Janet had a marvelous tuck hamper sent to her for her birthday, and she and Hilary and the twins unpacked it with glee. “All the things I love!” said Janet. “A big chocolate cake! Shortbread biscuits! Sardines in tomato sauce! Nestle’s milk. And look at these peppermint creams! They’ll melt in our mouths!”
– from “The Twins at St. Clare’s” by Enid Blyton
Shortbread is one of those foods that I actually equate with happiness, something to be shared with friends and family at times of great fun.
As a kid, the Enid Blyton school-stories passed down to me by my doting aunts all mentioned it as part of one of those exciting midnight feasts held at one point or another during the school term. I also remember my grandfather coming home from one of his many trips overseas, tartan-patterned packets of Walker’s Shortbread among the many bits and bobs in his luggage. These were either round or squarish, rather crumbly and sugary, and so much richer-tasting than the Danish butter cookies that came in round tins printed with pictures of either the Danish royal palace or some garden or other in Copenhagen. I can distinctly remember that I was allowed just one cookie at any given time, shortbread being allegedly “too rich for little girls’ palates.”
As I grew older and learned how to bake, shortbread became one of the first things I managed to master in the kitchen. My original go-to recipe was the one in the New Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook; later, I would tweak with another I found in Nigella Lawson’s How to be a Domestic Goddess – the lemon-and-cardamom-spiked one that has always served me well for Holiday presents for the past few years.
My aunts are, alas, all in the United States now; and, though I was able to download both Blyton’s St. Clare’s and Malory Towers series, reading my favorite stories always seems to make me sad and wish for the days when life was free of care, when I felt safe, surrounded I was by people who loved me. My grandfather has also passed on – it’s been nearly a quarter of a century since he died – and chances to travel have been few and far between. That said, I’ve not had shortbread as a gift in ages.
As luck would have it, I passed by Marks and Spencer, ostensibly to get a treat for my sister. (Lemon sherbets, actually; I ended up getting her a packet of assorted fruit sherbets. They were pretty nice, but that’s a story for another day.) Finding the sherbets, I actually stopped dead in my tracks on the way to the cashier when I saw red, plaid-patterned packets of All-butter Scottish Shortbread Fingers stacked neatly in one of the biscuit racks. Holy moly, I definitely had to grab one.
The thing about proper Scots shortbread (defined as: made in Scotland [check the packet] with proper butter [dairy butter as opposed to those sticks of margarine that try to pass themselves off as the real thing], and a three-flour mix [wheat, rice, and corn]) is that it is so damned moreish.
It looks like a simple affair: thickly cut, narrow-ish slabs of buttery dough pricked over with holes and sprinkled with a dusting of granulated white sugar. But what it lacks in the looks department it more than makes up for in terms of taste and texture.
It crumbles as you bite and practically melts in your mouth; proper shortbread should do so, not break off in flaky layers that you need to crunch through a bit more before swallowing. It should taste rich and buttery, not chalky at all. Plus, it should not be too sweet; the sugar-crystal topping should add just the faintest whisper of sweetness as opposed to shouting arrogantly, catching in the throat and making the eater cough. (Though, aye: scarfing these babies too fast will make you choke if you’re none too careful.)
It was a good thing I bought the packet when I did; the week I bought it had been a distressingly hectic one that left me reeling. I bought another one a couple of weeks hence, and munching through those biscuits with a cup of tea close at hand helped me forget that there are such things as deadlines, traffic, shoddy public transportation, false friends, unappreciative relatives, and days when nothing goes right even for a wee, blissful moment.
Seriously though, I know too damned well that I need to buck up and face things like any adult. In which case, I’ll take a cue from another of my favorite Scotsmen – singer Paolo Nutini – and think that nothing ought to get me down.