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Scottish shortbread - recipe and also geometry

Scottish shortbread, a buttery biscuit, is iconic like haggis, but in shape shortbread triangles are really sectors. (Or tangential quadrilaterals.) Help.

Scottish shortbread

The Scottish cookery carb-fest certainly includes Scottish shortbread, a sweet biscuit / cookie that is both still baked at home and also made and exported on an industrial scale. There are a number of big names in Scotland’s own shortbread industry. These include Walkers of Aberlour. I feel honour-bound to mention them as I once toured their factory, as part of an exercise in writing a company history for them, as a sponsored book. I had to throw in a history of Scotland as well. (Gosh, that was a long time ago but it was nice to meet my editor for the first time while we were both wearing hygienic hair-nets and white coats.)

And I also recall a friend of mine who happened to be holidaying in Bangkok one Hogmanay. As a true Scot he ‘imported’ several packets of Walkers’ shortbread for the occasion. He then discovered that the local shops were full of the stuff, having forgotten that this company exports worldwide and wins awards for it.

As a North-East loonie (laddie), I also like Deans of Huntly, partly because their Scottish shortbread tastes nice and also, irrationally, because my great-grandfather was the postman there, in Huntly in rural Aberdeenshire, after he left the Gordon Highlanders. Enough already.

Scottish shortbread by Walkers of Aberlour – a global brand

Scottish shortbread by Walkers of Aberlour – a global brand

(Pictured here) As a well-resourced company, in their search for shortbread names, Walkers knew that, for example, ‘shortbread tangential quadrilaterals’ was never going to catch on, as it was too much of a mouthful (unlike their shortbread, which is usually just right for several mouthfuls).

So they thought about it a bit more and came up with ‘Shortbread triangles’, as pictured here. Aaargh! Terrible geometric mistake. Cancel the packaging order. This shape, as every schoolboy knows, is really a sector (of a circle), geometrically speaking, because a triangle has straight sides. ‘Shortbread sectors’ – see? Not the worst name now, is it? Especially as Walkers are leading producers in the, uhmm, shortbread sector. My wife has just walked past, muttering ‘Shortbread anorak…’ (You know I'm making all of this up, don't you?)

Scottish shortbread under construction in the Shortbread House, Edinburgh

Scottish shortbread under construction in the Shortbread House, Edinburgh

Anyway, Scottish shortbread seems to have mediaeval origins as some kind of celebratory cake recipe. One form of it is still seen as ‘petticoat tails’ – basically a round cake cut into sectors. 

Sometimes you hear that it’s from the French ‘petites gatelles’. Putting that into Google suggests you might mean ‘petites galettes’ and, anyway, the Annals of the Cleikum Club says ‘…we rather think the name petticoat tails has its origins in the shape of the cakes, which is exactly that of the bell-hoop petticoat of our ancient Court ladies.’

(Also pictured here) Not all shortbread is made at home. But Scotland’s shortbread makers on a large scale are pretty good! This is the Shortbread House of Edinburgh.

Scottish Shortbread recipe

Here is an old traditional Scottish shortbread recipe, for a round of shortbread, baked as festive cake at Hogmanay (Scotland’s New Year Festival, formerly more important than Xmas). Use 8 oz / 27g flour, 4 oz / 113g rice flour, 8 oz / 227g butter, 4oz / 113g castor sugar.

Carefully blend the butter and sugar by hand on a board. Mix the flour and rice flour together, then work this gradually into the butter and sugar, until the dough is of the consistency of short-crust. Make sure it does not become oily (possibly in hot weather therefore unlikely in Scotland) or rubbery with over-mixing. The less it is kneaded the shorter and crisper the shortbread.

Do not roll out – as this can toughen the dough – but press by hand into two round cakes either in shortbread moulds or on baking-paper. The proportions should be in the ratio of three-quarters of an inch thick for an 8 inch diameter cake. (That’s 1.9 x 20.3 cm.) Pinch the edges all round by way of decoration and prick with a fork all over. Oven cook for around 30 mins at 150 C. (gas mark 2) to get it crisp and very light golden brown. And as you have the oven on anyway...what about some scones?


I know we were on shortbread a moment ago, but somehow, I am seduced by scones. And this recipe had to go somewhere.

Lightness, coolness and quickness in the dough-making seems to be key in all of the many scone recipes (such as Johanna’s granny’s scone recipe. Mrs MacNab was a farmer’s wife near Ballater. That town, of course, is near Balmoral Castle, the royal family’s holiday hideaway in Scotland ever since Queen Victoria had it built. So great was the reputation of Mrs MacNab’s scones that distinguished guests at Balmoral, including King Frederick of Prussia, used to pop in for tea regularly (or so the story goes.) This Frederick was really Kaiser Frederick III – the one who married Queen Vikki’s eldest daughter, called after her mother.

I imagine Mrs MacNab, passing the scones, desperate for a conversational gambit, saying in her fine Aberdeenshire accent ‘An foo’s yer mither-in-laa?' (How is your mother-in-law.) To which Kaiser Fred would reply. ‘Ach, still ze queen…

Anyway, if you want to attract German nobility with one of the famous recipes from Scotland, mix 16 oz / 454 g flour with a teaspoon of salt, a small tsp of bicarbonate of soda and 2 small tsp of cream of tartar.Rub in 2 oz / 55g butter. Stir in a beaten egg and a half-pint / 284ml buttermilk. On a floured board, knead by hand as lightly as possible. Tear into big enough pieces of dough to enable you to cut them into ‘scone-size’ quarters, having pricked them with a fork. (This is our interpretation of the original instructions.) But, basically, handle the mixture as little as possible. It seems that both Mrs MacNab and Johanna’s granny had really cold hands. (So that’s where Johanna got her own cold hands from……trust me.) Finally, bake in a very hot oven for 10-15 minutes.

Here's Johanna's own family scone recipe. I think it would have been just as good as Mrs Macnab's. But Johanna's granny never entertained the Kaiser...