SO WHY IS FRUITCAKE FUNNY?
It’s one of the more unexpected differences between Christmas in the US and the UK, where a rich, dark, boozy fruitcake glistening with mixed peel and studded with chopped nuts is not only the cake to gorge on at this time of year, but is also the cake under all that fancy icing at a wedding.
Don’t get me wrong, not everyone over there likes fruitcake. But then not everyone likes chocolate or ice-cream either (hey, my dad doesn’t like mashed potato; takes all kinds) but there’s no sniggering about it. There’s no muttering that anyone who manages to choke a slice down is a sucker. For Brits, the comedy Christmas food is Brussels sprouts.
So when it comes to a seasonal recipe to share (Did I say I’ve got a Christmas-set mystery coming out? See below.), I know there’s no point doing the cake walk. I rattled through the other options: Black Bun – all the same ingredients but with the fruit and nuts inside and the flour in the form of a pastry shell around them; Clootie Dumpling – basically a Christmas cake with added suet, boiled in a cloth bag; Mince Pies – guess what’s minced.
Then I remembered shortbread! No fruit. No nuts. No peel. No suet. And (especially for Janet Rudolph) you can dip it in chocolate if you want to.
So here is my easy-peasy, comedy-free, recipe for Scottish shortbread, as served at New Year with a wee glass of whatever takes your fancy.
9oz plain flour
6oz cold butter
3 oz sugar
Extra sugar for dusting.
You will need a large flat baking sheet.
Set the oven to 325F.
Mix the flour and sugar.
Chop up the butter into little cubes, the smaller the better, with a cold knife.
Grease the baking sheet with the butter wrapper.
Using the tips of your fingers (avoiding the warmth of your palms) rub the butter into the flour/sugar. (This means lifting up pinches and twizzling your fingers and thumbs as if you’re trying to decide whether something is real silk or rayon.) Eventually the pile of flour/sugar plus butter lumps combines to look like fine breadcrumbs.
Now work the mixture with one hand until it’s a ball sitting in a clean bowl.
Divide it into two halves. Shape each one into a round and roll them out on a board until they’re about ¼ inch thick.
Move the rounds onto the baking sheet. They should slide if you tip the board.
Mark them out into portions (like a pizza), prick holes in each slice with a fork and, again with the fork, press crimps into the perimeter (like the flounce on a petticoat. (Lightbulb! This might be why we sometimes call these Petticoat Tails.))
Bake for about half an hour, until the shortbread is pale gold in colour.
Dredge with sugar as soon as you remove it from the oven.
Snap into individual pieces when it’s completely cold.
Shortbread keeps for weeks in an airtight tin, but rarely gets the chance to (even if there’s fruitcake, black bun, mince pies and clootie dumpling in the house).
Full disclosure: this is not a picture of my shortbread. I’ve scoured my files and concluded that I’ve never taken a picture of my shortbread. But this is as close to honest as the internet could bring me.
Happy Holidays, everyone.
THE REEK OF RED HERRINGS, set in an Aberdeenshire fishing village at the wedding season (aka Christmas) in 1931, comes out on the 13th of December. If you pre-order between now and midnight on the 12th, I’ll send you an exclusive short story and enter you in a drawing to win a bundle of all eleven Dandy Gilver novels. And I’ll send you some shortbread too. See here for details.
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