This lovely, flaky dessert is associated with Scotland. The Scottish shortbread recipe we're providing dates from the early 19th century and is still the classic formulation, with flour, butter, and sugar in the ratio of 8:4:2. The butter you make at home has more fat than butter you buy, and results in a lighter, crisper shortbread.
Short crust pastries don’t puff up during baking, and are notoriously difficult to amalgamate into dough. Often, the butter and flour just don’t want to bind. But homemade butter usually has residual water from the washing process, which commercial butter does not. With the higher fat and water content, making a shortbread dough with one’s own butter is a dream — the dough comes together effortlessly. However, if the dough frustrates you, change the proportion to 7:4:2. For a fun variation on traditional shortbread, use rose water for the final wash of your butter: Your shortbread will have a lovely perfume.
8 ounces (2 scant cups) unbleached pastry flour
4 ounces (1/4 pound) butter, cool, but not refrigerated hard
2 ounces (1/4 cup) sugar
Optional: rose water for the butter’s final rinse
Instructions: Mix the flour and sugar on a work surface, then dot with pieces of cool butter. (Think of the room temperature of an unheated Scottish farmhouse.) With your fingertips, incorporate the mixture until it resembles bread crumbs. Then using the palm of your hand, spread out the dough, forcing the flour to bind with the dough. Gather and repeat three to four times, until you can form a ball of dough. If the dough remains unworkably crumbly, sprinkle with 1 to 2 teaspoons of water, and knead again. Shape into a ball and let rest in a cool place, covered, for 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 250 degrees Fahrenheit. On a floured surface, flatten the dough into a disk about a finger thick, and mark off 8 wedges with the tines of a fork pressed clear through the dough. You can also add decorations with your fork, if you like. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for an hour. (Traditional shortbread is sometimes first pressed into a wooden mold carved with the shape of a thistle.) The shortbread should not brown. When done, remove from the oven, cool on a wire rack, break into wedges, and serve with tea. Serves 4 to 8, depending on whether or not you can stop with just one piece!
William Rubel is an author and cook specializing in traditional cooking. He is also the author of The Magic of Fire.