(Thistle and Stag platter from tamallama)
You don’t have to look any further than Girl Scout cookies to see that Americans woefully under-appreciate the simplest of cookies…the shortbread. Can you even name which one is the shortbread? Probably not. Girl Scout Trefoils (aha – the one with the faces on it) account for only 9% of their annual sales, but I like to think that the understated elegance of the shortbread cookie guarantees it will always remain on the list, even if it can’t compete with the Thin Mint in sales.
The building blocks of all shortbreads are butter, sugar, salt, and flour. Varying the amounts of these basic ingredients will yield different tastes and textures, but butter is the definite lead singer in this band. Shortbread should just about melt on your tongue, and you’ll savor the buttery heaven of it until you start to wonder exactly how much butter it took to achieve that degree of flavor. It’s best not to do this. In fact, you should just eat some more of it.
In for a penny, in for a pound.
Shortbread is credited to Scotland – and we all know I love just about anything Scottish. The abundance of butter makes for a crumbly cookie since it coats the flour and prevents it from forming solidifying gluten. This is how shortbread got its name – short means “easily crumbled”. Shortbread as we know it has been around for as long as dairy-farming and butter production has existed in Britain, but published records were slow to appear since cookbooks existed for those that could afford them, and ingredients like butter and oats (which were the basis for the original flour source) were considered foods of the poor.
I admit I was also slow to appreciate this wonderful treat. It wasn’t until I started spending time in lots of Scottish gift shops that I started eating shortbread – lots and lots of tartan-wrapped Walkers Shortbread (the best brand by a mile) that is sold in snack size packets next to every cash register in the whole of Scotland. Its traditional shapes are fingers (long rectangles), triangles, and rounds…but the at-home baker can also purchase beautiful ceramic molds that produce elaborate shortbread squares or triangles.
Shortbread can be flavored with the addition of herbs, citrus zest, or ground nuts. Because of its simplicity and the high butter content, shortbread makes a wonderful friend in the kitchen…as a garnish for ice cream, base for a pie or cheesecake crust, or crumbled for use in a trifle or cobbler. I was recently wowed by a variation that featured shortbread, covered with fresh peach slices, then more crumbled shortbread. It looked so good I had to make some to bring to John’s parents last weekend.
Summery peach slices.
Spread over the unbaked shortbread.
The peaches kind of steal the show from the shortbread here, but they make for a loyal (and delicious) companion.
Peach Shortbread Squares
(adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
1 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter
1 large egg
2 peaches, pitted and thinly sliced
- Preheat the oven to 375°F and butter a 9×13 inch pan.
- In a medium bowl, mix together sugar, baking powder, flour, salt and spices.
- Using a pastry blender or 2 knives, blend the butter and egg into the flour mixture. It will be crumbly.
- Pat 3/4 of the mixture into the bottom of the pan, pressing firmly.
- Arrange peach slices over crumb base in a single layer.
- Scatter remaining crumbs evenly over peaches and bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes, until top is slightly brown and you can see a little color around the edges.
- Cool completely in pan before cutting.
Another great usage of shortbread for the whisky lover is Cranachan – the Scottish dessert for grownups. There are probably variations, but the way my roommate in Edinburgh made it was to layer shortbread rounds in individual dessert cups with raspberries and homemade whipped cream liberally infused with Scottish whisky. I think you are also supposed to add toasted oatmeal to the top.
I should probably make this next…