Last night, I was re-watching season 1 of The Great British Bake Off. The second bake off takes place in Scotland and the theme was biscuits with, of course, the famous shortbreads as a signature bake.
I won’t lie, shortbreads are by far my favourite biscuits. So I decided to bake some this Sunday.
But before, I’d like to share a crumb of that biscuit’s history. I’ve never watched the French version of the show (Le Meilleur Pâtissier), but in the British version, the hosts, Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins, interview historians, food historians and social historians, in order to learn more about the bakes required from the candidates.
It’s historian Sue Lawrence to whom befell the daunting task of explaining the history of the “Scottish” shortbread. Yes, I am using quotation marks because the recipe is not as Scottish as it seems. Indeed, it seems the recipe dates back to the Middle Ages and was used all across Europe. Originally, it was a biscuit bread dough (flour + water + yeast, hence the term “bread”), enriched with butter and re-baked. Sugar was added later on, in the 17th century.
At the time, Glasgow was a major sugar importer. Sugar was expensive, as it was considered a spice, but the loads arrived directly at the Edinburgh harbour and the Scots had easier access. So they transformed this “enriched bread” into a biscuit.
The story goes, also, that the shortbread kept its name because the Scots argued that, even though it no longer contained any rising agent, the shortbread was a bread, not a biscuit or a cake, which were taxed.
You’ll find a plethora of recipes online, more or less authentic. However, the 3 basic ingredients are flour, butter and sugar. Some sites, blogs or commentaries also mention the use of rice flour. So far as I’m concerned, I decided not to use rice flour this time around and stuck with the recipe from Rampant Scotland.
Makes 15-20 shortbreads:
- 170g/6oz flour
- 113g/4oz soft butter
- 56g/2oz caster sugar
- 28g/1oz cornflour
There are 2 methods to combine the ingredients: the « all in one » technique, with which you add all the ingredients to the bowl, and the other which involves creaming the butter and sugar before adding the other ingredients. I chose to go with the latter.
In a bowl, cream the butter and sugar until pale and creamy. This calls for some serious elbow grease, but it’s better to do it with a wooden spoon. With an electric beater, although it’s effective, you run the risk of overworking and your butter might split, and then you’d have to start over again.
Add the sifted flour and cornflour. Put your hands in there and knead into a dough. Some recipes advise a short kneading, others a long one. So this is definitely up to you.
Once your dough is formed, wrap it in Clingfilm and refrigerate for about 30 minutes (now you can lick that spoon!). This allows the butter to harden and makes the dough easier to handle.
Preheat the oven to 170°C/340°F.
Take the dough out of the fridge and press it down into a mould or greased baking tray (I prefer using baking parchment). Your dough must be about 0,5 to 1cm (about half an inch) thick. Prick the dough all over with a fork. At this point, you can pre-cut your « fingers », even though some recipes suggest you do so after they are baked, or even after they are cooled.
Alternatively, you can roll out your dough and cut your shapes using a cookie-cutter before lying them on your baking tray.
Bake for about 25 minutes. Shortbreads must be baked but still pale.
As soon as you remove them from the oven, shake a little sugar on top and transfer to a cooling rack.
Store them in an airtight tin.