04 July 2011

All Butter, All the Time: Bets's Shortbread

Ask any of the dozens who enjoyed my mother’s hospitality over the years to recall something she served, and a healthy majority would mention The Shortbread. Buttery, irresistible, and always appropriate, shortbread was Bets’s go-to contribution, “the only recipe I can carry in my head,” she told me one time. So identified with her kitchen were these squares of buttery delight that I was surprised to learn the recipe actually came from our family friend, Dolly. The few lines needed for the finished product, on a scrap of blue paper, are written in an unfamiliar hand, probably Dolly’s, and feature a couple of doodle sketches. (Dolly is also an accomplished artist, but as I look, I think these show two slicing methods for the finished product—into wedges or squares—depending on the shape of the pan.) The impromptu slip of paper suggests a recipe quickly jotted down at a dinner party or outdoor gathering. My mother annotated the recipe after the fact: “ShortBread—Dolly” appears in the upper right hand corner; she also wrote “thickness” sideways next to the baking directions. The ink is blotted and the paper stained and smudged with use.

My first December at grad school in Texas, my friend Beth and I decided to throw a holiday party for our fellow English grad students. In those pre-email, pre-internet days, I had to phone my mom to get her shortbread recipe. Like hers, my own copy of the recipe is scrawled on a piece of scrap paper, also blue. With additional directions for trifle, mulled wine, and hot spiced cider (and a notice on the obverse about student-rate subscriptions to the Houston Chronicle), my recipe has lived between the pages of my More With Less cookbook for years.

To make (as written):

1 lb butter

1 cup sugar

4 cups flour

Mix and pat into 9 x 13”

bake in slow until lightly brown

1 ½ hour — 200˚ —

I would add only a caveat or two from my own copy: once the browning starts, watch carefully because all that butter will burn, burn, burn. Cut into squares or wedges while still hot. Delightful at teatime, a rich finish to any meal, and suitable for Christmas giving in a decorative tin, these little deadlies keep well, freeze well, and please well.


  1. I suspect that the line marked "thickness" was meant to be a gauge for how wide to slice the finished shortbread; I remember your mom's version fondly, and it was always cut into little bars about an inch wide. It could also have referred to the depth of the batter in the pan. Either way, it was a clever idea to mark it right on the physical recipe-slip itself!

  2. Thank ye, oh timely blogstress! Yesterday I was at a wedding shower for my cousin and they had recipe cards: "Share a recipe with the bride." As I hardly ever cook, I have none memorized. Bets's shortbread recipe is online, I thought! And I had my new iPhone with me! I came to your blog and shared the recipe - gave credit to you and Bets.

    I did add a step to it though: once the cookies are made, the final step is for her to call me to help eat them. (: - Jen