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Celtic Cookery: Scottish Shortbread Cookies

December seasonal feasts are coming soon,  and cookies are usually shared on these days...with its' rich buttery flavor and tender and crumbly texture!. While it is particularly associated with bringing in the New Year it is certainly popular in Scotland throughout the year. 

A basic biscuit (cookie) recipe includes flour, shortening (often lard), baking powder or soda, milk (buttermilk or sweet milk) and sugar. Common savory variations involve substituting sugar with an ingredient such as cheese or other dairy products. 

Shortbread is a popular biscuit in the UK and USA, so named because of its crumbly texture (from an old meaning of the word short). The cause of this texture is its high fat content, provided by the butter.

According to the Scottish National Dictionary, its Scottish name derives from the diminutive form (+ suffix -ie) of the word cook, giving the Middle Scots cookie, cooky or cu(c)kie.

Cookies came to America in the early English settlement (the 17th century), although the name "koekje" arrived with the Dutch. It also gives an alternative etymology, from the Dutch word koekje, the diminutive of koek, a cake. There was much trade and cultural contact across the North Sea between the Low Countries and Scotland during the Middle Ages, which can also be seen in the history of curling and, perhaps, golf.

The secret to making a good Scottish Shortbread is to have a light hand when mixing the ingredients and to use the finest ingredients. So that means a high quality salted butter, my personal preference being an imported butter (I used Kerrygold Irish Butter to test the recipe). Now, butter in the States is graded according to flavor, color, texture, aroma and body and one easy way to tell the quality of the butter is by the letter code or numerical number listed on the butter's package. The highest grade is AA (93 score), then A (92 score), followed by B (90 score). Also, these shortbreads contain rice flour which gives the shortbread a more crumbly and tender texture. Rice flour is a fine gluten-free flour produced from white or brown rice. It can be found in some grocery stores or else health food stores. In the absence of rice flour you can use cornstarch (corn flour) which is a fine white powder that comes from the inner grain (endosperm) of corn.

It is the quality of the ingredients that make shortbread so decidedly delicious, and a lightness of touch in the making. Classic shortbread is made from only flour, butter and sugar, so that gives three opportunities for buying the best, or three chances to produce a disappointing biscuit. F. Marian McNeill writes in 'The Scots Kitchen’ that,

"Only the best ingredients should be used. The flour should be dried and sieved. The butter, which is the only moistening and shortening agent, should be squeezed free of all water. The sugar should be fine castor. Two other things are essential for success - the careful blending of the ingredients and careful firing." 


Jane Grigson suggests having in the kitchen a jar of plain flour mixed with rice flour or cornflour with a 3:1 proportion so that you have this to hand for biscuit making and for light sponge cakes. She helpfully notes that the proportion of ingredients for shortbread are 3:2:1 - flour:butter:sugar.

Advice also comes from ’The Baker’s Repository of Recipes - With Special Reference to Scottish Specialities’, published post-WWII by The British Baker to help reinvigorate the baking trade by providing a comprehensive collection of national recipes:

"Flour, butter, sugar, and sometimes eggs, was the order of the day at one time, but in shortbread making the type of ingredient used is the chief essential."

Scottish Shortbreads are made by hand using just one large bowl. An electric mixer is not needed. To make the shortbreads, first mix the flour with the rice flour and sugar. Next, very cold butter is grated over the flour mixture. Then, with your fingertips, take small handfuls of the mixture and gently rub the butter into the flour. Keep lifting and rubbing the butter and flour together until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs (you do not want a dough to form). Take the shortbread and place it in an eight inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Press into an even layer and prick the surface with the tines of a fork. The final step is to take a sharp knife and 'score' the top of the shortbread into 16 wedges. ('Score' means to lightly mark or make shallow cuts into the top surface of the shortbread with a sharp knife or prongs of a fork. Do not cut all the way through the pastry or bread. Scoring is done both for decorative purposes and as a way for gases to escape during baking.) Bake in a 300 degree F (150 degrees C) for about 40-50 minutes or until biscuit colored (watch carefully). Remove from oven, place on a wire rack to cool for five minutes before removing from tart pan. Place the shortbread round on a cutting board and cut each shortbread round into 16 wedges (along the lines scored). Cool completely on a wire rack.

Ingredients  

This ingredient quantities came from ‘A Cook’s Tour of Britain’, by the WI and Michael Smith (just a little more butter than Jane Grigson’s ratios), and the method I employed was from Marcus Wareing’s ‘How to Cook the Perfect...’

110g slightly salted butter (or unsalted butter with a pinch a salt) - use direct from fridge
50g caster sugar
150g plain flour
50g rice flour/ground rice
Method
1. Sift the flour into a bowl (along with the salt if you are using unsalted butter), and stir in the ground rice and sugar.
2. Put the bowl of dry ingredients on the scales and return the dial/reading to zero and (here is the clever bit) grate in 110g butter from a chilled block .
3. Work the grated butter quickly into the flour by rubbing first with the fingertips, and then between the palms of the hands. Once the mixture resembles breadcrumbs, stop.
4. Press the mix into a 20cm by 20cm square baking tin and level the surface. Chill in the fridge for about an hour.
5. Heat oven to 160C/320F/Gas 3, and then bake shortbread until light golden (about 40 minutes, but keep an eye on it).
6. Remove from oven and prick all over with a fork, then mark out into pieces (squares or fingers) cutting through to the bottom of the tin. Dust liberally with caster sugar, and then leave to cool in tin.


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