I have been making shortbread as a Christmas gift for many years now. I have no recollection of where this particular recipe came from, but I have always enjoyed the fact it is not too sweet and has a lovely firm crunch to the biscuit. On many occasions I have tried to make it in fancy round shapes, but this is not a recipe that will bend to that whim. It is for tray-baking alone.
One of the things I love about it is the gritty quality the rice flour gives it. Which raises the question: Where did the ancient Scots get rice flour from?
Down a rabbit hole I have gone into Scottish cuisine to find the answer. It seems that some historians feel English food and Scottish food developed along different trajectories. The reason for this was that British food was influenced by the Roman conquest, but since the Romans didn’t get as far north as Scotland, there was no such influence there.
The concept of shortbread originated when leftover bread dough was baked with a little sweetening into hard rusks. This in turn morphed into butter being added to doughs to make them even more of a treat.
Scottish food’s next great influencer was the French court in the time of Mary, Queen of Scots and the Auld Alliance where the influence of French pastry chefs held a little sway. However, the ratio of one part butter to two cups of flour meant it was a treat for very special occasions, such as Christmas and weddings, or only for very special people. It always makes me realise how much our diets have changed when you consider you would have to eat one-sixth of the total biscuits in this recipe to consume the same amount of sugar that’s in a single can of cola.
At no point have I been able to determine the use or the source of rice flour. Perhaps it was once semolina that was used, which at some point has been substituted by rice flour. Regardless of why or how, this is a simple yet delicious biscuit that makes a great gift at Christmas. With the added sincerity of it being a traditional Christmas treat.
Makes about 48 biscuits
Time: 1 hour preparation and cooking
585g or 3½ cups plain flour
100g or ½ cup rice flour
450g or 2 cups softened unsalted butter, cut into cubes
250g or 1 cup icing sugar
sugar for sprinkling
- Preheat the oven to 160ºC.
- Line a 38-centimetre x 25-centimetre sheet pan or two 23-centimetre square tins with baking paper.
- Sift the flours and salt together and set aside.
- Place the butter in a stand mixer and fit the paddle attachment. Beat the butter until it is soft and fluffy. Add the icing sugar and beat again until very light and fluffy. Turn the machine off, add the flour mix all at once and beat in on a low speed until just amalgamated. Do not over mix. The mixture will look dry and crumbly, which is okay. Use a spatula to lift any butter and sugar mix stuck at the bottom of the mixing bowl into the body of the ingredients.
- Tip the contents of the mixing bowl into the prepared pan(s). It will look very rough. Push it into the pan with the flat of your hand to make a relatively even surface. This can be done by rolling a bottle or glass over the mix, but I find the body heat from my hand helps the process along.
- Once flattish, prick with a fork all over. Place in the middle of the oven and bake for about 45 minutes, checking sooner if using smaller tins. You are looking for an even golden colour and for the biscuits to be cooked right through.
- Remove from the oven and immediately sprinkle with sugar, then cut into fingers with a cook’s knife. Cool in the tin and then place in an airtight container.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 20, 2021 as "Short and not too sweet".
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