Shortbread, that divinely buttery and crumbly simple cookie, is a long-time staple of Scottish cooks. The recipe was probably created in the 12th century but is generally attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots in the 16th century.
Scottish Shortbread has a Royal History
Most people know shortbread is a type of biscuit, but did you realize the word ‘biscuit’ means ‘twice baked’? Leftover bread was baked again with sugar and spices into a toasty-crunchy piece of twice-baked bread – medieval biscuit bread, or biscuits. Eventually, butter replaced the yeast in medieval biscuit bread, and shortbread was born. Historians speculate that either the Mary, Queen of Scots’ love for petits côtes (small pointed cookies eaten with wine) or current clothing trends influenced the first shortbread shape and name (petticoat tails).
Nowadays, bakers make shortbread in one of three shapes: petticoat tails (triangular wedges), rectangular fingers, or the more traditional round cookie shape.
Shortbread is Traditionally Served at Christmas and Hogmanay
The first written reference to a shortbread recipe was in a 1736 cookbook by Mrs. McLintock. Shortbread recipes originally included a variety of extra ingredients. Bakers often added items like spices, candied and dried fruits, or possibly caraway seeds. Apparently, the Queen’s favorite shortbread included caraway seeds. Traditions involving this Scottish sweet? Shortbread is served both at Christmas and Hogmanay – to family and friends at Christmas, and first footers and later guests at Hogmanay.
Weddings too. Shortbread was traditionally broken over the bride’s head – either by the groom at the wedding or by participants – as the bride walked into her new home. If the shortbread crumbled (spoiler: it nearly always did), the marriage would be fruitful and successful. Now, people are more likely to give shortbread as wedding favors.
No matter what shape or event you choose, these traditional Scottish cookies are simple and, like a culinary little black dress, perfect for nearly every occasion. Bake a batch and share with your housemates, family, neighbors, and guests. Or eat it all yourself! It’s yummy enough to devour with a cup of afternoon tea, with fruit as a dessert, or with a wee dram of Scottish whisky after a Scottish repast.
If you’re interested in more from Scotland, try these delicious recipes.
Betty’s Traditional Scottish Shortbread
- 6 oz unsalted butter
- 3 oz caster sugar
- 7 oz plain flour
- 2 oz corn starch
- pinch salt
- Preheat oven to 150°C/300°F.
- Cream the butter/fats and sugar thoroughly (food processor is easier to use than a mixer if you keep your fats well-chilled).
- Mix flour, corn starch and salt thoroughly.
- Thoroughly combine dry ingredients with wet.
- Knead well (in your food processor or on your rolling mat).
- Press well into cake pan, and prick with fork and mark into trianglar sections.
- Bake in oven for 1½ hours/90 minutes. Open the oven once after ½ hour to re-mark the sections.
- Remove from oven and sprinkle with additional caster sugar.
Start planning your trip