Nobody would deny that a typical shortbread recipe with its short list of ingredients- butter, semolina, sugar, flour- is anything other then neat and practical, seemingly an embodiment of its homeland, north of the English border. Yet the Scottish heart is also a deeply romantic and sentimental one, proud of its history and a slow burn of a cuisine, now gaining its rightful place as a great one (and far removed from the lazy stereotypes of deep fried this and that).
Shortbread’s inception came from this place of practicality and economic necessity-no food was wasted and leftovers were often turned into something new to make them more palatable or to render them suitable to pop into a pocket and take to work. Said to originate from the medieval ‘biscuit bread,’ leftover dough from bread-making was dried out in a cool oven until it hardened into a rusk, somewhat similar to the Italian biscotti as the word ‘biscuit’ means twice cooked. The leaven in the bread was replaced by butter, and this biscuit bread became shortbread.
Historically an expensive luxury reserved just for special occasions such as weddings, Christmas and New Year for many, customs grew alongside its popularity and this is particularly apropos for me seeing as this recipe for lavender shortbread was served to arriving guests at our own wedding reception. In Shetland it was traditional to break a decorated shortbread cake over the head of a new bride as she crossed the threshold to her new home. The Pagan ‘Yule Cakes,’ symbolising the sun, begat the new custom of eating shortbread at the dawn of each New Year and is traditionally offered to First Footers– the first people to enter a house after midnight in Scotland. In the middle of the sixteenth-century, Mary Queen of Scots was said to be rather partial to petticoat tails, the thin, crisp, buttery shortbread originally flavoured with caraway seeds. although they are often made without this spice these days. Scored with a knife whilst still warm and soft from the oven, the shortbread is cut into triangles that fit together into a circle, echoing the shape of the pieces of fabric used to make a gored under skirt or petticoat during Elizabeth the First’s reign. The name for the dressmakers pattern was tally and so the biscuits became known as petticoat tallis.
In my version, fresh lavender petals are mixed into the shortbread dough, resulting in an evocation of summer; delicate in fragrance and buttery. The semolina adds snap and crunch but the shortbread still keeps its rich, damp crumb. Romantic in taste and appearance with a scattering of flowers baked into the crust, this shortbread was delicious served with a glass of asti or prosecco and was scarfed down by guests in five minutes flat. Don’t be tempted to add more lavender and do make sure you reduce the quantities if using dried lavender instead of fresh or it’ll taste more like Jane Austen’s laundry.
60g of caster sugar plus extra for sprinkling over the baked shortbread 120g plain flour 60g semolina 120g cubed unsalted cold butter 2 tsp chopped fresh lavender flowers- remove stalks and seeds
Butter and flour a 22-25cm springform cake tin or tart tin. Preheat oven to 180C / Gas mark 4. Place all the ingredients in a mixer and using a paddle, mix until they form a sticky and fine crumb. Or you can add all the ingredients to a bowl and rub in by hand. Tip the dough into the tart tin and press out lightly with fingers or the back of a spoon until even and flattened out. Place in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes or until just turning a light golden brown. Remove from the oven, sprinkle with a little caster sugar and cut into wedges whilst it is still warm and in the tin. Let cool completely then remove wedges.