I love shortbread. It’s plain simplicity makes it so much more delicious than other more complicated biscuits, and although it is easy to make it requires a lightness of touch that introduces a little skill into the process – just enough to make it satisfying. The ‘short’ in the name refers to the expected texture – light, crisp, crumbly – and there are lots of tricks that might help increase fineness, such as adding cornflour, rice flour, ground almonds or icing sugar. But I generally prefer to keep it simple, with nothing but the primary components of flour, butter and sugar.
The ratio of flour to fat to sugar in Scottish or early British shortbread recipes tends to be 6-4-2. The Magnus Nilsson version I have baked today is a 5-3-2 balance enriched with egg. The extra fat makes it much easier to pull the dough together than many of the traditional Scottish and English recipes I am used to, and also theoretically makes the shortbread a bit ‘shorter’ (i.e. lighter and crumblier). His addition of baking powder feels strange, but it does add an extra softness, producing light, crumbly, but not crisp little round biscuits with jammy eyes that are the perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea or coffee.
Whatever ingredients you decide on the trick is to handle the mixture as little as possible, and there seem to be various suggestions on how to achieve this. I’ve always thought a pastry-like rubbing together method followed by the briefest knead gave the best results, though Nilsson suggests kneading the mixture together from the start which seems to work in much the same way. Theodora Fitzgibbon suggests creaming the butter and sugar and then mixing in the flour, but I find this makes it very difficult to pull the mixture together without adding water or other liquid, something I generally prefer not to do.
As for shape, Theodora Fitzgibbon rather beautifully suggests that shortbread’s traditional round shape with notched edges is supposed to symbolize the rays of the sun and harkens back to early sun worship. In earlier, more frugal times, she suggests that shortbreads were a special treat made for Christmas and New Year, and sometimes decorated with lemon or orange peels, or even sugared almonds. Nilsson adds a gleaming dimple of homemade jam to the middle of his (my marmalade version was an attempt to unite these two traditions using another traditional Scottish food). Whatever the decoration, it’s certainly compelling to think of these traditional little biscuits being specifically designed to brighten up the shortest, darkest days of winter with their rich, sunny goldenness, whichever part of the cold northern lands we might find ourselves in.
 For a good historical summary, see Mason, Laura & Brown, Catherine. Traditional Foods of Britain. Totnes, Devon: Prospect Books, 1999, pp 265-6.
 Fitzgibbon, Theodora. A Taste of Scotland, Scottish Traditional Food. London: J.M, Dent & Sons Ltd, 1970, p 117.
Douglas’ shortbread biscuits
adapted from the recipe in Nilsson, Magnus. Fäviken. London: Phaidon Press Ltd, 2012, p 208.
½ tablespoon baking powder
jam, preferably homemade
1. Pre-heat oven to 200ºC/400ºF/gas mark 6
2. Knead flour, baking powder, sugar and butter together until crumbly and well mixed. Lightly beat the egg and mix quickly and gently into the mixture with your hands.
3. Shape the dough into about 20 little walnut-sized balls in the palm of your hands and place on a baking tray, spaced out. Poke your finger into the middle of each one, flattening the biscuit slightly and leaving a deep dimple in the middle. Fill the dimple with jam of your choice, and bake in the pre-heated oven for about 10 minutes or until golden. Cool on a rack and eat immediately.
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