Shortbread has so few ingredients, yet so many paths to failure
It seems I have never met an American who has visited Scotland and did not adore it. I strongly believe—although in the era of enhanced sensibilities concerning identity, ownership and authenticity it is not particularly chic to say so—that a large part of Scotland’s charms rest in its dutiful adherence to its cliches. The narrow roads of the Cairngorms are filled with the enchanting vistas of orchids and thistle, small towns along the lochs are indeed peppered with tiny fish and chip outposts. People fill the byways of Glasgow happily potted and running to the next pint. At small church weddings, on the campus of St. Andrews and at the Highland games—where Prince Charles might actually show up—men really do wear kilts.
True to form, the neighbor of of our Airbnb house in Edinburgh tottered over one morning to offer us “just a wee bit of shortbread,” a culinary slogan matched with a British shibboleth, essentially the perfect Scottish moment. I ate it promptly for breakfast, attempting to hoard it from my housemates, who of course went grabbing for my little bit of foil-wrapped confection.
What was it, I asked of no one in particular, that made this shortbread so wholly superior to every version store-bought or homemade I had ever eaten? Was it the local butter, which was indeed superior to even the European versions we have back home? The ratio of flour to butter, one we have been taught ought to be one-to-one? Was there a secret ingredient? Attempts to locate the neighbor were foiled, emails to an Airbnb address rejected.
Back home in my kitchen, my first version, using the basic ratio of a cup of sugar, flour, and butter each was fine for what it was. But it lacked in the sandy quality of the version of the lost neighbor, as well as its buttery heft.
I Googled recipes from Scottish newspapers, and two keys elements were revealed: caster sugar and rice flour. Caster sugar—which you can make at home by grinding your regular sugar in a spice grinder or food processor—seems preferred for its ability to integrate seamlessly into the dough. Rice flour, with its lack of gluten, helps create that lovely sandy texture. Back to the stove I went, translating grams to cups and sometimes becoming confused.
Most recipes tell you to make your shortbread with room temperature butter. I tried it like that several times, as well as cold, cut into a food processor in a manner similar to pastry crust and am here to tell you that either method works fine.
But failure came to me in other forms. Too much butter made a sloppy mess, too little—a bag of sugary beach sand. Irish butter was good, American butter with an addition of flaky sea salt was better, yet less authentic. Shortbread has so few ingredients, yet so many paths to failure.
If you are, quite coincidentally, also a middle-aged person who has just recently returned from a trip to Scotland with six others of multiple generations and habits, who has tried and perhaps failed to perfectly emulate the one perfect moment of said trip, you may suddenly ponder a lifetime of shortcomings and misadventures.
The career disappointments, the failed romantic relationships, the friendships you failed to maintain, the handstand you could not master, the child you let fall down the stairs as a toddler, whose 18th birthday you spoiled by raging against flash photography in a steak house—all these take form in the failed baked good.
But just don’t worry about it. Butter an 8-inch pan. Beat 1/2 cup of butter and 1/4 cup of sugar, preferably ground finely until soft. Add 1/2 cup of flour and 1/4 cup of rice flour and a rounded 1/8 teaspoon of flaky salt. Press into the pan and bake in a 300°F oven. Check it after 30 minutes. It should be brown. If it is not, bake it longer. Take it out, sprinkle with some turbinado sugar if you have some, cut while still warm. Eat the entire thing.