Scotland’s national biscuit is renowned for its melting texture and buttery taste. The original shortbread was probably the ‘biscuit bread’ of medieval times. Leftover dough from bread making was left in a low oven to dry out until it was rather like a type of rusk. (The word ‘biscuit’ means ‘twice cooked’.) Gradually, over the years, this ‘biscuit bread’ lost its yeast and became a type of shortbread. This type of food was not daily fare for the majority of people; only the wealthy could afford the costly ingredients. For the ordinary man and woman, shortbread was a holiday treat, reserved for important feasts such as Christmas.
In 1561 Mary Stuart arrived in Scotland from France, to claim the Scottish crown. She brought with her the customs and foods of the French court. One of these customs was to have several courses to a meal, ending with a sweet course, which was eaten in another room. Previously, all the food, both savoury and sweet, had been put on the table together. Mary and her court greatly enjoyed sweet things, and sugar, although very expensive, was an important ingredient.
Little sweet cakes were a particular favourite of Mary Queen of Scots. These are still famous today as Petticoat Tails, a thin buttery shortbread, crisper than traditional Scottish shortbread and originally flavoured with caraway seeds. There are several explanations of how this shortbread got its name.
1. That the cakes were originally called ‘Pettycotes Talus’. Cotes were little cases (in this instance, of pastry) Cut into triangles. Talus or tallys were cuts made in a stick to keep a measure or record. Tallis came to mean a cut-out pattern. Petticoat Tails always have a small circle cut separately in the middle, so that the points of each piece won’t crumble off when the cake is divided.
2. The little French cakes were called at the time ‘Petits Galettes’, and Petticoat Tails is a corruption of this.
3. The triangles of shortbread fit together in a circle and were the same shape as the full-gored petticoats worn by the court ladies of the time. The word for a pattern was ‘tally’ – hence petticoat tails.
Many dishes in French and Scottish cookery became closely related and professional bakers (known then as ‘baxters’) in Scottish towns used French methods and recipes. Wheat flour, fresh butter and sugar were expensive, but the bakers were patronized by the wealthy and so could afford to use the very best ingredients. It was said that only the French and Viennese bakers surpassed the bakers of Edinburgh.
As the prices of wheat flour and sugar fell, and ovens developed, more baking was done by women in the home. Each region of Scotland developed its own type of shortbread, varying in shape and thickness. Ayrshire shortbread contains cream, while Pitcaithly Bannock is a rich shortbread made with almonds and candied peel.
Carved wooden moulds are traditionally used for moulding Scottish shortbread. Lightly oil the mould with cooking oil and sprinkle with flour; shake off the excess flour and press the dough into the mould. Turn out onto a flat baking tray before baking. Flour the mould again and repeat with the remaining dough. Don’t worry if you don’t have a mould, a cake tin will do just as well.
Only butter should be used when making shortbread – margarine doesn’t give such a good result. The more butter the shortbread contains, the ‘shorter’ and crumblier the shortbread.
225 g / 8 oz unsalted or sweet butter
110 g / 4 oz Golden Caster sugar (substitute granulated sugar)
350 g / 12 oz plain flour, sifted
50 g / 2 oz blanched almonds, chopped
1 tablespoon caraway seeds, optional
25 g / 1 oz candied peel, chopped
Knead the sugar and butter together. Gradually work in the flour, almonds and caraway seeds until the mixture forms a soft dough. Shape into a thick round (the thickness is a matter of preference, but thicker will take longer to cook) and place on a lightly greased baking tray. Press the candied peel into the top and bake for 30 to 60 minutes Gas2/150°C/300°F, until cooked through.