Hoots! Tomorrow is Burns Night, the unofficial celebration of all things Scottish in general, and specifically the life and times of the national poet, Robert (Robbie) Burns. Up and down the land, people will enjoy traditional fare consisting of haggis, neeps and tatties (swede and potatoes). Simple stuff, but usually rounded off with a lot of whisky and followed with a poetry recital and some energetic Scottish folk dancing.
As part of all this national pride, I’ve made some shortbread tablets with that traditional Scottish icon, the thistle. I’ve actually seen this mould sold online as a pineapple (“the symbol of generosity”) but if you know Scotland and the Scots, I don’t think they’re know for their pineapples or their (financial) generosity. Hospitality yes, but don’t expect them to walk around dishing out five pound notes. They’re a bit more “canny” (shrewd) than that.
I got rather into making moulded biscuits at Christmas, and I’ll admit that I got a bit cocky. I assumed that I had mastered using the smaller Springerle moulds, learning the knack of sprinkling flour onto the dough then pressing the mould into it. However, what works on a cookie this size of a domino fails rather dramatically when you make a large biscuit the size of a side plate. Instead, I had to go back to the instructions that came with the wooden mould, which directed me to press the dough into the well-floured mould, then whack it with quite some force onto the baking tray (“being careful not to break the mould”). Well, it was more farce than force, but after three attempts, it worked, and I got what seemed like a nice, sharp impression.
I was keen to use a recipe that didn’t puff up in the oven. I like light shortbread, and while it can be nice if a little airy, when you’re making a moulded biscuit like this, you want to be sure that it will remain pin-sharp after baking. As you can see from the picture, the image is not incredibly sharp after baking, but I rather like the rustic look that they have. If things turn our too perfect, you may as well buy them.
There’s also a little superstition about shortbread tablets – it is said that if given as a gift, you need to make sure that they are presented whole, and never broken up. The reason for this is that the shortbread symbolises luck, so a whole tablet is good luck and a broken piece is like shattering the mirror in someone’s front room and then blaming the cat. Alright, this is not quite accurate – the tradition only applies when presenting a shortbread to a new bride just after her marriage, but I think it could hold true whoever the recipient is. It’s also fun to bring it to the table and give someone the honour of breaking it into pieces.
If shortbread’s not your thing, then there are a few other pieces of Scottish culinaria that you could try. On the drinks side, you’ve got time to magic up a batch of Atholl Brose, the preferred tipple of Queen Victoria when she was in the Highlands. It is made from oats, honey, cream and whisky, and has a flavour not unlike Bailey’s. I made it last year for Hogmanay and it went down well indeed.
If that is not your thing, you could try another Scottish dessert – fresh orange slices with their own juice, a little honey and a dash of whisky. Very simple, but wonderful and so welcome after a heavy meal! Alternatively, you could make cranachan (with oats, cream, raspberries and honey), Scottish macaroon bars (lots of sugar and, eh, potato), tooth-achingly sweet tablet or the famous Ecclefechan butter tart. If sweet things are not your thing, some savoury options are good old-fashioned oatcakes or clapshot (a tasty mixture of potato and turnip/swede). Go forth and explore the cuisine of Scotland!
Wishing you a Happy Burns Night 2013!
To make shortbread:
Makes 2 shortbreads
• 175g plain flour
• 50g cornflour
• 50g caster sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
• 115g salted butter, chopped
1. Preheat the oven to 160°C (325°F). Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper (all the butter in the dough will ensure it does not stick, no need to grease).
2. Sift the flour, cornflour and sugar into a bowl. Add the butter and work with your fingertips until you have a soft dough. It will come together eventually. You can add a drop or two of water if you need to – but only a drop (and I didn’t use any).
3. Shape the dough – either press into a shortbread mould, or roll out and cut into fingers, or use biscuit cutters to shape the pieces. Place the shaped shortbread onto the baking sheet.
4. Bake until the shortbread a pale golden colour (around 40 minutes for a large pieces, smaller biscuits may cook in as little as 10 minutes). Remove from the oven, sprinkle with caster sugar, and leave to cool completely. Once cooled, shake off any excess sugar.
Worth making? This is a rich, short, simple biscuit which is one of the classics of Scottish baking. Lovely in small pieces after a meal or just with a cup of tea.