March 4, 2007
The Best Shortbread in the World

shortbread.jpgWhen I was a young boy, we travelled as a family each year to stay with an old friend of my mother's (who I knew as Uncle Gen) who lived in an old farmhouse outside Ramsey on the Isle of Man.

I fell in love with that magical island from the moment I first saw it seemingly rise out of the Irish Sea before my eyes as I stood on the bow of the ferry from Liverpool, before we were "piped-in" to Douglas Harbour by a lone bagpiper somewhere in the hills above the capital of the island. Everything seemed so different on the island - the cats had no tails; the local folklore spoke of fairies and witches; celtic crosses abounded; and the hilly countryside and beautiful glens enchanted me.

Uncle Gen was a very special elderly man. Extremely kind and generous, and a wonderful friend to me, I grew to love him dearly. Although approaching 70 years of age, Uncle Gen was extremely fit, and would think nothing of hiking for five miles or more to help my brother and me find the best trout fishing spots in the glens, or vigorously digging for lugworms to use as bait for our hand-held fishing lines at the end of Ramsey pier. While a devout Christian, he was also an extremely practical man. He taught me how to gut fish quickly and effectively - a skill that I was able to demonstrate to Meg when we caught a couple of trout during our nostalgic trip back to the Isle of Man a few years ago. A keen fruit and vegetable gardener, Uncle Gen would also protect his produce from the numerous greedy rabbits and pigeons by shooting them through his letterbox (to help keep his aim steady) which was propped open with a fisherman's stick). He would then feast on the rabbit or pigeon with his home-grown vegetables, while being careful to avoid any pieces of metal shot in the meat! And my brother and I would have a regular supply of supposedly "lucky" rabbit foot charms, although I doubt the poor bunny would have thought there was much good fortune involved.

Uncle Gen was also an excellent cook, and on one rainy afternoon, he taught me how to make the best shortbreads in the world. That afternoon, he also taught me that certain recipes could be extremely hard work.

I had not made shortbreads for years, but my 13-year old daughter had obviously heard from her mother that I could bake a mean shortbread, as she asked me to make a batch during her visit a couple of weeks ago. Here is the recipe but before taking this on, please remember that I did say it was hard work

Ingredients

14 oz plain flour
2 oz cornflour
8 oz butter
4 oz caster sugar

Beat the butter until soft.
Sift and add the other ingredients.
Knead well until the mixture forms a dough.
Roll out the dough to around half an inch thick.

rolledshortbread.jpg

Cut into pieces. (I choose rectangular "fingers" and use a skewer to make domino-like marks on them.)

rawshortbread.jpg

Bake at 325 F for 40 minutes.
Cool on a baking tray (and sprinkle sugar on the biscuits if you wish).

That sounds simple, but kneading this dry mixture into a dough is extremely arduous, as it is essential that you add no liquid. Look at the above photo of the rolled dough, and you will get an idea of how dry the dough is - and how difficult it is therefore to bring it together.

But the rewards for the hard work are high. Not only did my daughter love the shortbreads, but our two-year old son also couldn't get enough of them. Even while his mouth was completely full of one crumbly biscuit melting in his mouth, he was demanding another!

boyshortbread.jpg

Enjoy.

Posted by The Critic at March 4, 2007 9:40 AM Print-friendly version
Comments

Thanks for the shortbread tip. I would have added a bit of water (as one does for pate brisee) and it wouldn't have turned out as well.

Posted by Susan in Italy on March 4, 2007 at 11:32 AM

As a proud mother, I'd also like to point out that these shortbreads were the catalyst for a new word in his vocabulary: GOOKIE!!! Yes, he already liked cookies but had not yet found one he liked so much it was worth asking for by name. And it's a bit ironic that he came up with this word for an English "biscuit"...to the amusement of his mother and chagrin of his dad!

Posted by Meg in Paris on March 4, 2007 at 11:45 AM

Bravo Steve! I hope I may sample them when I next come to Paris.

Posted by Meg's MOM on March 4, 2007 at 9:40 PM

International snooker star and chef par excellence - is there no end to The Critic's talents?

Posted by The Jet on March 5, 2007 at 2:15 AM

Good writing runs in both sides of the family...The Boy is bound to become a writer!
Enjoyed this nostaglic piece & would love to try to recipe. Just want to be sure that cornflour = corn starch and caster sugar is what we Yanks call granulated sugar.
Thanks!

Posted by Taina on March 9, 2007 at 11:48 AM

Taina, yes cornflour is the same as corn starch. I think here in France it's known as Maizena (though that may be the brand name?).

The English (and French) seem to have two grades of sugar where we Americans only have one to my knowledge. Caster sugar is "sucre en poudre" in France, but I think you can just use "normal" American sugar. The Critic tells me it's slightly more finely ground than crystal sugar, but nowhere near as fine as powdered sugar (US)/icing sugar (UK). All very confusing, no?

And as for the flour (a French friend asked me at dinner about it recently!) he used the Monoprix bio flour, which I am told is a) closest to US flour and b) similar to French type 65.

Whew!

Posted by Meg in Paris on March 20, 2007 at 1:45 AM

Thank you for the recipe. I don't know how I found this, but I just made it and it was very good. Just to be clear on the measurements - you measured by weighing these ingredients, yes? And it would be incorrect to replicate this recipe using a standard fluid oz = cups conversion, as the weights of the ingredients are all different?

Thanks in advance for the clarification :)

Posted by Brynn on July 22, 2008 at 12:07 PM

Brynn, sorry I just saw this question! Yes, the measurements are all weight, not volume. You'll need a scale to measure because, as you noted, different ingredients have different weights at the same volume. Hope that helps, even if it is a few months too late!

Posted by Meg in Paris on October 15, 2008 at 8:04 AM

When I was in the third grade (Cleveland Ohio USA) we had a teacher from Scotland who took the entire class to the school kitchen and baked a huge pan of shortbread. I was hooked. I am now 61 years old and still love shortbread. My recipe is simple for one batch. 1 pound of real salted butter softened...1 cup regular sugar...1 teaspoon vanilla...4 cups all purpose flour...mix butter, sugar, vanilla and slowly add flour...press into a pan 1/2 inche thick, make fork dents in top..bake at 325 for about 1/2 hour or until litely golden on top..do not over bake...as soon as you take them out of the oven cut them into finger long shapes, 1" by 3" if you wait till they cool they will crumble. I get raves on them and requests at every bake sale and cook out. They melt in your mouth. Powdered sugar on top optional. I always double the recipe.

Posted by RUBY Kloss on June 24, 2009 at 2:56 PM

Thank you for sharing this recipe - I am going to make it for this Christmas to include in our tins of cookies for gifts :) All the best,

Daryl

Posted by Daryl O. on December 15, 2009 at 5:32 PM

This recipe sounds great! But i'm wondering if it would still be as good if I made them into small rounds. (rolled into 1/2 inch ballls and flattened with my thumb) Will the shape affect the quality of the shortbread?

Posted by Lucy on December 16, 2009 at 5:05 PM

Walker's Shortbread comes in several shapes with the same taste so my guess is that the shape makes no difference.

Posted by Nancy on December 22, 2009 at 7:14 PM

Personally, I would use a round cutter rather than moulding them by hand - that way you will ensure an even thickness throughout each biscuit.

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