Well, I thought I had documented this recipe somewhere before, but I could not find the entire process anywhere. So, this is it! I was reading food magazines and cookbooks when I was a kid (along with comic books). In 1983, Cuisine Magazine printed an article called “My Father’s Scottish Shortbread”. It was a beautiful remembrance of a woman’s Father and his tradition of making Scottish shortbread, by hand, and how he passed it along to her. I kept that magazine and faithfully re-read the article every year and followed the process religiously for decades. Eventually, I lost the magazine. Then, with age, my hands started having trouble with creaming the sugar into cold butter and then working in the flour. I have, in the last few years, adapted to using my KitchenAid mixer to make the dough.
You just have to make sure the butter doesn’t warm and soften, or it will separate. Once you start the dough, you need to work steadily until it is back in the refrigerator.
Also, the tradition was to make the shortbread only between around November through February or March. This was when the cows were brought in from pasture for the Winter and they switched from eating a variety of plants to eating grain. “Summer milk” is less consistently flavored than “Winter milk”, so goes the butter. However, with today’s milk production practices, that isn’t really true anymore…unless you get your milk from a friend’s cow and make your own butter.
The recipe is deceptively simple. Just four ingredients. But the process is a little more intense. And, unless you are really good or have someone make you a frame, the dough may not have the same dimensions every time. The important part is to get the thickness pretty uniform, about 3/8″, and the length and width in dimensions the one side can be marked off in one inch increments and the other side in two inch increments.
Then you use a straight edge and score the pieces and mark each with the tines of a fork, three times. This is both for decoration and prevents the dough from puffing up during baking. I roll my dough on parchment or wax paper.
Make sure you have a refrigerator shelf clear and transfer the dough to it. I carefully slide my dough onto a cutting board to move it to the fridge.
The dough needs to chill for at least 30 minutes; otherwise, the cookies will spread when they bake. When ready, you carefully break into pieces and bake.
1 lb real Butter (I use lightly salted)
1 cup Sugar
4 cups unbleached All Purpose Flour
1 teaspoon Salt (1/2 tsp, if using salted butter)
Cream the sugar in the cold butter, until well blended, but still cold. Add the flour until the dough is starting to come together. It will be crumbly. Don’t overwork it. Using you hands, press it all together and compact it into a dough. Overlap a couple of pieces of wax or parchment paper. Roll dough out and form a rectangle about 3/8″ thick and about 10″x 15″. That can vary. See notes above. Mark 1″ x 2″ pieces, score the dough and prick each piece three times with the tines of a fork. Transfer to refrigerator for a minimum of 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Put the dough on ungreased cookie sheets leaving an inch or so between them. Pop in the oven and set the timer for 30 minutes.
Immediately turn oven temperature down to 275F. Do not open the door for 30 minutes! What you are looking for is a sand color for the tops and lightly browned on the bottom.
You make have some ready before others, depending on size and thickness. It may take 40 to 50 minutes to finish cooking each batch. Reheat oven before the next batch goes in, but don’t forget to adjust it back down as soon as the dough goes in the oven. Remove to wire racks to cool. They smell great, but need to cool to really be good. Enjoy!