Steam fogs my kitchen windows as I slide octagons of Scottish shortbread onto a wooden cutting board. The toasty fragrance of butter and flour lingers over the counter, and Scottish fiddle music fills the room.
Over the years, I have experimented with various shortbread recipes gleaned from cookbooks and slim pamphlets published in Scotland and Ireland. But eventually I discovered that none compares to the shortbread recipe passed on by a family friend.
Chris Penman and her husband immigrated to America before World War II, bringing with them their thick brogues, a stack of Kenneth MacKellar records, and recipes from the Scottish Highlands.
Mrs. Penman joined my mother's sewing circle in our Presbyterian church. When, as a girl, I attended those gatherings with my mother, I listened to Mrs. Penman describe how bagpipe music sent tears down her cheeks, and that nothing tasted better with a cup of tea than her shortbread.
She introduced the church members to lemon curd, black bun, and, at Christmastime, her special shortbread. After sampling her sublime cookies, all of the women craved the rich shortbread that melted on their tongues, and naturally they begged her for the recipe.
"You must use real butter," Mrs. Penman warned as she passed out the recipe cards. "And after you measure the ingredients onto a breadboard, you must knead them together for 30 minutes. 'Tis tradition to shape the shortbread into rounds. When friends break off a chunk, their fingers meet, a reminder of the love linking their hearts."
Even before I set up housekeeping on my own, I baked shortbread for my college friends. And although I was accustomed to kneading bread dough, my arms grew weary the first time I squeezed and rubbed the crumbly mixture between my fingers for half an hour.
Still, like any repetitive work, the moments devoted to kneading allowed my mind to slide into memories of Christmas caroling and numerous church friends who had wrapped their arms around my childhood.
At some point, my mother decided to alter the tradition by making her shortbread in a food processor instead of doing all that kneading by hand.
But I cling to the old way. With a CD of a spirited Scottish harper playing, a fiddle tune dances through my fingers as I work the butter and flour into a soft ball.
Sometimes I bake the traditional rounds and take them to potluck suppers. But today I press the dough into a mold embellished with Scottish thistles, a gentle reminder of the country that created this treat and those fast-paced reels.
The faint echo of Mrs. Penman's brogue lingers in my mind as I remember the joy she shared with her new friends as their fingers reached for her shortbread.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup rice flour
1/2 cup superfine sugar
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Place all ingredients in a large mixing bowl and knead together by hand for about 15 minutes. Place on a breadboard and continue to knead for 15 minutes more, or until dough is smooth.
Divide dough in half. Pat each half into a round 9-inch cake pan. Or pat into two equal circles on a lightly greased cookie sheet. (To make the shortbread easier to cut into pieces, you can use fork tines to prick holes in the surface, dividing the dough into 8 pie-shaped segments.)
Place both round pans on a cookie sheet. Put cookie sheet into the oven and bake 20 to 30 minutes, or until the shortbread is golden and the edges are firm.
Remove from oven and cut into segments, if desired. Let cool before removing from pan. Store shortbread in a plastic bag.
Makes 16 shortbread cookies.