Tuesday, May 18, 2010

My Granma's Scotch Shortbread

My mother's mother was born in Calder Bank, Scotland and came to the U.S. as a little girl.  Her real name is Anne, but as far as I know, everyone has always called her Nancy.  Of course, I call her Granma.  (And, no, that is not a typo -- she does not put the "d" in grandma.) 

The first thing you need to know about my Granma is that she is tiny.  Exceptionally tiny.  Today, at nearly 92 years old, she is only about 4'9" tall.  My uber-tall, preschool-age daughter finds it endlessly fascinating that she is nearly as tall as her great-grandmother. 

Her small stature and the ever-present twinkle in her eye always made my Granma seem vaguely magical, to me, when I was growing up.  This impression was only enhanced by the fact that she had a Secret-Garden-like backyard (with small gates, brick walls, terraced steps, and lots of ivy), a hidden room in her basement (full of my grandfather's collections), and often spoke in completely serious tones about the mischievous "wee folk"  -- especially one named Jasper.  She is warm and sweet and has always made me feel adored. 

But lest you get the wrong impression, let me also tell you that beneath that soft exterior, my Granma is also smart, tough, precise, and practical.  She does crossword puzzles in pen and her handwriting -- even today -- is as neat as a typewriter.  She was a divorced mother of two girls who also had an intense career as an OR nurse.  She has little patience for those who wallow in self-pity and she does not engage in wistful sentimentality.  At nearly 92, she still drives and lives independently -- and comes from a long line of strong, long-lived Scottish women. 

The other essential thing to know about my Granma is that she has an impeccable sense of style, both in regard to dressing herself and decorating her home.  Yes, she's nearly 92, but I would still seek her opinion before I purchased items for my house, if I lived near her.  She is one of those people who has a remarkable knack for taking a piece of jewelry -- or furniture -- and using it in an unexpected but perfectly delightful way.  I once gave her a rose-shaped brooch made of red tartan fabric, expecting to see it on the lapel of her winter jacket.  She turned up at Christmas wearing it centered at the point of her white v-neck shirt.  It looked marvelous.  And she is the only person I know who had the vision to put a large, folding, black wrought iron gate in the open doorway between her dining and living rooms.  Yet once you've seen how charming that gate is, you wonder why you haven't seen it everywhere.

And my food-memories of my Granma Scott?  She drinks a "cuppa" multiple times a day and used to make me my own cup of weak, milky tea before school in the morning.  She puts butter on just about everything -- even the saltine crackers she would set adrift on my lunchtime bowl of tomato soup.  She used to keep Kit-Kat bars next to her chair, in with her knitting needles and yarn.  And she has always been my baking grandmother. To this day, my very favorite chocolate chip cookies, apple pie, and shortbread are my Granma's versions. 

This is my Granma's recipe for shortbread.  I have a copy of this recipe handwritten by my great-grandmother, Grace Reid, and it differs slightly from the one my Granma gave me;  my great-grandmother used 1/2 cup more flour than my Granma.  But other than that discrepancy, I haven't dared to change anything, not even the slightly outdated title, "Scotch Shortbread."  (I realize that the more modern adjective would be "Scottish," but how dare I alter what my ancestor from Scotland saw fit to call herself?) 

Shortbread could not be simpler to make (three ingredients!), packs well, and keeps for days in an airtight container.  Thus, this is my go-to cookie recipe.  This recipe produces a very buttery, crumbly shortbread.  If you like your shortbread tender, bake it for the least amount of time called for below.  If you prefer a harder, ready-for-dunking-in-tea shortbread, go for the longer bake time.  (I go for the shorter time, but my Granma makes hers very hard.) 

One last note:  my Granma insists on only Land O' Lakes butter.  I've used that brand many times, but have also had great results with other, high-end butters (Plugra, Kerrygold, Horizon Organic).  Just use a good butter with a pronounced, buttery flavor that you enjoy;  do not buy the cheapest butter at the store, or your shortbread's flavor will be lacking.

Source:  Grace Reid & Nancy Scott
Makes:  about 3 1/2 dozen small cookies
Time:  about 10 mins. prep time and 1 hr. unattended baking time

  • 3 sticks butter, at room temperature

  • 3 cups flour

  • 1 c sugar

  1. Preheat the oven to 350.

  2. Using your hands, mix the ingredients together until it works into a ball. (It will be sticky and your hands will be a mess . . . take your rings off first!)

  3. Spread the dough evenly in a 9x13 inch baking dish.  (If you are having trouble with the dough sticking to your hands, you can use a piece of waxed or parchment paper, sprayed with Pam, to help you push it into place.)  Using a fork, deeply prick the shortbread all over the top.  I perforate in nice, evenly spaced, close together rows, to keep it pretty.

  4. Bake at 350 for 15 mins., then  lower the temp to 325 and bake for another 30-45 mins.  The shortbread will be light gold to a deep, toasted wheat color on top, when done (depending on how long you bake it).

  5. Remove the pan from the oven and immediately use a butter knife to cut the shortbread into small squares.  Do it right away; the dough will be too hard to cut later.  Let cool in the pan for a bit, then remove to a wire rack to cool completely.
Long may your lum reek and your kettle boil!*

*A Scottish blessing my Granma used to close letters to me when I was studying abroad in college.  "Lum reek" = "chimney smoke"