Christmas Shortbread

December 13, 2012


My mother-in-law, who passed away in 2005, made the best shortbread we have ever had.  When she came for the holidays, she’d always bring a batch of those delightful cookies that have that buttery snap when you bite them: rich and yet somehow fluffy without being too crumbly.

My friends would ask if she could show us how to make them, but my husband – one of the most generous human beings I have ever known –  greedily hid her away, not allowing anyone to learn the secret.

And this man, who can’t boil water (I mean it – he can’t boil water), asked his Mom to show him how to make the coveted recipe during her last Christmas with us in 2004.   We all knew that she was terminally ill, and this was to be a family legacy.

My mother-in-law was willing to teach anyone, including me, but my husband wanted this to be their thing.

And I love that.  Because as it turns out, after my mother-in-law, my husband makes the best shortbread I’ve ever had.

The reason why this is especially extraordinary:  The guy not only doesn’t boil water, he doesn’t even re-heat leftovers in the microwave when I am out of town.  He just goes into the fridge, grabs the cold casserole, lifts the lid, and starts eating.

And frankly, he’s adorable when he makes the cookies in a bossily, annoying kind of way.  I usually leave the house altogether, while he blasts Christmas music, and when I come home, the kitchen looks like it exploded, with flour and butter everywhere, including in his hair (I don’t know how he gets it in his hair).

This week, I offered to make a batch for his office, and since he was getting ready for the trip to TO, he couldn’t help.

So I found myself looking at this recipe, which just listed the ingredients, and then said to beat the butter, mix, roll into balls and bake.

It’s the other stuff that’s not documented that makes it unique.   The way that she did it is what made the difference from very good shortbread to ‘Wow’, with buttery, yet fluffy perfection.  How the dough feels in your hands, how the dry ingredients are sifted, and the temperature of the butter.

The shortbread turned out well, but it’s not hers.  Or his.  I knew it, but I brought a tester to him, just in case.

When he agreed with my assessment (ie lacking fluffiness), he was careful, as he thought it would hurt my feelings.

But I was actually pleased.

Because it’s still lovely, and everyone still enjoyed the cookies.  And at the end of the day, that shortbread recipe is yet another one of those moments that brings my mother-in-law back to us on earth, even if I can’t get it quite right.

And I’m sorry.  My husband really wanted to keep this as their thing, so I am not allowed to share the recipe – but honestly, it is very similar to other shortbread recipes out there.

And even if you did see it, you’d have to see a full demonstration to get it just right.

It’s one of those old recipes that does not provide information, such as temperature of the butter, how much to mix the dough, the size of each cookie, etc.  There isn’t even a yield.  (I made the cookies twice the size that they were supposed to be).

But I do have her yellowing handwritten recipe carefully preserved in plastic, ready to come out again next year.

Now you know our favourite family tradition…what’s yours?

This is the second instalment in the 12 Days of Christmas Series on One Cook, Two Kitchens.  If you are looking for other great holiday recipe ideas for your cookie tray, yesterday’s post featuring holiday treats has you covered.


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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Ann December 13, 2012 at 1:13 pm

That is so speical!! How lovely that was a special time for Scott and his Mom. Happy they had that time. Granddaughter Paige (15) wants me to show her how I make my shortbread cookies. Kinda a speical time for us too as well as rum balls. Cookies look so good!!!


One Cook, Two Kitchens December 13, 2012 at 3:50 pm

Ann, that’s wonderful…lucky Paige, and lucky Grandma! Mmmm…rum balls…Speaking of which, coincidentally, my mother and I were talking about her mother’s rum ball recipe that she made when I was little. Unfortunately, she’s lost the recipe, and I was just a bit too young to remember all of the details so I can’t recreate it. These things are so important to carry on…


Linda December 13, 2012 at 2:58 pm

How great that the tradition is still alive! And I’m totally not surprised Scott finds butter in his hair – cooking is hard work! LOL

Makes me wish I had a Mum/daughter lesson with my Mum before she passed. I remember her shortbread as the best thing EVER! too.

Happy Holidays


One Cook, Two Kitchens December 13, 2012 at 3:48 pm

It’s so nice that you remember your Mum’s shortbread so fondly, Linda. You have a mean peanut brittle recipe that you’ll have to pass on to someone in your family :)


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