January 6: National Shortbread Day

Did you know that January 6 is National Bean Day? Well, now you do. Insert fart joke. But more importantly, it is also National Shortbread Day.

Shortbread. Am I the only one who gets happy just at the very sight of the word? It's a happy word, and a happy thing. In spite of its sliced bread-sounding name, it's actually cookies: nuggets of sugary-butter-bliss.

It being National Shortbread Day, I thought I would celebrate by exploring 6 interesting aspects about shortbread.

1. What is shortbread?

Shortbread is a crumbly, buttery cookie. With only three main ingredients (flour, sugar and butter--with a dash of salt for good measure)--traditional shortbread isn't a complex thing, but we would be hard-pressed to call it simple food. Because certainly there is an art to mixing those ingredients, to yielding the elusively perfect, buttery crumb.

2. Where does the cookie come from?

As Historic-UK.com informs us, the story of shortbread begins with the medieval biscuit ("twice-baked"), wherein leftover bread dough was baked a second time to form a type of rusk--this is to say, if you picture a family tree of cookies, this would mean that shortbread, rusks and biscotti all share some relatives.

While by some accounts they existed as far back as the 12th century in Britain, it seems to us that it is truly Scotland where shortbread as we know it was developed: it is here that gradually the yeast began to be replaced with butter, and oat flour, which were some of their agricultural staples. These "short" bread cookies were a fancy dessert, reserved for the wealthy and for special occasions. And certainly their popularity was bolstered by the fact that in the 16th Century, they are said to have been a favorite of Mary, Queen of Scots (she liked a variation which included caraway seeds, in case you were interested).

3. Why are they called "short"?

It's all about the butter, baby! According to Everything You Pretend to Know about Food and Are Afraid Someone Will Ask, which is like, our favorite book ever,

short pastry is a nonyeast pastry that has a high ratio of butter to flour. Short pastries bake up crumbly rather than chewy and tend to keep well, owing to their high fat content.

4. What is the proper shape for a traditional shortbread cookie?

We've seen them round, rectangular, diamond-shaped, and cut into wedges from a larger round--so what gives? Is there a proper shape for a traditional shortbread cookie? Once again according to Historic-UK.com,

Shortbread is traditionally formed into one of three shapes: one large circle divided into segments ("Petticoat Tails"); individual round biscuits ("Shortbread Rounds"); or a thick rectangular slab cut into "fingers."

Of course, having taste-tested each of these traditional variations, we can report that while they may differ in look, each shape is delicious.

5. Cornstarch can be your secret ingredient.

Although it is hard to imagine bakers in the olden days of Scotland pausing to add cornstarch to their shortbread, there is a strong case for its use in modern times. Chances are, in times gone by, the flour had a lower protein and gluten content than all-purpose flour, which is used today. The cornstarch can “soften” the harder wheat for an end result that might possibly mimic old-fashioned results even more than using all-purpose flour.

Many will claim that one or the other is the only authentic shortbread. However, given how long shortbread has been around, it’s inevitable that variations will exist. Many recipes, therefore, can truthfully be called authentic.

The recipe shared in this post is a traditional shortbread recipe with cornstarch. What makes it a keeper, though, is how delicious the cookies are: tender in the center yet crisp on the edges, and full of buttery-sweet flavor.

6. Shortbread is incredibly easy to make.

I think (if I do say so myself) that I did a great job of explaining how to make perfect shortbread in this post for Craftsy. You can find the recipe and technique all detailed in the post!


Five shortbread recipes to try

Do you like shortbread?