Shedding Light on the Family Tree: A Short One on Shortbread

The 19th in a series of posts about my family tree
Inspired by Amy Johnson Crow’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks

Prompt: Food and Drink

For some time I’ve been eyeing a handwritten recipe for my Scottish great grandmother, Jane (Robson) Gordon’s shortbread. It’s one I inherited after my granny Alice, her daughter, died in 1994. It’s stored in a bright green file folder full of loose recipes in a drawer in the kitchen and every Christmas I search it out and say to myself “This is the year I will bake great granny Gordon’s shortbread.” Every year it either gets forgotten or its so far down on the baking list that by the time I get there I’m too tired to try something new. A sad state of affairs. Where’s my violin?

This week’s prompt offered the impetus to make good on my yuletide intention. Sure, I’m a little late, but never mind. Shortbread is a four-seasons sweet treat anyway, plus I love it.

And so, I mustered and appropriately measured the flour, butter, cornflour and icing sugar and, using primitive methods (a bowl and a wooden spoon such as great granny Gordon would have used) I mixed and mixed and mixed the ingredients until my wrist, forearm ached and a satisfying dough started to take shape. Once thoroughly mixed I dropped the dough by spoonfuls, as directed, on to a lined cookie sheet and pressed a fork into the top of each one to leave nice tidy ridges. Placed them in a moderate oven for the prescribed amount of time, and before long the kitchen was permeated with the rich aroma of what I anticipated would be a delicious batch of shortbread.

Jane (Robson) Gordon
ca 1913
Source: Family Archives

At the 20-minute mark I checked on the little beauties, noting their light-brown bottoms just as they were supposed to be. Removed the cookie sheet from the oven with mouth-watering anticipation and carefully lifted each piece of shortbread onto the cooling rack. All while picturing granny Gordon and a legion of eager young faces gathered around her waiting to see who would get the first taste. In this instance it would be me!

As soon as they were cool enough I helped myself to one of those light-as-a-feather cookie medallions and bit in. Now, I’ve eaten a lot of shortbread in my time, but this had to be the lightest and tastiest I’d ever had the pleasure of sinking my teeth into. The flavour was buttery/caramel-y in a melt-in-your-mouth kind of way. Heaven in my kitchen. Divine! (N.B. Several pieces of shortbread were consumed in the writing of this short essay.)

Of course I wanted to share some with my mother ~ it was her grandmother’s shortbread recipe, after all. She said the taste brought back happy memories of her own mother, granny Alice, baking this treat. It made me happy to think that the simple act of re-creating the shortbread just like great granny Gordon used to make could bring such joy.

Sometimes our memories deceive us, but food, for good or ill, can be relied upon to take us back to memories of times and places for which there can be no dispute. Happy moments in mother’s kitchen for one.

Old Recipe

This trip down the shortbread path represented the first time in at least 30 years since anyone had baked from this recipe. And then it occurred to me that because it was great granny Gordon’s recipe it was probably more than 100 years old. I can imagine her baking for her children in Scotland before they came to Canada in 1927. And then, I wonder, where did the recipe actually originate? Might it have been her mother’s and grandmother’s before her? That would make it almost ancient!

Great Granny Gordon’s shortbread served on a tea plate that was part of granny Alice’s Royal Albert “Silver Birch” china tea set, which is resting on a doily crocheted by great Granny Gordon.
May 11, 2022Image: Dorothy Chiotti

In the baking of this batch of shortbread it felt like I was bringing a long lost piece of family history to life. And I suppose that’s why I decided to mix the ingredients the old-fashioned way ~ I wanted to feel the twist of the spoon in the dough; the ache in my arm; the glow of my forehead in the manner of my Scottish mothers. It deepened the experience of baking the shortbread and enjoying its sweet savour.

There’s no question about whether I will make them again. I have a batch already on order. The bowl and wooden spoon await. ❦


©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2022 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

7 thoughts on “Shedding Light on the Family Tree: A Short One on Shortbread

  1. For me the special baked treat is my paternal grandmother’s ice box cookies. They were absolutely required at Christmas by my father (mother loved them too – all of us did). They’re great anytime and if desired they can be mixed up, rolled into tube shapes, wrapped in waxed paper and then foil and frozen (instead of the usual rest in the fridge for several hours) to be thawed, cut and baked when wanted. They tend to be a bit crisp but not hard. Things like chopped walnuts or pecans or butterscotch chips can be mixed in if plain is too plain. The house always smelled amazing when I’d come into the big, old Victorian after school just before Christmas and the baking was going on, the change from cold, crisp winter air to a house full of cookies baking was magical.

  2. Wonderful tale and I was so happy the recipe turned out so well. I can understand you wanting to mix everything the way great granny did. Perfect!

  3. Okay, so now I want the recipe? I love, love, love this post. Um…my mouth is watering. Cheers, and have a cookie for me…I like to live vicariously. Maureen (5amt3n)

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