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A long short story

'Short' is a funny little word. But you know what it means. Shorten a story and it gets smaller. That's how you cut a long story short.

But for some reason, 'shorten' (vb) has another meaning, namely to add fat to, in order to make something tender and flaky eg pastry, shortbread biscuits. An old meaning of 'short' is crumbly, as in short pastry — and shortbread, traditional in Scotland at Hogmanay.

    Who put the short in shortbread?
    It wis me, ma, it wis me.
    I added the butter and mixed it all up
    and baked it in cookies for tea.

    Who et the hale plate o shortbread?
    It wis you, ma, it wis you.
    I made it, I baked it, I gaed to wash up —
    you scoffed it afore I wis through.

Once, long ago, my mum taught me how to make shortbread. At least, she said she would. But 'helping' her with any bit of cooking really meant watching her do it.

I would look on as she weighed the ingredients and rubbed the fat into the flour and sugar with her finger-tips. Then she pressed the mixture into a solid mass, lifted it onto the work surface, and rolled it flat with the big rolling pin.

I sat on the tall stool and observed. When would I be allowed to do something?

Finally, I was allowed to cut cookies out of the dough with the pastry cutter and prick each one with a fork, a neat pattern of dots.

She was the one who put the tray of biscuits into the oven, and lifted them out again when the 'pinger' buzzed.

I shook the caster sugar over them. Oh, and I ate them.

My mother was a good baker and rarely used a recipe. She did teach me how to remember the ingredients for shortbread. 'It's easy,' she said. 'Just remember 6, 4 and 2. Six for the flour, four for the butter, two for the caster sugar. Divide by two and it's 3, 2, 1. That's the proportions and they always stay the same, no matter how many biscuits you make.' 

This lesson stuck, though I was no arithmetician (nor was she).

More than sixty years later, I make shortbread a lot. 

Tonight I'm making it for Hogmanay. I associate it with my mother, of course, who also sang a lot. It came back to me this evening that one of her regular numbers was 'Momma's little baby loves shortnin' bread'. I always assumed 'shortnin' bread' was shortbread. In the USA, 'shortening' is baking fat. In the UK, all that remains of 'short' in that sense is 'shortcrust' pastry and 'shortbread'.

Happy New Shortbread!


Fresh-baked shortbread. A good time to drop in.
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