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- by Nancy, January 16, 2010
To Make Short Bread
Take a peck of Flour, put three lb of Butter in amoung a little water, and let it melt, pout it in amoung your Flour, put in a Mutchkin of good Barm; when it is wrought divide it in three parts, roll out you cakes longer then broad, and gather from the sides with your Finger, cut down the Middle and job it on Top, then send it to the oven.
Mrs. McLintock’s Receipts for Cookery and Pastry-Work, 1736, available in reproduction.
The Milk Maid, Johannes Vermeer, 1858-60
In The Art and Mystery of Food, there is a comprehensive treatment on Scottish shortbread. Read it here. Laura found it while digging for authentic Scottish shortbread recipes and lore. The recipe included, above, intrigued me since I am hellbent on finding a recipe to post in my next One Badass Cookie column for the kind of shortbread I mentioned in the previous post. I was most surprised to see “barm” included - a kind of yeasty leavener made from ale. Yeast? In cookies? Ah, but shortbread, it seems, were not originally the cookies we call shortbread today.
A closer look at Laura’s sources point to the fact that like most old recipes, the origins of shortbread are deeply embedded in a way of life: the milk maids of fourteenth to seventeenth century Europe. Where there were dairy cows, there was cheese and butter. And in 1736, the year of the first documented Scottish cookbook Laura found, the word, short, in combination with the word, bread, or cake, was used as a verb rather than a noun. To “short” bread or cake, was in fact, to make it friable or full of what the English came to call “shortening,” in other words, to give it a tender crumb unlike the chewy, sturdy breads made before fat became a popular addition. And the word bread meant just that - bread, yeast risen, soft and sometimes full of citrus peel, spice and nuts - and not plain cookies.
The history of cookies as we know them is really the history of ovens. “Think about a wood burning oven and imagine baking cookies,” Laura told me, “It just doesn’t work opening the door every 12 minutes, right? It was done, but it really was not a practical part of every day life.” Unpredictable open hearths were used until the Civil War by all but the wealthy, and the development of trustworthy ovens was slow. 1910’s gas ovens gradually replaced coal, wood, and petroleum versions, followed by 1930’s electric ranges, both precipitating cookie recipe explosions. World War II’s rationing derailed bakers temporarily, but afterward, armed with abundant butter and sugar, bakers enjoyed a sky’s-the-limit enthusiasm for cookie invention that has yet to abate.
Old recipes for short cakes and breads were made with ground oatmeal or rice flour. Notches in the dough symbolized the sun’s rays, and most of the early recipes yield cakes or breads that are round, and cut into triangles to serve. While the round shape is sometimes still specified in modern recipes, by the mid-nineteenth century the yeast and add-ins like nuts were gone, and our present-day shortbread cookies were conceived.