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Calling All Recipe Detectives — The Search for One Badass Scottish Shortbread


I emailed Laura telling her that I wanted to find a shortbread recipe like the one I had as a child but that I had regretfully never learned to make. We’re all flawed. I was only eight years old, and didn’t fully appreciate the Scottish born nanny (and her handed-down recipes) who came to take care of us when my mother accompanied my father on business trips once or twice a year. She stayed briefly, a week or two at most. Her name was Mrs. Wanser. She was one of those story-book type of characters, bigger than life, who lives on in memory.  The bow-legs in their lace-up old lady shoes. The no-nonsense apron worn always and everywhere. The perfect accent. White bun. A gap-toothed smile and pink, flaring nostrils that conjured visions of miles of open, airy farmland and hard work. Her habit of calling us “brother” and “sister” instead of by our names, titles she insisted were as necessary as mother and father to convey respect. Certainly she treated us with more of it than we afforded her. We’d hide from her on the basement stairs, giggling uncontrollably as she called and called us. I have no idea now why it was so funny. We’d already driven off the other nannies. There were four of us, plus pets. You can imagine. She irked us with her old-fashioned rules of early bedtimes and mealtimes, cleaning to the point of obsession and bed sheets tucked in hospital corners so tight we had to struggle to get our feet under the blankets at night, but she was the one who stayed, gently and persistently teaching us grace and forgiveness with her shortbread and shepherd’s pie. I didn’t know this then of course. My mother impressed upon me her worth. Eventually I understood. When Mrs. Wanser gave me a pair of onyx earrings for my sixteenth birthday and I lost one when I wore them to the prom, I was heartbroken. It was all I had of her. When she died, I grieved.

Her shortbread I long for most. It was buttery but not greasy, with a velvet-smooth touch to the surface, and broke off in brick-like chunks from a honey-golden slab that was scored with lines for portioning. It had the kind of thought-erasing flavor notes that flooded your head from back to front. She made it from scratch of course, mixing it with her knobby, arthritic hands in a ceramic bowl on her lap. It worked up into a pliable dough that she patted into a rectangle, scored and baked slowly. Her shepherd’s pie had a blanket of mashed potatoes on it three inches thick over a deep brown mix of meat and vegetables. But I’ll get to that in another post. For now, I only want to find a shortbread that can conjure the taste memory I have of the one I loved then. If you can help, send a recipe to me. And check back soon for more on Scottish shortbread. Laura has been digging in old cookbooks online for the kind of recipes that Mrs. Wanser might have used herself as a young woman, and the things she found are fascinating and surprising, from the meaning of the word to its origins and ingredients. In the meantime I’m going to start with this recipe from The Historic American Cookbook Project. I’ll post the results soon.

Want to see my final favorite recipe for Scottish Shortbread right now? Click here.

see also: Calling All Gingerbread Detectives

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When making shortbread you use confectioner’s sugar (sometimes called powdered sugar).  I have made it once - it came good - but I don’t recall where I got the recipe.  However it was very simple - just butter, flour and the confectioner’s sugar.

    –  (January 16 2010 at 8:28)

OMG Nan! I dream of her shepherd’s pie to this day. I’m not sure I’ve ever had one as good, or, at least as good as I remember hers being. To this day I can hear her say ‘That’s nice dearie,” in her Scottish lilt.

Taking a page from Jimmy Durante, “good night Mrs. Wanser.” We do miss you.


    – Bruce Ring (January 16 2010 at 11:11)

When I first saw this post, I wrote to my dear friend in Scotland and she sent back the following:

Well, there’s really no such thing - every Scottish home uses their own “recipe” for everything they cook or bake and in my experiennce Scots eat traditional meals from recipes handed “doon frae Granny” - and, like my sister, no-one really measures weights - they all just know from experience.

Maybe this will help:-

    – Lucy (February 06 2010 at 2:34)

Hi Lucy,

Thanks for the great link. Of course I agree there is no one true recipe, that like any regional dish there are as many versions as there are cooks.  But for we outsiders looking to learn, we appreciate a codified version.  Can you send yours? 

I hope you enjoy the one I eventually posted which comes close to the one I loved as a child.

    – Nancy Ring (February 06 2010 at 11:29)

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