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« Mouse capades | Main | Easy breakfast casserole -- a holiday present for readers »

Nana's authentic Scottish shortbread - an heirloom recipe

My mother's mother, whom we called "Nana," came to New York City from Scotland in the early part of the last century. Because she had such a dominant personality and a thick Scottish accent, I remember her much more clearly than my father's mother.

Nana had little nicknames for all of my siblings and me: Brian-me-boy (which she pronounced "buy"), Red Feather (for my sister Heather), I was Gale Girl (which I use as a screen name today), and Rossi Bairn for my brother Ross. We thought she was saying Rossi Bear and still refer to my brother Ross as "Rossi Bear" today because we were just silly American kids. 

While I was growing up, she came to visit our farm in Berks County regularly even though she and my father fought a lot. Because of the delectables and recipes she shared, sometimes it seemed we were like a little Scottish outpost situated in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country.

Many of my memories of her revolve around food and tartan dresses. (Always tartan, never plaid, mind you. And let's not even get started about how most people mispronounce "Auld Lang Syne" by saying Syne as though it begins with a "Z".)

Nana's shortbread never looked fancy but it's the best I've ever tasted.In my previous post, I mentioned having received some heirloom recipes from my Scottish nana. So without further adieu, here is the recipe for my favorite treat Nana used to make--Scottish shortbread.

This recipe is the best in the world. Forget all those chi-chi shortbreads with rosemary, rosewater, and god-knows-what adulteration. This is the BEST recipe for authentic shortbread you'll ever find, and oh, so simple.

You can sort of hear my nana's personality in her recipe--she was a bossy one, that's for sure.  

My mother handwrote this recipe and gave it to me during my wedding shower in 1985:

Nana's Scottish Shortbread

1 lb. butter (no oleo)
1 full cup sugar
Cream butter and sugar. Then add 3 and 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 cup at a time.

Mix well and knead thoroughly. Add more flour if needed. The more you knead, the tastier the shortbread will be.

Pat the dough into a round, square, or oblong pan (don't roll it or grease the pan; the dough is rich enough). Prick with a fork all the through, top to bottom,  in a design if you can.

If you like thicker shortbread, use an 8 x 8--just watch that the bottom doesn't brown. If you like it a little thinner, an 11 x 7.5 x 1.5 (deep) is ideal. 

Bake in 300 degree (very slow) oven for 45-60 minutes. Don't let shortbread get brown on top. 

Happy baking!

* * * 

And of course, no post about Scottish food would be complete without invoking Rabbie Burns' famous blessing:

Some hae meat

by Robert Burns

Some hae meat and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thanit.

(And the fact that I posted this the day before St. Patrick's Day would make my nana even happier. If you're not sure why that is, then you've never grown up with Scottish people.)

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Reader Comments (39)

Thanks for your sharing

April 22, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrendapopular

I am trying your shortbread recipe and it is smelling good| Thank you for sharing.

July 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBruce Moore

Fantastic, Bruce. How did it turn out? :)

Look very good, want to try to do right now.

September 12, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterccloris

My father was from Scotland and I have his mother's recipe, which is essentially the same as yours, and I've made it for years. It's wonderful. I never knew my grandmother but I remember sitting with my aunt, chatting, while she kneaded and kneaded the dough. Lately I've been wondering about the kneading, whether I should do it, because all of the chefs say that working flour too much develops the gluten, which toughens baked goods. But your recipe also calls for a lot of kneading. And we had a kitchen tile containing the same Robert Burns poem that you posted. So I'm voting for kneading!

November 2, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermldono

Hi there. Thanks for stopping by my website. I hear what you are saying about the kneading. I've always wondered whether all that needing toughened the shortbread, too, but far be it from me to argue with MY nana.

Maybe I'll have to do two test batches this holiday season and report back the results on this blog.

Have a wonderful day!!!

November 3, 2013 | Registered CommenterGale Martin / @Gale_Martin

How large a pan should I use, please?

November 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMarcia

Hi, Marcia!

If you like thicker shortbread, use an 8 x 8--just watch that the bottom doesn't get too brown. If you like it a little thinner, an 11 x 7.5 x 1.5 (deep) is ideal. Happy baking!

November 16, 2013 | Registered CommenterGale Martin / @Gale_Martin

This is the exact recipe we learned from our north of England grandma.. -- somehow it has always tasted so much better than anyone else's! I think the "slow oven" in the wood stove was part of the magic --

December 1, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteranne duggan

Hi Gale: December 13, 2013

I "get" the "Some Have Meat" Robbie Burns..poem…Awww yes…St. Pats day…Timing!
I was at Robbie burns farm home in Scotland…loved it…Pipers were in deep competion on the grounds…Canada pipers won. Pleased me to no end…(I am a Canadian, with English history. Sommerset…Glastonbury).
I will give your Nana's receipe a go…no vanilla in it??..and that needing worries me..but will try it… you have obviously eaten it, and hope its really good, and not just a memory from your past of your Nana's cooking..Nostalgia. I did buy some Scottish shortbread in Scotland, and it was to die for…here in Canada its not that good. Thanks so much…enjoyed your Nana's verbage for her sweet grandchildren. You were Blessed to have had her..and yes…their tough and their bossy…strict. !!

Toodle , Holli From: Maple Ridge BC Canada

December 13, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHolli Asher

Hi, Holli!

So glad you stopped by. Yes, my grandmother's recipe is simple as can be. No vanilla in her recipe. Doesn't mean you can't add it, but you might want to try it first.

I've made this for decades. It's very delicious. (I've also cut down on the butter a bit lately and tend to cut it into smaller pieces because it's so rich.)

Now, I want to go see where Maple Ridge is in BC!

Toodles back. :)

December 14, 2013 | Registered CommenterGale Martin / @Gale_Martin

Hi, going to make that shortbread right now and hope it's as good as my Mom's. She has passes and I didn't think to get her recipe. Anyhow, your recipe doesn't say when to cut it. Score in the pan before baking? Cut as soon as it comes out of the oven? Let cool then cut? Or does it matter? Thanks for sharing your Nana's recipe.
Kerry, Langley, B.C., Canada (Across the river from Maple Ridge)

December 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterKerry

Hi, Kerry! Thanks for visiting. I never cut it right away. I let it cool about 15 minutes. I never tried scoring it in the pan but you certainly could and let me know where it works out. My nana always just did a toothpick design instead. Hope it turns out!

December 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterGale Martin / @Gale_Martin

My granny was the offspring of 2 scots in Australia. She always made the shortbread to give at Christmas but we were never allowed to break it to eat until midnight - for Homany (the new year). On her passing the tradition and role of baker jumped my mother and passed directly to me at the age of 16 and 30 years on I am still trying to work out her recipe which was sadly never written down. Hers was the most sublime shortbread. Firm and white to look at but melt in the mouth smooth textured and buttery. Vanilla is an absolute no no but she definitely used ground rice. Every year as I bake the shortbread rounds for the family the smell evokes memories of my grandmother and the honor that maybe, just maybe this year I will have made it taste just like hers. In the meantime I am happy that my friends and family always want more. For a very fine short shortbread try using pure icing sugar instead of white sugar. And remember to pay all your bills before the year end and clean your house from top to toe to start he new year well - a must in my Scottish heritage family.

I too grew up with Burn's grace hanging in my granny's and mother's kitchens.

December 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFaery

Hello Fiona! What a lovely Scottish name! It's too bad she never wrote down her recipe, especially since it goes further than the standard three ingredients used centuries ago. Yes, I have made it with icing sugar before and it's kind of fun to see how the end product tastes differently with each small change.

Hope your Christmas was merry and bright. Thank you for sharing your family traditions with me and my readers. And have a very happy new year.

December 26, 2013 | Registered CommenterGale Martin / @Gale_Martin

Thank You for posting your Nanas' recipe. Could you please say what type of flour? Cake, all-purpose, etc. I canna wait to bake this.

February 23, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterM'Kennaugh

Hi, there. You can just use all-purpose white flour. Unbleached is okay. But whole wheat is a no-no. Thanks for stopping and best of luck to you.

I've made shortbread from this recipe 3 times now
and it has been GREAT! each time!!

Thank you, NANA!!!
And thank YOU for sharing this, "Gale Girl"!

March 7, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteratelierbenoît

You are so welcome. Very kind of you to let me know!! Have a wonderful weekend.

St Patrick's day is Ireland's patron saint. Scotland's patron saint is St Andrew. The Saint's day is on November 30th. The national flag of Scotland is the St Andrew's cross, sometimes called the Saltire.

April 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJim

This message is actually for faery. I found a very old recipe card of my grandmothers and it had a recipe that used rice flour and remembered your dilemma. The recipe is as follows:

1/4 cup confectioners sugar
1/4 cup fine granulated sugar
1 cup butter
1/3 cup rice flour
1 2/3 cup unbleached flour

Mix sugars and cream with butter. "Gradually incorporate flour with hands, and butter sugar mixture until smooth. DO NOT OVERWORK. simply pat dough into mild to a thickness of approximately 1/2 thick"(her exact words)

I hope it makes the one your grandma used to make =)

April 30, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterT4man

I am going to try this for sure..

June 19, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJennel Kingsley

Thanks for posting this recipe. We are going to try it as part a heritage report that my son is working on for his 6th grade Social Studies report.

November 24, 2014 | Unregistered Commentersheryl

For your general information and to help others I have just a few tips for the recipie.

If you are cooking the shortbread in a fan oven pre-heat your oven to 130°c and cook the shortbread at this temperature.

For a fan oven cook the shortbread for 50-60 minutes. I found that the shortbread was still a little underdone at the 45 minute mark. I would reccomend turning the tin around at the 25 minute mark to cook the shortbread evenly.

As for the tin I used a normal sized metal baking tray with about a 1 inch lip/edge around the whole tray. I did spread the dough out evenly in this tray and this seemed to give the shortbread a good depth size and also seemed to cook the shortbread very evenly.

Overall I hope this helps anyone who is a bit unsure of fan oven and tin choices and I thank gale martin for posting this amazing recipie of your grandma's. Kind regards, Jack

November 28, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJack The Baker

I have just made your recipe and its baking in the oven. I was born in Broxburn, Mid Lothian, Scotland and grew up in Ayrshire three miles from Rabbie Burns' cottage. My granny from Stoneyburn always made the best shortbread and never left me the recipe either. I have made many different recipes over the years but yours sounds close to what me Granny used to make. Thank you.
Joy Sparks
Peachland, B.C.

November 29, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoy Sparks

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