“Pop the kettle on” , a sentence I’m sure has been said much more widely & frequently since lockdown began, at least it has in this house! Our tea consumption is off the chart (I genuinely think that my body has slowly become immune to caffeine over the years!) & tea biscuits have become somewhat of a mid-afternoon ritual now.
The only variation we have in our days at the moment seems to be, which biscuit we go for! Do we stick with something plain, humble & satisfying like a Rich Tea or maybe a digestive… or do we venture for something more exciting like a fig roll or a viscount (has anyone made one of those decision dice for biscuits yet?). Either way, if has to be crumbly, a sturdy dunker & satisfying.
With us visiting the shops far less frequently though & with more time on my hands, I’ve taken to making far more biscuits for the barrel than we actually buy. One of the quickest, most simple & satisfying of the bunch being shortbread. They’re moreish, crumbly, buttery & begging for a good strong cup of tea (plus, it’ll make your house smell bloody amazing!).
Originating in Scotland, shortbread evolved from a medieval biscuit bread. Leftover bread dough was enriched & sweetened before being dried out ina loe oven until it hardened into what is known as a rusk. Over time, the yeast in the dough was replaced with butter as it became more of a staple around Britain, and the rusk developed into shortbread.
Although shortbread was being made for centuries in this was, it wasn’t until the mid 16th century that the biscuit was refined, steering away from its bread dough origins. We have Mary, Queen of Scots to thank for this development, she was partial to a thin, crisp, buttery shortbread, flavoured with caraway seeds. It’s believed that the cooks at her court further improved it by taking influences from French cooking, using far more butter & sugar to produce something sweeter. The sweet biscuits were usually cut into neat petticoat tails (named due to their likeness to the underskirts worn by ladies at the court), which it is said Mary was rather fond of.
Not much has changed in terms of the recipe for shortbread (let’s face it, you can’t improve on perfection) with the exception of caraway seeds falling much out of fashion these days. Long used throughout British cookery, caraway seed biscuits used to be prepared to mark the end of the wheat sowing season, this later evolved into a tea cake which was very popular through the Victorian era. A seriously underrated spice if you ask me, caraway is aromatic, warm & sweet with a hint of anise & a slight citrus behind it. There’s a lot going on in these little seeds, which can have a little bitterness about them, but when balanced with enough sweetness provides such an interesting & enjoyable flavour.
Whilst I’ve tried many different flavours of shortbread over the years, not least in Edinburgh, where I probably ate too much. They do shortbread well up there, I’ll admit. One particularly good bakery we found on our trip was called Pinnies & Poppy Seeds. If you’re ever in Ediburgh, I’d urge you to visit, you’ll be greeted by the most heavenly smell of butter as soon as you arrive, where you can choose from a huge array of different shortbread flavours, I particularly rated the Earl Grey (obviously) & the lavender & white chocolate. This was also probably the only bakery or cafe we came across in the city that actually still produce the original caraway flavour too.
Obviously, I’m a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to baking & so I just had to recreate this original shortbread for myself. These pretty little petticoat tails are short, crumbly, buttery & full of traditional flavour, quite literally the perfect tea biscuit.
(makes 8 biscuits)
- 200g plain flour
- 25g cornflour
- 60g caster sugar
- 150g unsalted butter, cubed
- 2 tsp caraway seeds
- Pinch of salt
- Lightly grease an 8″ round shortbread mould or loose bottomed cake tin
- Sift together the flour & cornflour into a large bowl
- Add the caster sugar to the bowl & stir this through
- Add the cubed butter to the bowl & use your fingertips to rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs
- Add in the caraway seeds & salt & stir this through the mixture
- Tip the crumbly mixture straight into the mould or tin & use the back of your hands to spread this out evenly & press it down to flatten
- Bake the biscuits at 186C for 35 minutes, until the biscuits have turned lovely & golden
- Remove from the oven & leave to cool for 10 minutes in its mould/tin
- After 10 minutes, remove the shortbread & use a very sharp knife to score & cut into evenly sized triangle
- Leave the biscuits to cool completely on a cooling rack