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One Badass Cookie — Scottish Shortbread

Scotch Shortbread
One pound flour, one-half pound butter, six ounces sugar. Work all together on a board. When thoroughly mixed, press with the hand into cakes one half-inch thick; cut into shapes and bake in a slow oven.

The Neighborhood Cookbook
By The Council Of Jewish Women
Portland, Or. [Press Of Bushong & Co.] 1914.


Rarely does the first recipe I try for a certain type of cookie get the honor of being dubbed One Badass Cookie. (What’s a Badass Cookie? Click here.) Especially a cookie like this one that I remember from childhood and that has a taste memory tangled up with emotions and history, and in particular the emotion of love; in this case, for a beloved Scottish nanny who made quite the impression on me growing up. In any case, the recipe above was the first one I received. The scent of it baking made me think it was possibly the one. Warm from the oven, I pretty much knew it was,

but when it cooled into a rich bar with an intense, head-filling flavor and a substantial crunch but no toughness, I knew for sure. I ate three of them immediately, and then packed the rest up to share with friends not because I’m so generous, but because if they remained in the house, I would have had to eat them all right then and there. Absolutely irresistible. Siren-song irresistible. That’s a warning. In any case, taste testers the next morning confirmed what I already knew — this is The One.

I would be delinquent in my duty as a baker however if I did not tell you that the historic recipe above is full of holes, the kind that only a baker with a combined memory of generations of bakers can fill in. To reach into that legacy, bequeathed to me by a legion of cookie mavens, and get the secrets that make it work along with an updated version (or should I say translation of old-recipe-ese), read on.

What you have basically is a recipe that requires the baker to fill in the details, particularly about types of ingredients, their temperatures, and their handling. An unspoken rule for the freshest, high quality ingredients always applies, as does working by hand when possible since most old baking recipes were made that way. I have a kitchen-aid mixer but I would not use it for this because I saw my Scottish nanny make it by hand and I know that the signature crunch of shortbread is partly a result of a judicious amount of hand-kneading to touch, just enough to give it the right structure, but not so much as to make the dough tough. And more importantly, if you mix by machine you will miss the singular pleasure of having this dough in your hands. The aroma is beautiful and the feel of it is quite lovely — a fragrant, floury, buttery mix that awakens an internal sense of earth and sky and sun and all that’s good that comes from it. Once you make it a few times you will know the texture the dough must have: pliable and firm but with no glue-y feel. If the dough becomes glue-like you have worked it too much. If it is mostly falling apart and dry, you have not worked it enough. Have a go at it and enjoy.

One Badass Scottish Shortbread
adapted from The Neighborhood Cookbook, 1914.
Note: The original recipe instructions and ingredients appear at left in italics, and the update is in parenthesis at right. Also this recipe is weighed, not measured, for accuracy. Invest in a good kitchen scale if you don’t already have one. They are kitchen workhorses that more than pay for themselves over time.)

Old recipe:
1 pound flour (update: 1 pound all-purpose unbleached flour)
one-half pound butter: (update: 2 sticks (1/2 pound) unsalted sweet butter, softened slightly to room temperature but not warm and greasy. This is very important. If the butter is too cold or too hot the recipe will not work. Be diligent about checking the butter until it is malleable but still cool and not shiny.)
six ounces sugar (update: 6 ounces of granulated white sugar.)

1. Work all together on a board. (update: This means combining all the ingredients at once in a large bowl or on a wooden pastry board. I find a bowl easier because it prevents spillage. Squeeze the dough through your fingers, taking fistfuls at a time. Press the dough into the bottom of the bowl trying to get all of it to stick together. Keep doing this until the dough holds together and picks up the remainder of any dry crumbs in the bottom of the bowl. It will not all come completely together but it will mostly adhere.)
2. When thoroughly mixed, press with the hand into cakes one half-inch thick; cut into shapes. (update: This means pressing the dough into disks, the kind you would roll out flat for cutting with cookie cutters. Alternatively, you can press the mixture into a 9” x 13” pan, flatten it by placing a piece of plastic wrap on top and smoothing over it until it is flat and even, then score it with a sharp knife into bars. This is what I did.)
3. Bake in a slow oven. (update: Bake at 300 degrees F. until the dough is light golden and cooked through, about 30 - 45 minutes. Turn the dough half-way through the baking time to prevent uneven browning. While the cookies are still hot from the oven, use a sharp paring knife to cut through the scored lines. Remove the cookies from the pan with a spatula and cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.)

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