Marion Smith, a Scottish friend and neighbour of my grandmother’s, was an expert shortbread maker. Every year she would make multiple batches of her shortbread to package up in tins and mail to faraway friends and family.
I loved Marion’s Scottish shortbread. It had the same basic ingredients — butter, sugar, flour — as my mom’s melt-in-your-mouth shortbread (also delicious). But it was dramatically different: Sturdier, more grainy, and always presented in plain petite wedges without any red and green sprinkles.
One year, Grandma managed to persuade Marion not only to part with her beloved shortbread recipe, but to give us both a live demonstration of how she made it. (It’s true, Grandma was very good at getting people to do things for her.)
So when I was 14 or 15, on an early December afternoon after school, I hopped on the bus and made my way to Grandma’s on East 22nd Avenue to learn the secrets of Marion’s shortbread.
I thought of Marion as quite a serious lady, and this afternoon was no exception. She was very precise about how soft the butter needed to be (soft but still slightly firm) and how it got to be that way (no microwaving allowed!).
She was most precise about the how. I was astounded when she unwrapped the butter and plunked it straight on the kitchen counter (what, no bowl??) and poured the berry sugar over top. Marion then used the palm of her hand to work the sugar into the butter, a little at a time, being careful to not let her hand get too warm.
Once she had a buttery-sugar ball, she proceeded to work in the white rice and all-purpose flours with her hands the same way, by putting them on the counter and using her hands to make the final dough. Formed into large rounds, lightly marked into wedges and then pricked with a fork, the shortbread that came out of the oven was exactly as Grandma and I had hoped.
I’ve continued to make Marion’s shortbread recipe every Christmas for years, but with my Kitchenaid mixer and paddle attachment rather than the counter and my hands. I’ve tried add-ins like like lemon zest and rosemary, or chunks of dark chocolate for a really decadent nibble. But the base dough has always been the same.
This year, with increasing demand for gluten-free goodies in our family, I thought it was time to experiment with Marion’s tried-and-true shortbread recipe.
I wanted to make only minor changes, to keep the shortbread as close to Marion’s as I could: I substituted (gluten-free) oats, ground finely in a food processor, for the all-purpose flour. I increased the amount of oat flour slightly. I also added freshly ground cardamom, which I thought would make a good complement. (Here’s instructions on toasting and grinding your own cardamom, even better than what you can buy in the stores.)
I knew the finely ground oats would make the texture more substantial, and it did. They have a satisfying buttery flavor and a nice crunch from the oats. And the tingle on the tongue when a fleck of cardamom hits it is, to me, absolutely divine.
Deep down, I wonder if Marion would have approved of such a radical departure from her trusted Scottish shortbread. But in my defense, oats have a strong connection to Scotland, with oat flour used in the earliest shortbread.
And now, even more members of the family can enjoy their buttery goodness. As someone who mailed out her prized shortbread to so many for so long, I’m sure Marion would understand.
An important note: Not all oats are gluten free. In fact, unless they’re labelled “gluten free” you can’t be sure that they haven’t been cross-contaminated with wheat, rye or barley. To be sure, make sure that labels say “certified gluten free oats” or “pure uncontaminated oats”.
When made with gluten-free oats, these are cookies that everyone can enjoy. The proportions here make a small batch of shortbread -- perfect for your own after-dinner nibbles during the holidays. You can easily double the recipe without any adjustments. Because more shortbread is better, right?
- 1/2 cup butter, softened
- 1/4 cup berry sugar
- 1 cup gluten-free oat flour (made from grinding gluten-free oats finely in a food processor)
- 1/2 cup white rice flour
- 1 teaspoon ground cardamom
- To make the oat flour: Put 1 cup oats in a food processor and process for 90 seconds or until they're finely ground into a powder-like consistency.
- In a medium bowl, combine butter and sugar and mix until combined. Add oat flour, rice flour and cardamom and work them into the butter and sugar. The dough will be crumbly, so use your hands to bring the dough together into a ball.
- Shape the dough into a log about 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Wrap tightly and chill for 30 minutes, or until it's fairly (but not completely) firm.
- Preheat oven to 325F and line baking sheets with parchment or non-stick baking mats.
- Slice the chilled dough into 1/2 inch thick pieces and place on parchment-lined baking sheet. (I used a serrated knife, which worked better than my chef's knife.) Leave a few inches between each cookie, as they'll spread a little during baking.
- Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the cookies are lightly browned on the bottom and sides. Place cookies on a cooling rack and let cool.
If you prefer a thinner shortbread, slice the chilled dough into thinner slices and adjust the baking time down to 12-15 minutes.