The mothership arrived in London today. She is here to spend Christmas with me and the Princess. I am, naturally, baking things in preparation for a week of festivities next week. There are also meetings and various people I’d like to give something too, if only an edible token of appreciation, and so I have spent most of this morning in the kitchen, and not at my desk where the essay writing is piling up fast. No matter, I will deal with that this evening, when it is too dark to take good photographs. I am feeling surprisingly festive this year. It’s my first in Nottingham since moving here three years ago (!!!) and my first in a space I can realistically have guests and people to stay. So I am embracing all the lights and trees and baking. (I also finished up my wreath this morning, drying some orange slices in the oven. It’s a lavender, rosemary and bay leaf wreath – all the materials came from the community garden! And it is now hanging on my front door, looking pretty.)
So these shortbreads. I first learnt to make them when I worked at Gleneagles. They are the pastry chef, Neil Mugg’s, recipe and he got it from his grandmother. So this is something like a 100 year old Scottish shortbread recipe. I love it. Since working with Neil I have never used another recipe and it is adaptable if you’d like to make it gluten-free*. Today I made just plain vanilla trees, but you can add in ingredients like pistachios, lavender or chocolate chips if you like. I’m a fan of the simplicity of the vanilla version, but feel free to adapt it. The quantities are scalable up or down – we used to make it in the hotel using between one and five kilograms of flour at a time, today I used the quantities below, just 250 grams of flour. This amount made 22 Christmas trees and 19 stars (of various sizes). I also changed up the method for this recipe. We used to blitz everything together all at once but I prefer to cream the butter and sugar together first.
Things to note: this is shortbread which means that the dough is ‘short’. It can be difficult to work with and so refrigerating it is fairly necessary. If you’d prefer not to roll the dough out and cut out shapes, you can press it into a square or round baking tin and bake it like that. You need to then cut slices when it is still warm from the oven. I often just pat the dough down to the required thickness, and then roll it smooth with a rolling pin. Try not to overwork the dough!
From Neil Mugg’s recipe
250g butter, softened
125g icing sugar
250g plain flour
1 tsp vanilla
caster sugar for sprinkling
Preheat the oven to 160C and line two trays with baking paper. (This makes a fair amount of cookies and so you’ll probably need to bake in rotation. I used four trays altogether.)
In a bowl, sift the icing sugar onto the softened butter. Beat this, using a handheld beater (or in your standing mixer, if you have such a luxury), until bright white and fluffy.
Add in the vanilla, beating to combine and then add in the cornflour and plain flour. Use the beater to beat until the dough starts to come together.
Turn this out onto a lightly floured surface and knead the dough lightly. Roll into a ball, flatten and clingfilm. Refrigerate for an hour.
Roll out the dough until it is about 1/2 to 3/4cm thick. Cut shapes and place these on the lined baking trays.
Bake for approximately 20 minutes. I think traditionally, shortbreads were cooked so that they had no colour but I like mine ever so slightly golden. The shortbreads are done if you can move them along the baking sheet with your thumb. Remove them from the oven and sprinkle with caster sugar whilst they are still warm. Allow to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.
Enjoy with friends. And tea.
*For the gluten-free version, substitute the flour with 125g rice flour and 125g ground almonds. The texture is slightly different due to the almonds.