Great-grandma’s shortbread served on thistle china

Story by SALLY GRACE HOLTGRIEVE
Photo by RICHARD CREED

I have thistle china and a shortbread recipe from my Great-Grandma Armstrong, all from Glasgow, Scotland.

When my grandmother and namesake, Sally Ann, married into the Armstrong family at age 18, she happily agreed to carry on the tradition of making shortbread for Christmas. “It doesn’t taste the same as mum’s,” my grandfather told her the first time she made it. Sally Ann consulted Great-Grandma Armstrong, who told her it was all in the kneading — you have to knead the dough just right and allow the warmth from your hands to melt the butter. Sally Ann tried again, and still her husband insisted it was different.

“Can I make the shortbread alongside you to see exactly how you knead it?” my grandmother asked my great-grandmother. The pair made the desert cookie together, and as they mixed, Great-Grandma Armstrong suddenly reached up into the cabinet, grabbed a tin, took out a handful of something and tossed it into the bowl.

“What was that?” asked Sally Ann.

“Rice flour,” Great-Grandma Armstrong replied absently. Incredulous, Sally Ann looked at her mother-in-law and told her she had no idea one put rice flour in shortbread.

“Ach,” Great-Grandma Armstrong said in her thick Scottish brogue. “Everyone knows you put rice flour in shortbread.”

And that’s the secret recipe. My own mother grew up knowing the special ingredient and the story that went with it. Throughout her childhood and mine, piles of shortbread dominated the cookie trays at Christmas time.

When my mom married my dad, she made shortbread for their first Christmas together. She handed him a plate full of the rich cookies, assuming he’d take a few. “He ate them like popcorn,” is how she tells the story now. Dad did not feel great that night, however, he still loves shortbread and his intake must be monitored to this day.

This year, I’ll be making my family’s Scottish shortbread for my Filipino fiance, even though he’s the chef of the house. We’ll eat it off Great-Grandma Armstrong’s thistle china and we’ll make some bonnie new stories of our own.

Great-Grandma Armstrong’s Scottish Shortbread cookies

2 cups flour
1 cup softened quality salted butter
½ cup fine (bar) sugar
5 tablespoons rice flour

Cream butter by hand until smooth. Add in sugar and combine with butter.
Add both flours to the mixture.
Turn dough onto a hard surface and knead until all ingredients are thoroughly mixed (about 2 to 3 minutes).
Spread ½-inch thick on ungreased cookie sheet.
Prick with a fork.
Bake at 350 degrees for 20 to 30 minutes (watch closely).
Cut into 1-inch squares and serve.

Tips: Use quality salted butter, it makes a difference.
The sugar has to be fine sugar, which is usually sold as bar sugar in the grocery store.
Make sure the rice flour is white rice flour, not brown rice flour.
Use white flour as the regular flour.
Always mix with your clean hands.

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