grandma’s scottish shortbread

Grandma's Scottish Shortbread 1

Every year, as Christmas nears, I intend to whip up a few batches of my grandmother’s traditional Scottish shortbread. And every year, it’s the same story: time slips through my hands, I get a little too wrapped up in other holiday festivities, Christmas is suddenly about 10 minutes away, and I decide that I just don’t. have. time. Fortunately, common sense and a whole lot of sentimentality eventually prevails.

Of course Scottish shortbread can be made and enjoyed any time of the year, but right around now, it feels right to honor my grandmother. Growing up, we used to drive from Wisconsin to Raton, New Mexico to visit my grandparents at Christmas. My grandmother immigrated to the Southwest from the Glasgow area of Scotland with her family (and twin brother) when she was a child.

These cross-country visits were full of juxtapositions: roadrunner birds, tumbleweeds, rattlesnakes, and a collection of delicate tea cups in the dining room hutch. Their house was not large, but it was always filled with visitors from the local area and from afar. They were extremely hospitable. I remember that a wall of glass brick separated the kitchen from the dining room, there was always a bowl of fruit on the formica table, and after every meal we were always treated to a tin of…shortbread.

grandmaMy grandmother was a kind woman – there was a quiet strength to her and also a femininity (I never saw her in anything but a dress.) Mostly, I remember that that she was an extremely attentive listener: the way she turned her head and looked at you out of the side of her eyes when you were talking made you think she was hearing things you hadn’t even thought to say yet. Regrettably, I never made shortbread with my grandmother (she passed away when I was in college), but my mother (her daughter in law) enjoyed doing so, and she shared the tradition with me. This shortbread is unique – it’s less buttery, more dense, and not quite as sweet as other versions. In case you’d like to make it yourself, I’ve decided to share a few tips…

First, suit up in your favorite apron. At my wedding shower, my mother gave me the hand-sewn apron she received from Grandma so many years ago. And this is now the first step in my shortbread process. (Note: you do not have to wear an apron made by my grandmother in order to make this shortbread.)

grandma's apron

Next, I load up some holiday tunes. This is an all-time favorite:

A Charlie Brown Christmas

I gather the ingredients together. There are only four:

shortbread ingredients

The butter needs to be soft. If you forget this, and only take it out of the refrigerator at the last minute, do whatever you need to do in order to soften it:

butter by the fire

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Whip two sticks of butter with a mixer. Then add 1/2 cup of confectioners sugar, and 1/2 cup of corn starch. Whip some more. Then add 2 cups of sifted flour and stir with a spoon. Though the batter will seem extremely dry, do not despair – it’s just time to get your hands in the mix. Squish the dough through your fingers for a few minutes –  the heat of your hands will melt the butter slightly and squeeze out any air bubbles.

shortbread dough

When the dough is smooth, separate it into five little balls. Shape them into flat discs with your hands, a bit larger than hockey pucks. (Thank you to Rob for taking these action shots):

shortbread discs

Do some fancy forkwork around the edges:

shortbread fancy forkwork

Cut into four sections and then do some more fancy forkwork on the top of the cookies:  shortbread design

Place the cookies on the bottom rack of the oven for 15 minutes, then on the top rack for another 15 minutes.

shortbread on baking sheet

Unlike chocolate chip cookies, brownies, and just about every other baked good, these aren’t meant to be eaten warm – try to employ a little patience and wait until they are room temperature. I suggest a snack at this point. This time, I rustled up some chips and salsa as a nod to the southwest:

chips and salsa

When ready, Scottish shortbread is best enjoyed with a wee spot of tea. This is one of my grandmother’s tea cups and the plate is just like her china pattern. That cute round Santa was given to us by my Aunt Margaret (her daughter). His hat is actually a small spreader:

shortbread with tea

To give them as gifts, I wrap the cookies individually in wax paper for freshness, then pack them in little bags. I usually tie these with a plaid bow, but I couldn’t find any thin plaid ribbon this year, so I made due with these plastic sashes.

shortbead in a bag

This recipe makes 20 cookies. This year I made three batches. Whatever you do, don’t eat too many of them yourself, or you’ll run out of cookies to give as gifts. Then you’ll have to make another batch… Yup, I ended up baking a fourth batch yesterday.

shortbread in a bowl

Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

My blogging buddy Jen over at Nyack Backyard has been getting creative with her grandmother’s pizzelles. What are you baking these days?


Thanks for reading! Here is the recipe without all the editorializing:


  • 1/2 pound butter (2 sticks), softened
  • 1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
  • 1/2 cup corn starch
  • 2 cups flour, sifted
  • preheat oven to 300 degrees
  • beat butter to make creamy
  • add sugar and corn starch, beating slowly
  • add flour slowly (in stages), fold in with a spoon
  • knead until smooth with hands and until it can be cut with a knife
  • shape into 1/2 inch tall discs, press fork around circumference, cut into fours, and put three fork pokes into each
  • bake 15 minutes on bottom rack and 15 minutes on top rack

13 replies

  1. Ah ha!!!! Now I know the secret recipe :). I have room on my neighbor-gift-plates for one more treat. Since the divinity I tried to make turned out more like marshmallows, this will be perfect :). That was a lovely post, and my favorite part was the picture of you and your grandmother. ;). Merry Christmas!

    • I don’t even know what divinity is, so you are way ahead of me on that one 🙂 That pic is a good one – when you are 9/10 I was perfectly fine wearing a skating dress whilst not on the ice, ha!

  2. Great blog, Joc. What a wonderful tribute to Grandma and what a great picture of you both. Grandma would be so proud that you make her Scottish Shortbread every year and you make it so well. Delicious!

  3. As a lucky holiday recipient for many years, I have been looking forward to grandma’s shortbread all year! I don’t share it with my family so now I guess I can make some for them, I guess…

  4. Absolutely marvelous story. Loved it. Btw, the plate with the wild rose pattern is the same pattern my grandmother had. I still have a piece or two of it, salt and pepper shakes somewhere. Hope you have a wonderful Christmas. I can’t tell you enough how special it was to see you this summer. Love you.

  5. An army of gingerbread men has been known to sally forth from my kitchen at this time of year, but alas time has unfortunately slipped past me this year. Maybe next….

  6. I wait for that shortbread every Christmas and smile with every last crumb. Yum Yum Yum. I will store the recipe in my “goody” foody folder.

    Merry White Christmas to you and the families.

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