Delightful, comforting, sweet, crumbly and delicious. And of course Scottish, are the first couple of words the co-cooks around me squeaked when I told them that today we'd be making shortbread. I don't generally run a cooking school from my house, but this guest, and her accompanying mini-guest had arrived early, so they were going to have to be part of the cooking experience as well as part of the eating experience.
Despite being positioned firmly in the 'luxury' section of the biscuit isle, shortbread can be made out of three ingredients, butter, plain flour and caster sugar. And can be 'whipped up' – or more correctly in this case, 'beaten up' – in under 30 minutes. I have no idea why supermarkets charge so much for it – but possibly because the best shortbreads are made with good quality butter.
The trick with shortbread is getting that perfect crunch that crumbles. Which seems to be partly to do with how the butter's handled, and partly to do with how long it's in the oven for and how far from pale yellow it's allowed to become. Some recipes demand that you work the butter and batter in your hands, but the heat in your hands can make the butter very oily and the mixture slimy, so my Grandma, and more publicly Delia, suggest that you work the butter with a wooden spoon rather than your hands, only touching the batter when you're laying it out into a tin or on a tray at the end.
But that's getting a ahead of ourselves, first we need to measure out our ingredients: - 175g of good quality butter at room temperature 75g of golden caster sugar, but keep the jar handy so you can dust a little more over the finished cookies 175g plain flour 75g fine semolina It's not an ingredient as such, but you also need a round pie or flan tin with a loose base, about 20cms in diameter – traditionally shortbread is made in wedges, rather charmingly called petticoat tails.
Step 1: Preheat your oven to 150°C. Beat the butter with a wooden spoon until it's soft, then sprinkle in the caster sugar on top of it.
Step 2: Sift in the flour and semolina as you continue to beat with the spoon until everything has combined. It helps to press the dough against the sides of the bowl to pick up the loose flour. If you're having trouble getting the mixture smooth you can get in there with your hands, but don't handle it too much, just make sure that everything in the bowl ends up in your knob of pastry.
Step 3: Sprinkle a bit of flour onto a big chopping board or work surface and drop your dough onto it and give it a bit of a roll around. While you're sprinkling flour places you should also sprinkle up your tin.
Step 4: Flatten your dough into a round shape about the same size as your tin, then transfer it in, pushing it right into the edges and pressing it out flat. If you're a perfectionist you can roll a drinking glass around the top to get the dough flat and to avoid too much hand to hand handling. If you're not using a pan with fancy fluted edges then use the tips of your fingers to push ridges into the 'tails' of the petticoats, i.e. to make the edges pretty. You also need to pierce your shortbread with a fork several times – but do it in a decorative way – to stop the centre of it rising.
Step 5: Put your tin into the oven on the centre shelf. Check it after an hour but be prepared to leave it in for longer, until it feels firm in the middle and it's a good goldy lemon colour, then whisk it out of the oven and use a knife to mark out your 12 wedges, not cutting though the shortbread totally, just cutting deep enough so that it will be easy to cut later.
Step 6: Once it's cooled down cut the wedges all the way through and give them a good licking of golden caster sugar.
Shortbread makes for an excellent gift to take with you to dinner parties, or for Christmas, fêtes or fairs – if you want to make yours portable remember to wrap it up nice and tight so that it doesn't get soggy.
...It's also fun to make when guests arrive early. Even if they have little ones with them, as there's not much you can do wrong with sifting and beating.