The Compulsion to Bake


Every year, around the beginning of December I feel the need to bake. Yes, I get the Christmas cookie itch. Doesn’t everyone who celebrates Christmas? One particular type of cookie has always been a tradition – my Mom used to make them every year when we were kids – Shortbread. I also think the need to combine copious amounts of butter and sugar is in my Scottish blood! I love shortbread but the funny thing is, I rarely eat it and definitely don’t bake it any other time of the year. This makes it a special treat now.

The one trick about Shortbread is its hard to find a good, traditional recipe. I have been fortunate enough to have a father who enjoys collecting rare and used books and he found me the ultimate Scottish cookbook. Its called “The Highlander’s Cookbook: Recipes from Scotland”. In it exists the easiest, undiluted Shortbread recipe and it tastes divine! I find people tend to play with shortbread recipes, trying to either make them better or different. They add chocolate, they put jam in them, they use bizarre sugars, and all sorts of other things. You can’t do this. They may be good cookies, but they’re not shortbread! So, I have decided to share with you this wonderful recipe.

(Recipe from The Highlander’s Cookbook: Recipes from Scotland. Sheila MacNiven Cameron. New York, 1966)  

  • 1 lb sweet butter (2 cups)
  • 1 cup powdered sugar
  • 3 cups sifted flour
  • 1 cup rice flour (if not using rice flour, use 4 cups sifted flour total)
Cream the butter and add the sugar gradually. Blend well but don’t overwork it or let the butter become oily. Gradually work in the flour (I have found that 3/4 cup of cornstarch works as an excellent subsitute for the one cup of rice flour, if that doesn’t bother the purists too much).

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board to pat out. (Here’s another trick: Use part confectioners sugar and part flour to “flour” your board, for better results.) For a traditional look, pat the dough into two circles about 3/4 inch thick. Pinch the edges and prick all over with a fork. Place on a baking sheet. Then, especially if the day or kitchen has been warm, put the shortbread in the refrigerator or freezer for half an hour.

Set oven at 375 degrees F. Bake shortbread at this temperature for five minutes then lower the temperature to 300 degrees and continue baking for 45 to 60 minutes. When done, shortbread should be golden but not browned at all. Cut into wedges while still warm. Makes about 32.

Shortbread “cookies” can also be made which, although not as traditional, are perhaps more satisfactory for entertaining. For these, pat the dough out to 1/4 to 1/2 inch thickness. Cut in quite smalle rounds (no larger than 1 1/2 inches in diameter), prick each one twice with a fork, chill, and bake for a total of perhaps 20 minutes. Makes about 75.

Isobel’s Notes: 
  1. Don’t use margarine. “The distinctive flavor of shortbread depends most emphatically on butter.” 
  2. Use your hands to mix in the flour. Its much easier than trying to wade a spoon through it.
  3. You may also pat the dough out on top of a piece of parchment – this makes transferring it to the cookie sheet much easier.
  4. If you have a stoneware baking stone, use it. It will cut down on the chances of the shortbread browning too much.
  5. My oven is 20 years old so I watched the shortbread like a hawk to make sure it didn’t brown too much. I ended up taking it out after 35 minutes.
  6. Don’t wear black while making shortbread. 🙂

Enjoy and slainte mhor agad!


4 thoughts on “The Compulsion to Bake

  1. I like that you have a history with your mom behind the recipe! That must make them even more special to you. It’s kind of like, in my house, we insist that playing the right music while cooking makes the food even better. Oh those outside ingredients!


  2. Joanne, the cookies are particularly special because Mom passed away a few years ago. Music is a great way to cook – I do that quite often too! I think it puts you in the mood to cook instead of listening to the hum of the fridge behind you!! 🙂


  3. I love shortbread. I discovered it when I was in Scotland during college. I made it once and it was good. The second time I burned the heck out of it.

    Now I want shortbread. : )

    Melody Platz


  4. Melody, its very easy to burn shortbread…thus my suggestion to watch it like a hawk!! 🙂 Glad I could entice your tastebuds! Thanks for dropping by.


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