As Scottish tradition dictates, I decided we should ‘first-foot’ my mother-in-law to bring her good fortune for 2013. I had a vague idea what this first-footing was all about, and that it required at least two basic ingredients: shortbread and whisky. We didn’t have whisky but I was pretty certain there was some Glayva in the cupboard and some shortbread could be whipped up on Hogmanay. Good plan, right?
Well, I probably should have checked the finer details before I leaped over the threshold bearing shortbread and a bunch of lisianthus (turns out the Glayva had been consumed). Of the many failings, the main one was that my husband (being tall, dark-haired and male) should have been the first one through the door as females are often considered unlucky.
According to Wikipedia, ‘The first-foot usually brings several gifts, including perhaps a coin, bread, salt, coal, or a drink (usually whisky), which respectively represent financial prosperity, food, flavour, warmth, and good cheer’. Had flowers been listed, I am sure they would have represented romance or beauty or something equally desirable, but (remind me never to conduct online research again) apparantely lisanthius means ‘bitter flower’. I can only hope that the implications of wrong-footing are only applicable in Scotland, and that England has more flexible rules…
On the plus side, the shortbread was delicious. It’s probably too late for you to first-foot anyone (unless you are visiting a total recluse) but you really don’t need an excuse to make the perfect melt-in-your-mouth buttery biscuit. It can be enjoyed at any time with anyone, or just you….and an entire shortbread round. If you need a motive, there is always 25th January - Burns Night – an apt occasion to get your apron (or peenie) on and bake some Scottish treats.
The recipe below is for the traditional, and in my opinion best, version. For an alternative, possibly more medieval, version simply add 50g finely chopped almonds and 1tbsp caraway seeds. I made one of each (both pictured below) simply because the caraway seemed like an unusual addition and I was intrigued. Some other traditional adornments include citrus peel, candied cherries and angelica. The addition of seeds and nuts created a pleasing texture and interesting flavour but is detrimental to the melt-in-your-mouth effect of unadulterated shortbread.
If you want to spice things up try my recipe for Chilli Chocolate Shortbread Biscuits.
Recipe: Traditional melt-in-your-mouth shortbread
Serves: one, preferably me
- 125g/4oz unsalted butter
- 50g/2oz sugar
- 175g/6oz flour
- pinch of salt
- a few whole almonds for decoration, optional
Preheat your oven to 140°C. Line a baking tray with parchment or a silicone baking mat.
Traditionally, the butter and sugar is kneaded together by hand, then the flour is gradually incorporated to make a pliable dough.
If you have a food processor, the simplest way is to blitz the sugar and butter together, then add the flour and pulse a few times to combine. Then the mixture can be tipped into a bowl, or onto a work surface and kneaded together with your hands to form a dough.
Once the mixture is pliable enough, roll it out into a disc or flatten and cut into fingers. I rolled it out to a round approx 15cm/6″ in diameter, then pressed the square end of a fork around the circumference. Then I pressed in a few almonds on top.
I used almonds with their skin for this one, and for the almond and caraway version I used blanched almonds – you can see the different visual effect in the photograph below.
Transfer your shortbread onto the lined baking tray.
If you have a shortbread mould, so much the better. Simply flour the mould, press the dough in and then thwack it out onto your baking tray.
Bake at 140°C for approximately one hour. The shortbread should still be pale, with a very very slight golden touch to it.
To prevent the shortbread edges from browning too much you can make little foil jackets to insulate them. You just need to wrap a strip of foil around the edge of your rounds – you could also use cake strips if you have them. To insulate the base swell, just lay down a few extra layers of baking parchment between the shortbread and the baking tray.
Shortbread slices fairly easily even when cooked, but if you would prefer to be able to break it into wedges by hand then mark the round with a knife before cooking. When you remove the shortbread from the oven, go over the markings with a knife but again only cut down slightly into the surface.