Old Time Recipe: Shortbread

Old Time Recipe: Shortbread

Shortbread Cookies/Biscuits and Butter Cookies

Traditional Recipes from our European Immigrant Ancestors

Classic Shortbread Finger Biscuits

Classic Shortbread Finger Biscuits

Shortbread is a most traditional cookie (biscuit, if you’re from the U.K.) enjoyed by our immigrant ancestors. Similar to Butter Cookies in Scandinavia, this delicious, simple cookie is common in most of our great-grandmothers (and great-great-great grandmother’s) repertoire.

It’s simple. One part white sugar. Two parts butter. Three parts (wheat) flour. “Parts” are measured by weight.

For example, this simple shortbread cookie recipe’s quantities (almost) follow the 1:2:3 rule:

INGREDIENTS

  •   1/2 cup granulated sugar
  •   1 cup butter, softened
  •   2 cups flour

(OK. It’s not quite 1:2:3, but close)

INSTRUCTIONS

Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy; gradually stir in flour until well blended. Spread or pat in an ungreased 13x9x2-inch baking pan. Bake at 300° for 30 to 40 minutes, until just lightly browned. Remove from oven and immediately pierce all over with a fork. Cut into bars. Cool completely before removing from pan. Makes about 3 dozen cookies.

The simple ingredients are combined until well blended, shaped (typically into individual cookie rounds or into “fingers”, 3/4-inch thick and rectangular [as with the recipe provided, above], or baked into one round and cut upon removal from oven). Part of the preparation process is to prick dough with with tines of a fork. Recipes I’ve seen haven’t given the reason for pricking dough, but as a baker, I assume it’s so air bubbles aren’t trapped inside the hot cookie, disrupting the uniform thickness.

Note the absence of eggs, baking powder, and baking soda. Without leavening agents, the cookie doesn’t spread or rise and maintains the precise shape the pastry chef desires. They’re baked in a cool oven (low temperature) with the objective of not turning them golden brown. Perfect shortbread is pale, crisp, a little bit flaky and tender, and frankly–delicious.

“Shortbread is generally associated with and originated in Scotland. Due to its popularity it is also made in the remainder of the United Kingdom, and similar biscuits are also made in Denmark, Ireland and Sweden. The Scottish version is the best-known, and Walkers Shortbread is Scotland’s largest food exporter.” [Source: Wikipedia]

Here’s one of those similar biscuit (a.k.a. cookies, in America) recipes attributed to Denmark.

PEBBER NODDER (Danish Christmas Cookies)

“These cookies are like little bites of Christmas. Cinnamon and cardamom flavor these little shortbread nuggets.”

INGREDIENTS

  •   1 cup butter
  •   1 cup sugar
  •   2 eggs
  •   2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  •   1 teaspoon ground cardamom
  •   1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, or to taste

INSTRUCTIONS

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).

In a large bowl, mix together the butter and sugar until smooth. Beat in the eggs one at a time, stirring until light and fluffy. Combine the flour, cardamom and cinnamon; stir into the sugar mixture just until blended.

Separate the dough into 6 balls, and roll each ball into a rope about as big around as your finger on a lightly floured surface. Cut into 1/2-inch pieces, and place them on an ungreased baking sheet.

Bake for 10 minutes in the preheated oven, or until lightly browned. Cool on baking sheets for a few minutes, then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Note: Notice this particular shortbread cookie recipe does include eggs, but no baking powder, baking soda, or salt.

Q&A

Question: Why does an author of historical fiction care about cookie recipes–even old fashioned ones?

Answer: Top 5 Reasons Why I care about Old Fashioned Cookie Recipes–

  1.   Authenticity, including baking practices and recipes handed down from generation to generation.
  2.   Accuracy. The more I know about the time period, the better. I can’t have baking powder on my character’s shopping list if no one used baking powder on the Kansas frontier in 1870.
  3.   Fictional Characters have to eat, too. Might as well ensure they’re eating types of foods available in the American West. Mention of food or meals might be brief or might be significant… but whatever makes it into the final draft must be a true reflection of history.
  4.   Too many of our traditional ways have been lost to industrialization and scientific advancements (such as very few people make their own soap anymore). I enjoy learning about how things used to be… even if I don’t do things that way anymore.
  5.   I love cookies. Shortbread and my Danish great-grandmother’s Butter Cookies top the list of personal faves.

Please forward this post or share the link with friends who enjoy baking, collect family history or old-time recipes, or enjoy historical fiction.

An honest-to-goodness Pioneer Recipe: Chicken and Dumplings

Copyright © 2015 Kristin Holt, LC

4 Comments

  1. Unbelievable. An old time shortbread recipe is a major focal point of an upcoming novel in my Civil War series…in fact the first of many novels in the series. May I use your recipe?

    Reply
    • Of course you can use this recipe, Tracie. It’s directly off a recipe website online (see the link in the post). The beautiful thing about recipes, I understand, is they cannot be copyrighted (not the way you and I think of copyrights). Add vanilla to a recipe that formerly didn’t have it, and voila!–new recipe. In this case, perhaps adjust the ratio of butter to sugar, and it’s “new”. Happy baking! (once this heat wave has passed) ~ Kristin

      Reply
  2. My Grandma Used to make Pebber Nodder cookies for me. She hand wrote the recipe, and I still have it.

    Reply
    • What a treasured bit of family history, Sheryl, to have both a sample of your grandmother’s handwriting and the recipe she used and you enjoyed. I’m so happy for you! I have too few of my ancestors’ recipes. Thanks for stopping by and reading this article. I hope it brought back some sweet memories. ~Kristin

      Reply

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