Tag Archives: biscuits

Shortbread

The history of shortbread goes back to at least the 12th century and originally started life as ‘biscuit bread’; biscuits that were made from left-over bread dough that was sometimes sweetened and dried out in the oven to form a hard, dry rusk. This practise took place over the whole of the British Isles, not just Scotland.

Over time the leavening was lost and exchanged for butter, making it an expensive fancy treat that was only bought for celebrations such as Christmas and Hogsmanay (Scottish New Year). There are similar ‘breads’ outside of Scotland such as Shrewsbury cakes and Goosnagh cakes.

The large amount of butter is what makes shortbread short: the term short, when applied to biscuits and pastry, means crumbly, like shortcrust pastry should be. It is the reason why the fat added to biscuits and pastries is called shortening.

Mary Queen of Scots

Today, shortbread is made from flour, butter and sugar, though other flavourings are added. Caraway was particularly popular; Mary Queen of Scots was particularly fond of them. Other extra ingredients included almonds and citrus fruits like this 18th century recipe from Mrs Frazer:

Take a peck of flour…beat and sift a pound of sugar; take orange-peel, citron, and blanched almonds, of each half a pound, cut in pretty long thin pieces: mix these well in the flour; then make a hole in the middle of the flour, put in three table-spoons of good yeast; then work it up, but not too much…roll out; prickle them on top, pinch them neat round the edges, and strew sugar, carraways, peel, and citron, on the top. Fire it…in a moderate oven.

In George Read’s 1854 book The complete biscuit and gingerbread baker’s assistant, there are fewer ingredients, but includes eggs for some reason:

1 ¼ lb. of flour, ½ lb. of sugar, ½ lb. of butter, 3 eggs, ¼ oz. of volatile salts…a little essence of lemon

FYI: Volatile salts were smelling salts, that could also be used to leaven dough.

Shortbread usually comes in three different forms: small round biscuits, fingers or large rounds. To make the fingers, dough is cut into a large rectangle and the fingers are scored with the back of a knife so they can be broken up easily after cooking. A pattern made with fork marks is always made too.

To make large rounds, the dough is pressed into a round earthenware mould or a tart tin to make petticoat tails. When making the petticoat tails, the dough is scored into triangular slices like a pizza. The term petticoat tails comes not from the French petites gatelles (‘little cakes’) as many think (though Scottish cuisine did have more in common with French food than English food during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots), but from the term petticoat tallies – the name of the triangular pattern used to make bell hoop petticoats like Elizabeth I would have worn.

You can still buy the earthenware moulds – I’ll be buying one when I move back to England later in the summer.

Basic shortbread

This recipe makes enough for two petticoat tails rounds made in a seven inch tart tin. It’s hard to say how many biscuits or fingers – it depends on how wide and thick you make them. The important thing is to take them out before they start to brown.

To achieve a nice melt-in-the-mouth crumbliness use cornflour as well as normal plain flour to make your shortbread. Somewhere between a 1:1 and a 3:1 ratio of plain flour to cornflour works well. You don’t have to do this; they are still good with just good old plain flour.

6 ounces flour mix

4 ounces salted butter cut into cubes

2 ounces icing or caster sugar, plus extra

extra caster sugar

Rub the butter into the flour using fingers, pastry blender, food mixer or processor; be careful not to overwork things though if you’re using a food processor – shortbread dough doesn’t like being handled too much. Stir in the sugar and with your hand bring everything together to make a pliable dough – it’ll feel like it won’t form a dough at first, but as your hands warm it will.

Now you can roll or press out your dough into whatever shape you like and then place in the fridge for 20-30 minutes to harden:

For petticoat tails you are best diving the two into two halves and pressing the dough into your fluted flat tin. Score lines to mark out the slices, using a ruler if you want to be really precise. Make a nice pattern with a fork.

For fingers roll out the dough to half an inch thickness into a vaguely rectangular shape. Use a knife and a ruler to cut out a large rectangle and then score the lines with your ruler and knife, making patterns with your fork prongs.

For biscuits you can really do whatever you like; thick, thin, round, square. I think a little under half an inch is a good thickness. Cut out the biscuits and make your all-so-important fork marks.

Heat the oven to 180⁰C (350⁰F). Place the biscuits onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Sprinkle with the extra sugar and bake until cooked but before any signs of browning. Petticoat Tails and fingers take about 15 minutes, individual biscuits can be variable, but usually about 12-15 minutes.

Variations:

For lemon shortbread add the zest of one lemon when you add the sugar, and for almond shortbread add 5 or 6 drops of almond extract. If you want to try it with caraway, sprinkle in 2 teaspoons of caraway seeds at the same time you add the sugar.

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Yorkshire Parkin

God, I love Yorkshire parkin. If you are not familiar with it, it’s a strongly-spiced sticky gingerbread-cum-cake flavoured with treacle and dark brown sugar that is traditionally eaten on Guy Fawkes Night (the fifth of November, aka Bonfire Night) and for me, it is what makes that day complete. It seems like it should be a recipe that has always been, but the earliest mention of it I can find from a primary source in my research is from 1842; a certain Richard Oastler wrote a letter to Sir Thomas Thornhill (who would later become the High Sherrif of Suffolk and a Tory MP) telling him that  he’d recieved one on the 1st day of March from Mrs John Leach of Huddersfield.  The recipe does go back a little further than that though; most likely created some time during the Industrial Revolution by working-class folk as oats and treacle were important elements of the diet in those times. The word parkin was a popular surname in Yorkshire and means Peter. There are other parkins – such as Lancashire parkin – but it doesn’t contain oats and is not, in my very biased opinion, as good because of it.

Making this cake, really brought memories of Bonfire Night as a child growing up in Yorkshire and I must admit, I did have a massive pang of homesickness. Fireworks and bonfires are all well and good, but for me it is always about the food.

This cake has to be eaten to be believed; it will instantly make you feel a million times better if you are feeling down, now that the clocks have gone back. It has to be eaten with a piping hot cup of tea in one hand, preferable in front of a roaring bonfire. Failing that, a roaring fire inside with the dog.

The ingredients are very important here – any non-Brits may not be aware of two of the key ingedients: black treacle and golden syrup. Black treacle is essentially molasses so you can easily substitute there. However, many recipes that ask for golden syrup suggest using corn syrup as an alternative. Please, please, please do not do that. They are incomparable, find a shop with a British ‘aisle’ and get the real thing. Accept no substitute. The history of Lyle’s Golden Syrup is an interesting one and I shall tackle that in another post soon, along with some more golden syrup-based recipes. The recipe calls for weights of treacle and syrup – the best way to do this without creating a nighmarish sticky mess of a kitchen, is to place your saucepan onto the weighing scales, tare them, and then add the syrup and treacle directly.

One last thing… almost as important as the ingredients, is the aging of the parkin. No matter how tempting it may be, do not eat the parkin on the day you have made it. It needs to be kept in an airtight box or tin for at least three days. The cake needs a bit of time for the flavours and stickiness to develop.

Ingredients:

8 0z butter

4 oz soft dark sugar

2 0z black treacle (or molasses)

7 oz golden syrup

5 oz medium oatmeal (often sold sold as quick-oats)

7 oz self-raising flour

1 tsp baking powder

4 tsp ground ginger

2 tsp nutmeg

1 tsp mixed spice

2 large egg, beaten

2 tbs milk

Preheat the oven to 140⁰C (275⁰F) and lightly grease a square 7 x 7 inch cake tin. In a saucepan, melt together the butter, brown sugar, black treacle and golden syrup. It is important to do this on a medium-low heat, you don’t the sugars to boil, just to meld together.

Whilst they are melding, stir all the dry ingredients in a large mixing bowl and when the syrup mixture is ready, tip it in. Use a wooden spoon to beat the wet ingredients into the dry. Now incorporate the eggs – do this bit-by-bit, or you run the risk of curdling the mixture. Lastly, slacken the mixture with the milk and pour the whole lot into your cake tin.

Cook for 1 hour and 30 minutes and cool it in the tin. Once cool, keep the parkin in an air-tight cake tin or tub and keep for at least three days before cutting into squares.

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Filed under Biscuits, cake, food, history, Recipes, Teatime

Ce n’est pas une Macaron

If you look at old recipes for puddings, you’ll find they often require macaroons; sometimes as the sponge to soak up the booze at the bottom of a trifle, crumbled over the top of a dessert or used as part of the base to a cheesecake. Indeed, in Jane Grigson’s English Food, macaroons are needed for several recipes. She doesn’t give a recipe herself, and seeing as one of the blog’s roles is to try to fill in all the recipes that were omitted from English Food. If it had appeared, it would have been in the Biscuits section of the Teatime chapter.

However, don’t get macaroons confused with coconut macaroons – they are a relatively modern invention, old receipts require the classic macaroon, made of stiffly whipped egg whites and ground almonds. They are quite hard to find these days. If you are lucky, you might find them in a french bakery. Indeed, they are called french macaroons in America, and are found miniature-sized and sandwiched together with some buttercream. Delicious, of course, but no good for baking with.

The traditional macaroon is part-biscuit (cookie), part-meringue, wonderfully chewy and sweet. They are quite easy to make, though the mixture does need to be piped onto a tray. I recently made some for the 300th recipe for my other blog as  part of a trifle. Luckily for me they would be drowned in dessert wine and then covered with custard, so a deft piping hand was not required (as you can see in the pictures below).

Macaroons were originally invented by Italian monks and became popular in France in the 1530s when the pattisiers of King Henri II’s wife used the Italian recipe and started making them for the court. I dont’ know when they eventually made their way to Britain, but I am sure it was pretty soon after that, as French and English cuisine was very similar and they were always looking toward each other for inspiration, especially in those times. Most recipes from around that era are very difficult to pronounce either French or English as everything overlapped so much. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the idea of making tiny ones glued together with buttercream took off.

The modern brilliantly-coloured and tiny macaroons

My recipe below is based on two others:  one from Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 book The Experienced English Housekeeper, and the other from Martha Stewart’s website of all places. The older recipe includes orange flower or rose water, which was not used as a flavouring per se, but as a way to prevent the whole almonds turning into a paste when they were being ground. I like the taste, however, so I have included it in the recipe.

If you come across a recipe that requires macaroons, or you just want some to go with a cup of tea, here’s how to do it:

Ingredients:

5 1/2 oz icing (confectioners’ sugar)

4 oz ground almonds

3 egg whites

pinch of salt

2 oz caster (fine granulated) sugar

1 teaspoon rose water or orange flower water (optional)

Begin by mixing together the icing sugar and the ground almonds. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg white and salt until they form stiff peaks, i.e. if the turn the bowl upside down, everything stays within. Whisk in the caster sugar gradually so that the egg whites become glossy. Mix in the orange flower or rose water. Next, using a metal spoon, fold in the icing sugar and almonds. Take your time here as the mixture gets thick and tacky, and you don’t want to lose all the air from your whisked eggs.

Line a baking sheet with baking paper and grease it lightly. Pipe out the mixture leaving some space between each one as it will rise in the oven.

For small macaroons, use a number 4 tip, for larger use a bigger size or pipe out in a spiral shape. It’s up to you how careful you are – the classic shape is a dome.

Leave to dry for 15 to 30 minutes, depending upon size and humidity before baking at 180°C (350°F) with the oven door slightly ajar (use a wooden spoon handle!) for between 15 and 25 minutes, depending on size. You can tell when they are done when the tops go from shiny to dull. Remove from the oven and allow to cool on a rack.

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Filed under Biscuits, food, French Cookery, history, Recipes, Sixteenth Century, Teatime