Monday, December 5, 2016

So Why is Fruitcake Funny? Guest Post by Catriona McPherson

Today I welcome back one of my favorite Scottish Authors...and with a very timely topic. Catriona McPherson is the author of eleven novels in the Dandy Gilver series, featuring Dandy Gilver, her sidekick Alec Osborne, and Bunty the Dalmatian, set in Scotland in the 1920s and 30s. They have won Agatha, Macavity and Lefty awards and been shortlisted for a UK Dagger. The series is currently in development for television, at STV in Scotland. She also writes contemporary standalones, including The Child Garden and Quiet Neighbors, which have won two Anthonys and been shortlisted for an Edgar and a Mary Higgins Clark award. Find out more at


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.


catriona said...

Ach. Someone on Facebook just asked about "plain flour". It's just flour that's not bread flour or cake flour. But that made me realise that I should given cups and sticks instead of ounces. A generous 1/3 of a cup of sugar, a very generous cup of flour, and a stick and a half of flour. (Volume measurements - that's another puzzler for me!)

Janet Rudolph said...

Thanks, Catriona, that would be stick and a half of butter..but really, I don't use sticks, so your measurements are fine.

Karen in Ohio said...

I happen to love fruitcake, and now I really, really want to be invited to a wedding where it's served.

Shortbread sounds dead easy. Thanks for the recipe!

Ramona said...

"Grease the baking sheet with the butter wrapper." Those are my kind of baking instructions--practical, efficient, and doesn't dirty every utensil in the kitchen. Thank you! I will be making shortbread shortly.

catriona said...

Oh heck - yes, a stick and a half of BUTTER! Thanks, Janet.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

I love shortbread. I love almost any kind of cookie, but shortbread is top of the list.

Frank Price said...

Is there any truth to the idea that Single Malt Scotch Whisky was created to go with Scottish Shortbread?

Sal said...

My grandmother always made a steamed plum pudding that she served with hard sauce. Liquor was involved both in the pudding and in the hard sauce.

Anonymous said...

I am happy to see someone stick up for fruit cake. When properly made, I.e. Not dry,, it is delicious, especially made in the Trinidadian way, with fruit soaked in rum for at least a month first and rum added to the mix too. Delicious!

Gram said...

I'm with your Dad!!!

Annette Mahon said...

I LOVE shortbread tho I haven't made it in years. I like fruitcake too, but no one's is quite as good as the one my mom used to make.