My shortbread research

Like many things in my life, this too began in church.

Ten days before Christmas, I was on the ladies’ production line cranking out these babies to go with mince pies and mulled wine after carols by candlelight. My job was to press a fork on the dough to make those little grooves you see in the picture.

I sampled a few too – they were great.

What I should have done right away is asked someone for the recipe. But, grooving away, I didn’t think of it at the time.

Christmas at home, for my husband, has always involved a large tin of his mum’s homemade shortbread. Actually, it’s the first thing he’s looked for, every time we’ve spent Christmas at their place. After producing a few hundred pieces that morning, I thought that making some at home wouldn’t be too hard. 

Some years ago I’d asked his mum for her recipe, which she wrote down right away from memory. That recipe hung around in our mail tray for a while, Christmas came and went that year, and I never made the shortbread. The only thing I recall was that she said to be sure to include rice flour, to ensure a nice gritty texture.

So, I went with this version from Philippa Vanstone’s 500 Cookies, just because it had rice flour in it.

  • 200 g plain flour
  • 2 tbsp rice flour
  • 175 g unsalted butter
  • 100 g castor sugar
  • 2 tsp vanilla essence

I used the mixer as usual to beat the butter and sugar in the usual way, then added the vanilla essence and flour. Although the recipe said to add 2 tsp granulated sugar, I didn’t bother with that, since it seemed sweet enough.

The main challenge was getting a nice smooth surface when pressing the dough into the tin.

I had to go over it a few times to get it nice and even.

I made sure to score and prick the dough so that it would look just like his mum’s version.

It turned out okay. Enough like shortbread that I packed the results in a pretty tin and gave it to him for Christmas. And it was okay enough that he didn’t seem to share them around much.

BUT. The vanilla seemed overpowering to me, and it was sweeter than I thought it should be. To get closer to his mum’s version, it needed some salt to offset the sweetness and highlight its buttery character.

Now that Christmas is well and truly over, though, I just don’t feel like doing it again, so, with a view to benefiting from experience next time around, here are the results of my literature review.

The Guardian gave the best comparative review of approaches to shortbread:

I’m sticking with the rice flour approach and will definitely add salt next time. Some recipes suggest, alternatively, semolina or ground rice to produce that sandy, gritty texture – worth a try next time I’m in a shortbread frame of mine.

I also found approaches I will not be adopting, such as cornflour (not gritty enough) and sprinkling the finished product with sugar (overkill). Most versions don’t ask for vanilla – rightly so, I think.

The website of the other celeb chef with my name [wink] notes that pricking the dough is necessary to avoid the biscuit rising in the middle of the tin. Aha. So THAT’s why. This is a link to her recipe:

Which is the one I will be using next time.


4 responses

  1. I’ve enjoyed your cooking/baking blogs. My daughter and I had some baking session making cookies like the ones you have on the top picture.

  2. Very nice darling. I like our Delia a lot too. I failed making her fruitcake recipe last Christmas… Or rather turned it out of the pan too soon that it just broke. Flavour-wise though it’s fantastic… So is her Preserved Ginger Cake. It’s so difficult getting stem Ginger in syrup here that I get my stock in from Singapore and the UK for it

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