Real Scottish Shortbread

This is one of those that’s a little hard to post, for several reasons. First, it’s almost impossible to explain the exact technique we use without watching. And no, I don’t have serial pictures to illustrate each step, either. Secondly, it’s one of those holiday traditions that I know dates back to at least the MacMillans, who were my great-great-great-grandparents. So consider this my sacrifice for Peace on earth, goodwill toward men, ok? The recipe (and technique) have evolved over the ages, obviously, and I have yet to try it with my raw, home-churned butter, which I’m sure the MacMillan’s used.

Here is the recipe:

3 lbs flour
2 lbs butter
1 lb sugar
1 tsp. salt

Mix well and bake.

Ok, maybe that’s a bit over-simplified. Get ready for the difficult-to-describe details. Use all-purpose flour and baker’s (very fine) sugar if you can find it. Sift these dry ingredients A LOT. My grandma has been known to substitute about 1/2 cup of powdered sugar for a bit of it. Once that’s all sifted together WELL, cut up your two pounds (yes, pounds) of butter into chunks. Gi-gi also swears by adding about 1/6 pound of lard to the mix. I make it either way. Gently “toss” the cut chunks with the flour mixture. Now you need to warm it. Gi-gi uses the microwave, generations previous used the wood stove. DO NOT let the butter melt (easy to do if you don’t have years of balancing this relationship in your own personal microwave). If you do, I recommend sitting down with about 50 of your closest friends and eating the dough with spoons (or fingers). Melted butter makes for… tough.. shortbread. You want butter that is warm to the touch and soft. When it is like that, roll up your sleeves (if you haven’t already) and mash it all up. To do this we use a very sophisticated technique. I don’t know if there’s a name for it, but we thrust our hands into it and mix it around and squeeze the dough through our fingers and make a big mess. Once it’s mixed WELL, I take out a handful and form it into a squarish log, maybe 1.5″ square. This I take and slice about 1/4 – 3/8″ thick and lay the slices on cookie sheets. I use a fork to ‘prick’ them about 4 times or so. They are baked at 350 until done. I have no idea when that will be for you. True traditional shortbread is not allowed to brown, though I like the taste better when just the edges start to turn. In my frigidaire convection oven, it takes about 17 minutes. My grandma’s identical oven takes 16. If you forget about the last oven-full, it looks like these on the right. I believe the pigs ate these last year. This kind of ‘brown’ is definitely beyond the allowable limits.

I wish I could say exactly how much this recipe will make for you. Because it is a large recipe, a lot depends on how large you form the logs and how thickly you slice them. A triple batch we did one day made 35 dozen, I think Gi-gi got 42 dozen out of a triple shortly thereafter.

Fun facts opinions bits of info:
Kids can help ‘mash’ the mixture and/or prick the shortbread slices after they’re on the pan (if your kids are older than mine, perhaps they can also form, slice, and arrange them on the sheet).

Shortbread are NOT cookies. Scotsmen find that offensive. I will try to be gracious, but consider yourself warned.

Gi-gi counts her shortbread made by the pounds of butter she uses. Last I heard it was in the neighborhood of fifty pounds so far this year. This is the only thing she ever uses her oven for, and it is the only thing she gives as gifts.

Once, Gi-gi located an old nun who had moved to some far-away convent. She had lost track of her many years prior. After hearing where she was, she sent some shortbread, and the caretakers put a plate of it out. Though this (former?) nun was blind and no one had informed her of the shipment, it only took one taste for her to exclaim, “I’ll be! That’s [Gi-gi]’s shortbread!”

I hope you get a chance to try this out. I also hope it turns out well. Please let me know of your attempts!