We were lucky enough to be given some shortbread for Christmas – everyone likes shortbread, don’t they? It’s so easy to make I don’t know why I don’t make it myself for Christmas… but then I would have to eat it and I’d eat too much and then I’d have the losing weight challenge… Maybe I’ll make some for next Christmas and either give it as presents or be restrained in eating it myself.

I was reading Philip Harben’s little book, ‘Traditional Dishes of Britain’ and in his chapter on shortbread he mentions ‘a certain Scottish poet, name of R. Burns‘ who once referred to his native country as ‘The Land O’ Cakes’… well obviously I know to which poet he is referring, and I had heard the expression land O’Cakes because there was a pub in Manchester named that; I never knew where the name came from until now! Sadly I won’t be able to visit it, drink a pint and revel in the knowledge because it is now a Brazilian restaurant.

Hear, Land o’ Cakes, and brither Scots,
Frae Maidenkirk to Johnie Groat’s;—

On the late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations by Robert Burns

Back to shortbread… according to Mr Harben, Scotland’s famous shortbread is actually much older than Robert Burns, and goes back to Roman times when a marriage custom involved breaking a wheaten bread over the head of the bride: ‘Since it was not the intention actually o stun the girl, which might have caused irritating delay, it was reasonable enough of the ancients to devise some type of cake which could be calculated to shatter at a touch. This was the genesis of ‘shortbread’, a very fragile confection.’

He goes on to explain the name: ‘in culinary parlance the word short in connection with flour paste implies that it contains fat – the greater the amount of fat the ‘shorter’ it is said to be, and fat is sometimes referred to as shortening.’ The recipe Mr Harben gives is very short which he explains – ‘for the purpose of this book it was important to choose the very finest recipe‘. He also explains that as shortbread contains no water it only binds together with the gluten in the flour, hence it is very brittle.

The  thing which makes good shortbread great is the quality of the ingredients, particularly the butter. As you may know I am a great fan of various baking programmes, and one of the bakers, Paul Hollywood, always uses his hands to mix things – way before his time, before he was even born, Philip Harben recommends the same, experts, He tells us, ‘do it with the bare hand – a tool that is hard to beat for this and many like operations

here is his recipe – so simple, and no doubt so good (I will let you know if i try it next Christmas):

  • 12 oz plain four (or 11 oz plain wheat flour, 1 oz rice flour served together
  • ½ lb butter
  • 5 oz castor sugar
  1. beat the butter and sugar together until ‘they are well and truly ‘creamed’ and there is a perceptible lightening in colour… and the whole thing really does look like cream
  2. add half the flour and continue to beat until the mixture is ‘really light and fluffy
  3. add the remaining flour and now knead it until all blended in
  4. pack it into a shallow tin or mould
  5. mark the shortbread by pinching the edge between thumb and forefinger, ‘and prick (“docker”) it all over with a fork’
  6. bake to a pale biscuit colour – Mr Harben is a little imprecise, but suggests 30 mins in a moderate oven – but adjust according to thickness. However, another recipe I have found with the same quantities of ingredients gives  190°C, 375°F, gas mark 5 for 15-20 mins

Here is a link to some information about the pub

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