake until shortbread is cooked through and pale golden, about 45 minutes.

 

Using tip of sharp knife, cut warm shortbread into triangles along scored lines. Run knife around shortbread to loosen. Cool in pan at least 30 minutes. Using spatula, carefully remove shortbread from pan.

Can be made 1 day ahead. Store shortbread airtight in single layer at room temperature.

 

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Reader Comments (37)

I never knew the explanation for "short" pastry. It's the sort of thing you hear and never really think about the meaning. Thanks for solving! The round cookie looks scrumptious - I'm quite a fan of those nifty little wedges!

I love Shortbread. Great post. My main interest though is your doggie cookies. Did you paint on the icing with food color? I have an online friend who does this and I have been searching for other example online and yours are the first I've seen. Coolness! I've tried imitating some of hers but EGADS I am not an artist.

March 1 | Unregistered CommenterSuzy

I shouldn't check out your blog when I'm hungry. this makes me want to throw my veganism to wind!

Shortbread is one of my favorites! It is easy to make and so buttery! Your pictures look great!

Snooky: Glad you enjoyed!

Apple: Awesome!! That is a great tip. I actually made another batch the next day after this post and followed your advice, and it really did make a lovely difference!

Dana: Of course not! I should clarify though (I hope it was clear in the post) we did not make those cookies, but they were made by a member of the CakeSpy Photo Pool in Flickr.

Natalie: They're so good. Shortbread is the best! So many delicious variations.

Jenny: Maybe you'd like it better if it were a flavored type or perhaps Millionaire's shortbread (with caramel and chocolate)

Bridget: Oh, I love shortbread, it's great for breakfast!

Hilary: ooh, that sounds great!

Edible forest: Zoe (whippedbakeshop) is so talented, isn't she?

Treehouse Chef: You should do it! They're so easy and yum.

Veggie: You're welcome!

Bigspoon: Wouldn't that be fun? A family tree of cookies?

Owl Chick: Yummm. But I find it hard to believe that shortbread lasted from November! I mean, I'm sure it could keep. but I could never leave it sit in the house and not be in my mouth!

Moonrat: You're welcome! Enjoy!

Noisy: Shortbread is pretty awesome, hope you get to enjoy some soon!

Jaimee: Oooh, it ships well though!

Check: Oh man, I could never choose between the two either!

Anali: Glad to see you've joined our team. Up with Shortbread!

Deborah: Wonder why? ;-)

Kelle's: Ha! Glad you enjoyed.

Jeanna: You can usually find walker's shortbread in stores. I think theirs is pretty good!

Teaspoon: Hope it came out well!! Either way is completely fine of course!

Jodi: Glad you enjoyed!

Puglette: I made a second batch following some of the advice in the comments, with brown sugar, and it was wonderful. YUM!

TW: I know, isn't that an interesting tidbit? And the wedges were wonderful.

Suzy: Check in the post and you'll find a link to Zoe's website, she's actually the one who made those. I'd check with her about the method but I believe she actually paints!

Banana-Head Pancake: I've tried some vegan shortbread and it's been awesome, maybe you don't need to throw it quite to the wind...

Cookies and Cakes: it's so easy and so good. Thanks for the compliment!

March 1 | Unregistered CommenterCakespy

wow. it looks delicious!

March 1 | Unregistered Commentergiggleness

Thanks you Miss Cake Spy. I will go search Zoe's page.

March 1 | Unregistered CommenterSuzy

Shortbread has got to be one of my favourites - that melt in your mouth feeling when you take a bite - mmmm and yors looks delicious!


Rosie x

March 2 | Unregistered Commenter♥Rosie♥

Nothing beats a classic shortbread! Love your variations!

March 2 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

now my mouth is watering.

i'm a fan of the tartine cookbook recipe too.

MMMM.

March 2 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

oh boy! shortbread reminds me of christmas time. our huge italian family would get together every christmas eve & my grandmother would make tons & tons of homemade chocolates & cookies. in her house, four rooms connected each other in a circle so I would chase the dog & grab a shortbread cookie every time I passed the table of sweets. yummm

March 4 | Unregistered Commenterkelli

When I was a teenager, I had a love affair with shortbread -- used to buy it, bake it, experiment with it -- but then I went to college, and we parted ways, and shortbread became a distant memory.

And suddenly, I have that sudden sense of breathless recognition that comes with stumbling into an old love.

Perhaps now, we can truly begin a beautiful friendship.

March 10 | Unregistered Commenterpaintandink
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