January 6th is ‘National Shortbread Day’. Shortbread is a cookie that is made frequently in the British Isles (namely Sotoland which is known for its Scottish Shortbread). There are also Shortbread recipes from the Scandinavian Countries.
What exactly is Shortbread and why is this confection called Shortbread? Shortbread falls into the Cookie Category but is certainly different from most cookies that we are familiar with. Shortbread is definitely a ‘melt in your mouth’ type cookie. It can have the texture of sand, yet it is very rich and usually very tasty.
Why are these cookies called Shortbread? I don’t where the ‘bread’came from, but I do know why they are called ‘short’. Possibly the ‘bread’ part is because that maybe all baked goods were at one time called ‘bread’.
To explain this, first you have to think about why ‘shortening’ is called shortening. What is Shortening? Well, most people think of Shortening as a baking product that comes in a can and is very white. This is most often the case, but things other than vegetable shortening such as Crisco ® are also shortening. But in order to understand this, first you have to know why shortening is called shortening and then you will understand why ‘Shortbread’ is called ‘Shortbread’ rather than cookies.
What purpose does ‘shortening’ serve in a baked product? First of all you have to think about the flour which in most cases is glutinous and is in long strands. (Microscopically speaking) If you mix Flour and Water together and bake it, you have nothing more than crackers which will be very crisp and break apart easily. This is where shortening comes in. Shortening helps to break up the strands of gluten (fiber) and tenderizes it and flavors it.
Many products can be used as shortening. These are in order of preference and flavor: Lard which provides the best flavor and flakiness in baked products. Lard is preferred by many bakers and cooks (not me though). In blind taste tests that I have conducted with my students, the products with lard always come out on top in both flavor and texture)
Butter is my preference even though it does not provide the flakiest of products, it is certainly the best tasting (as far as I am concerned) Sweet Butter is the preferred Butter for baking and cooking. Vegetable Shortenings come next and those include margarines which I do not recommend.
Oil is also used for shortening and there are pie crust recipes that specify oil. Many cake recipes also use vegetable oi in them.
To cut the strands of fiber, a solid shortening is usually cut into the flour mixture. This can be done with a ‘pastry blender’ which is a multi-wire tool held together with a wooden or plastic handle.
The shortening product can also be rubbed in with your fingers, preferably rubbing between your thumb and forefinger or it can be cut in with the use of 2 table knives, which is what we used to do before pastry blenders were readily available. You can also cut it in with your food processor, although I can tell you that this method will not produce the flakiest product, but it will certainly save a lot of time.
Baked products in which the shortening is cut in are Pie Crusts and Shortbreads. Everyone knows what a pie crust is and Shortbreads are really a cookie. The ration of butter to flour is so high, that the Shortbread cannot be easily rolled and there it is usually patted into a round and marked with the back side of a knife. After it is baked, it is then cut again.
A truly good shortbread will melt in your mouth, but will hold together when you pick it up to eat. If you want to try your hand at making shortbread (it is actually very easy) try my Pineapple/Macadamia Nut Shortbread Recipe in this blog /pineapple-macadamia-shortbread-cookies/