The Holidays are upon us with all the trimmings and merriment, but also the hustle, bustle and fretting too. The frenzied running about, decorating, gift wrapping and shopping for food and gifts.
What gifts to get our loved ones? Will they like it or hate it? Be creative with a gift or go with money? What to cook, will it be loved or abhorred? To put giblets in the gravy or not? Which dressing to make? Serve ham, turkey or both? Decisions, decisions and even more decisions to be made. One can easily become overwhelmed and forget what Christmas is all about.
Add a very ambitious and busy high schooler to the mix and one can easily vacillate between a crying heap of jello or a raving lunatic. I can feel the stress, worry and excitement pouring off my teenager as they study for finals, work on dance in preparation for trying out for show choir and the musical, The Little Mermaid. Also my teen has started a new organization at the high school, Gender Sexuality Acceptance or GSA. I am a proud Mum to be sure, but wow that’s a crazy schedule.
Seemed like time for Shortbread.
The moment my hands started to cream flour, soft butter and sugar the stress melted away, much like a well made shortbread cookie should do in one’s mouth. In the heart of this Grand Old Lady generations past and present comforted my troubled soul by reminding of what is truly important.
My Dad was here to guide me through a process my Grandma, Muriel, once taught me long ago; A recipe that was taught to her by a baker family member from Glasgow. My Dad has since made it a mission to carry on his family’s tradition. My Dad even taught our child, Devin, a few years back.
The memories of eating Grandma’s shortbread always signaled Christmas and family gatherings. When we still lived in Canada, I remember the times I watched Grandma mixing the butter, flour and sugar with her hands. Listening to her say “mixing it with the hands was one of the most important ingredients”. The heat of our hands helped melt the butter and sugar together to create that melt-in-your-mouth taste.
The hands also could feel the proper consistency your shortbread dough should be. It had to be done by sight and feel. Too little flour and the shortbread spreads out turning into more of a sugar cookie. Too much flour and your shortbread would be too hard. Neither my Dad and I have the experience that only comes from making hundreds of batches of shortbread. My Dad solved this problem by doing a “tester cookie” with each new batch. You put 1 cup of flour down, then 1pound butter followed by 1 cup of flour and 1 cup ultra-fine sugar. The recipe gets a little less exact after that. Grandma would always say somewhere between 3 to four cups of flour more or less.
My Dad rolls out his dough somewhere between 3 to 4 cups of flour and bakes 1 cookie. If it spreads too much need more flour. He just adds a touch more flour and bakes one cookie again till he is happy with the texture and taste. “Can always add more flour, but can’t take back too much flour”, Grandma would say. What a genius move on my Dad’s part, that tester cookie, making it easier for me to learn without ruining a whole batch.
Grandma would talk about the variety of variables that would cause the flour level to fluctuate. The house is too dry or too humid; The brand or batch of all purpose flour you use; The temperature of your hands or the kitchen. Sometimes the pound of butter has more or less water in it.
I did try a batch with homemade Amish butter, which was wetter and needed a bit more flour. The batch with Amish butter was quicker to melt in the mouth as well as having a different but delightful taste. My Dad and I theorized that, because it was hand made, the Amish butter better replicated the butters of Great Grandmother’s time, and my Grandmother’s, as well as his childhood.
He has fond memories of being a child, climbing up onto counters to get at his Grandmother’s butter, which he would eat straight from the butter dish. Butter, he says, tasted creamier and different then than the butter does today.
I used a rectangular cookie cutter Grandma gave me from her own set of cookie cutters. She needlessly worried that it was rectangular and not round like the one she used for her cookies. She fussed that she had given the other round ones away. I reassured her the shortbread would be the same whether in a circle or rectangle. Either way my shortbread would bear the Kerr family mark - the mark of a fork pricked in the top in 3 rows. Every family had their own combination of fork marks so one could tell who had made which shortbread. She politely mused that some shortbread with certain marks were to be coveted while others were avoided.
As my Dad and I made shortbread together the previous generations of my family were present with the previous generations of this old home. The German/Mendota origins of my husband with my Canadian, Scottish and Ukrainian roots brought inspiration and joy to this Grand Old Lady as well as bringing peace to my harried soul.
Just like the amount of flour changes because of different variables, so does life. I admit being intimidated by so much in my life including making shortbread. Without realizing it my Dad reminded me to start small, try, be flexible and find balance.
As my hands crafted the shortbread dough, I had to be patient with the ebb, flow and balance while not forcing it. While doing this I realized in my own life there is lack of balance and inclination to force things.
My husband and child came home from their busy days while I was still creating. There in kitchen they ate shortbread as we chatted and for a moment all of our stresses melted away. This became a time as a family to recharge and refocus. Never underestimate the power of making an old family recipe while creating new memories. It is those recipes and traditions that will be cherished and held more dear than any gift you could buy.
Thank you Grandma and Dad for sharing your wisdom and time, I love you both.
With those thoughts I am off to enjoy a spot of tea in my Grandma’s tea cups alongside her shortbread. I wish you all a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year with simplicity and balance.
As I finish this writing my husband has admitted to possibly surviving on mostly shortbread for the last two days. I am also certain that my child and their best friend, Angelique, have used shortbread to fuel their final exam studies this weekend.