Simply shortbread

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

A newspaper in Scotland recently carried a story about a shopkeeper who used shortbread to make short work of a would-be robber. * When the hooligan pulled a knife on her, she dispatched him wielding a four pound tin of Walker's shortbread, which she threw at him as he fled the premises.

I've never contemplated robbery, but I suspect that if I were in that line of work I'd consider a job that netted nothing but four pounds of Scottish shortbread a successful heist.

That's because when it comes to cookies there's hardly anything more luxurious than shortbread, despite, or maybe because of, what columnist Jane Dornbusch calls its Zen-line simplicity. It doesn't need chocolate chips, nuts, or fancy frosting to make an impact, just three basic ingredients: butter, sugar and flour. No wonder food writer Stephanie Jaworski calls it the culinary equivalent of the perfect black dress -- equally good dressed up or plain, always in style, and suitable for any occasion.

And there's no more suitable occasion for serving shortbread than Christmas. In fact, in Scotland, the holiday would not be complete without it. Indeed, originally shortbread was served there only at Christmas and on New Year's Eve.

Written recipes for shortbread go back only to Elizabethan times, though it was being made long before that. It's actually a contemporary version of an ancient New Year's cake baked in honor of the sun. These cakes, emanating from Scotland's connections to Scandinavia, had a hole in the center and symmetrical lines all around representing sun rays. Today the pattern, still found on modern Scottish shortbread, provides a convenient guide for cutting the cookie into wedges.

Though nowadays we rightly think of shortbread as luxurious because of its reliance on expensive butter, that was not always the case. As food historian C. Anne Wilson notes, in medieval times butter was regarded as food for the poor given that it was in ready supply on the farm. This helps explain why recipes for shortbread did not appear until the 16th century when butter began to be widely used by an emerging middle class. Oats too were a staple of the poorer classes, so, not surprisingly, early versions of shortbread contained oatmeal as well. (The term "short" refers, of course, to shortbread's crumbly texture, the result of all the butter used in its making.)

In Scotland and the rest of the British Isles there are about as many varieties of shortbread as there are bakers. In Ayshire they add egg yolk and cream for extra richness; in Dorset they put in demerara sugar; in Cupar, oatmeal; in Pitcaithly, almonds and crystallized fruit; and in the village of Goosnargh in Lancashire, coriander and caraway seeds. In Edinburgh they prefer petticoat tails (shaped like bell-hoop petticoats), which originated there around the 12th century.

All of these variations are no doubt familiar to Jeanette Lawson, the office manager at Southeast Missouri State University's public radio station, KRCU. Originally hailing from Campbelltown on the west coast of Scotland, she well remembers her grandmother making shortbread for special occasions, particularly the holidays. (Like the earliest shortbread makers she often added oatmeal to her recipe.) Though Jeanette married an American and has lived in this country for nearly 20 years, she hasn't forgotten her Scottish roots. This time of year she and her daughters, Ashleigh (note the Gaelic spelling) and Nicole, can be found in the kitchen keeping the centuries-old Scottish shortbread tradition alive. Mary Queen of Scots, who loved the stuff, would approve.

Chocolate Caramel Shortbread

Jeanette Lawson's grandmother used to make this cookie back in Scotland as a special treat at Christmas. Because it is so rich, it is sometimes called Millionaire's Shortbread.


2 cups flour

2 sticks butter, divided

1/2 cup sugar

5 tablespoons brown sugar

1 can (14 oz.) condensed milk

1 cup chocolate chips


Rub together 1 and 1/2 sticks of butter with the flour until mixture resembles bread crumbs. Stir in sugar. Pat mixture into a parchment-lined 9-inch square pan and bake at 340 degrees for 35 minutes or until golden brown. While base cools, combine remaining 1/2 stick butter, brown sugar, and condensed milk and bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring constantly. Continue to cook until filling thickens. Spread over base and allow to cool completely. Melt chocolate and spread over filling. Let chocolate cool and harden before cutting into squares or rectangles.

Listen to A Harte Appetite at 8:49 a.m. Fridays on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or e-mail to tharte@semissourian. com.

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