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Issue 23 - Making short work of it...

Scotland Magazine Issue 23
October 2005

 

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Making short work of it...

Shortbread is a national treasure, and Sue Lawrence can't resist it. Here she extols its versatility

There I was, all trussed up in white coat, matching hat and snood, watching the Prickle Dockers at work. But as I watched them being rolled with great speed across the tray of dough then rolled back in the other direction, I could hardly concentrate on anything apart from the aroma.

To paraphrase Burns, “Oh what a glorious smell.” Sweet, buttery, homely and utterly tantalising.

Eat your heart out, Charlie Bucket. Nothing – not even an entire chocolate factory – could smell as alluring as warm, freshly-baked shortbread.

The smell was not simply one of the most pleasing in the world, it was also a direct link back to my childhood, to those garden fétes and church fairs in the endless summers of youth, where I would stand in long queues to buy tablet, home-made macaroon bars and shortbread.

Shortbread, whose enticing aroma had wafted to my nostrils as it baked in my mother’s or friends’ mothers’ kitchens.

That warm, buttery aroma was childhood’s neverending summer; the taste was pure Proust. It escapes me why anyone, given the choice between a dry old madeleine and a melt-in-the-mouth, buttery piece of ‘shortie’, would choose the French offering.

But before I extol the question of taste, I must reveal the location of my shortbread epiphany .

The town of Huntly in rural Aberdeenshire is where, back in 1975, Helen Dean decided to bake shortbread to raise money for the Huntly pipe band of which her husband was drum major. It was so popular that soon Helen opened her own small bakery and eventually, in 1992, moved to a purposebuilt bakery on the outskirts of town.

But the wonderful thing about this shortbread, as oppose to others that are mass-produced (prepared and baked in less than 40 minutes), Deans shortbread is made in exactly the same way as home-made. And indeed those fists clenched around the Prickle Dockers are testimony to the fact it is hand-made.

So just as the home baker brings the butter to room temperature before beating with the sugar, so the salted Scottish butter ‘tempers’ for a few hours before being mixed with sugar, then flour and cornflour are added and it is mixed ‘just until its ready’.

According to the bakers, there is no specific time given; it is all judged by experience. (The small proportion of cornflour not only gives the melting texture, it also helps lower the gluten). It is then pressed into large baking trays, trimmed by hand, then the Prickle Dockers – rollers with large hedgehog-like prickles all over – are rolled back and forth to give the shortbread its characteristic pricks (and you thought I had made the word up.) There are also moulds for petticoat tails, the classic round of eight thin wedges with their prettily scalloped border. And then both shortbread dough trays and round petticoat tails are baked.

And again, just like shortbread baked at home, it is baked long and slow, so there is no crisp outside and raw inside, like some fast-baked commercial brands.

This is just like home-baked: evenly cooked, buttery and soft and yet crisp outside.

It is, for me, a taste of the past and yet, reassuringly, a taste of the present for this is what good Scottish shortbread is all about: three basic ingredients, slowly mixed and then baked even more slowly.

I am ashamed to confess, however that I do not continue the adherence to slow food as I eat.

With the speed of a Prickle Docker, I am happy to wolf down the exquisite buttery mouthfuls before drawing breath, all the while thanking the Good Lord for one of Scotland’s greatest culinary gifts to the world, shortbread.

SHORTBREAD

225g / 8 oz butter (slightly salted)
100g / 31/2 oz golden caster sugar + extra
225g / 8 oz plain flour
100 g / 31/2 oz cornflour

1. Soften the butter slightly then place in a food mixer with the sugar and cream them together until pale: this will take at least 3-5 minutes or double that time if beaten by hand.

2. Sift in the flour and cornflour and process very briefly – until just brought together. Do not over process.

3. Tip into a lightly buttered 23 x 33 cm / 9 x 13” swiss-roll tin. Using floured hands, press down all over to level the surface.

4. Prick all over with a fork then bake at 150ºC / 300ºF / Gas 2 for 45-50 minutes, or until pale golden brown.

5. Shake over some sugar from a dredger then cut into squares or fingers. Leave for 5-10 minutes on a wire rack to cool completely.

1799 SHORTBREAD

I have adapted this from a recipe I found in a hand-written book from 1799, by a minister’s wife in Erskine near Glasgow. (I confess the curator at the National Library of Scotland had to transcribe it for me, from the beautiful but almost illegible script!)

225 g / 8 oz butter, slightly softened
100g / 31/2 oz golden caster sugar + extra
200g / 7 oz plain flour, sifted
100g / 31/2 oz rice flour /ground rice
1 heaped tsp caraway seeds
40g / 11/2 oz finely chopped almonds the grated zest 1 small orange

1. Soften the butter slightly then place in a food mixer with the sugar. Cream until pale: this will take at least 3-5 minutes or double that time if beaten by hand.

2. Sift in the flour and rice flour and the flavourings and process briefly – until just brought together. Do not over process.

3. Tip into a lightly buttered 23 x 33 cm / 9 x 13” swiss-roll tin. Using floured hands, press down all over to level the surface. Prick all over with a fork then bake at 150ºC / 300ºF / Gas 2 for 40-45 minutes, or until uniformly pale golden brown.

4. Shake over some sugar from a dredger then cut into squares or fingers. Leave for 5-10 minutes then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.

WARM SHORTBREAD, PISTACHIO AND CHOCOLATE MOUSSE CAKE

Serve this exquisitely gooey pudding barely warm with crème fraiche and perhaps some fresh raspberries, depending on the season.

350g / 12 oz dark chocolate ( min 70 per cent cocoa solids)
200g / 7 oz butter
3 large free-range eggs
300 g / 101/2 oz golden caster sugar
125g / 41/2 oz shortbread, broken up (not crumbed)
100g / 31/2 oz pistachios

1. Melt the chocolate and butter together.

2. Beat the eggs and sugar together until thick and pale (4-5 minutes in a food mixer; 8-10 minutes by hand).

3. Fold the egg mixture into the chocolate then fold into the shortbread and nuts. Once combined, tip into a base-lined, greased 23cm / 9” springform cake tin.

4. Bake at 170ºC / 325ºF / Gas 3 for 45 minutes until still a little wobbly in the middle. Remove to a wire rack and leave for an hour before serving in wedges.