Shortbread for New Year: the Evolution of a Recipe
This week, Elizabeth writes about New Year’s baking.
Tartan tins of shortbread, optionally adorned with romantic depictions of Eilean Donan castle, Scottie dogs, or Bonnie Prince Charlie, are the clichéd epitome of a present from Scotland, perhaps especially at New Year. I was therefore struck when leafing through Catherine Brown’s excellent Scottish Cookery (3rd edition, 2006), to find that the tradition of sending shortbread as a present from Scotland apparently dates back to the 1820s. Brown cites Meg Dods’s recipe for a rich shortbread ‘for sending as a holiday present to England.’
‘Meg Dods’ and the Cook and Housewife’s Manual (1826) has featured on this blog before. I fetched our copy of the first edition and found shortbread listed as a Scotch National Dish in the index, along with haggis and cock-a-leekie soup.
The recipe under the heading ‘Scotch Short Bread’ is for an enriched version, with chopped almonds and diced candied peel mixed through it, but, intriguingly, there is no reference to sending it as a holiday present.
We are fortunate to hold the second edition of 1827 as well as the first, but the only addition to the text of the original recipe is the further observation at the end: ‘Chopped almonds are used for rich short-bread.’ So when did this shortbread start being identified as ideal for holiday presents?
The cook and housewife’s manual was clearly popular and sold well, demonstrated by the frequency of new editions throughout the nineteenth century. The text was in its eleventh edition by 1862, and many of the later editions are described as revised and enlarged. Of course advertising a revision on the title page can be a sales ploy which may not be backed up by the content, but as I pursued this recipe through digitised versions of subsequent editions, the extent of the revisions in this one recipe were striking and interesting. I have to admit here that I haven’t (yet) managed to access every single edition, and some of the crucial variations may have been introduced earlier than I have traced them so far.
In the fourth edition of 1829 (‘revised and enlarged’), the instructions for shaping the dough go beyond the original direction to ‘Roll out the paste into a large well-shaped oval cake about an inch and a half thick, and divide this’, to ‘divide this the narrow way, so as to have two cakes somewhat the shape of a Gothic arch’. In the eighth edition (1847, ‘carefully revised, and greatly enlarged’), the name of the recipe has changed to Scottish Shortbread, or Short-cake, and the Gothic arch is still included, but the ‘instrument used for the purpose’ of pricking the dough to let steam escape is now identified as a ‘dabber’. The further instruction to roll out the paste ‘lightly’ is an additional helpful guide to achieving good results and not overworking the dough. By the eleventh edition (1862, ‘revised’), the Gothic arch has metamorphosed into a Saxon arch; in addition, the instructions for chopping the candied peel are a little more specific: ‘Cut these in rather long thin slices, which cut in dice and mix with the flour.’ And here, finally, is the sought-after phrase. ‘Chopped almonds and butter are used in larger quantity for Scotch shortbread wanted very rich for sending as a holiday present to England.’
So clearly the only thing to do now was to test the recipe.
The opening instruction, ‘To the fourth of a peck of flour take six ounces of sifted sugar’, took me down a rabbit hole of historic weights and measures, converting volume to mass, and flipping in and out of imperial and metric. In case it isn’t just me who would have to look this up: a peck is two imperial gallons, or for the metrically inclined, just over 9 litres. According to online recipe converters, 1 litre of plain flour (volume) is equal to 528.34 g plain flour (mass). So a peck of flour is 4.8 kg, and a quarter of a peck is 1.2 kg or (back in imperial) approximately 2 lb 10 oz. If you’re still with me, now you can start baking.
After carefully working all of this out, I discovered that the 1862 revision of the recipe specifies ‘to the fourth of a peck of flour (two pounds) take six ounces of sifted sugar’. At least my research enables me to comment that two pounds seems to be rather (about 10 oz.) less than a quarter of a peck, which would increase the proportion of butter to flour and thus result in a richer shortbread.
This recipe is not for thin, elegant shortbread biscuits to serve alongside a crystal dish of posset or syllabub. This makes a solid slab at least an inch thick, and as big as a serving platter; bake for at least an hour and a half. I miss the crunchy sandiness of rice flour, which I was brought up to think of as a standard ingredient, but the texture is short and crumbly as the best shortbread should be. And if you make the full quantity, it will keep a houseful of hungry guests happy well into the New Year.
Rare Books Libarian