Cookbook Profile

Real Scottish
Petticoat Tail Shortbread

Makes 24 wedges


Few things are better with a cup of tea or coffee than a wedge of butter shortbread. It's also the perfect thing when you want something crisp to serve with a soft dessert like custard or ice cream. Shortbread keeps well and makes an excellent gift.

Because this one tastes mainly of butter, use very fresh butter. Traditional Scottish recipes don't include salt—but they usually use salted butter. So I've added a tiny pinch of salt; without it, the flavor can be slightly flat.

This authentic Scottish recipe is from Nan Lang, who got the recipe from her mother, Mary Tennent of Needham, and sent it to Karyl Bannister's Cook & Tell newsletter.

Short and Sweet

The word "short" refers to the generous proportion of fat that makes this(and other cookies and pastries) so rich that it shatters into flaky layers. This recipe has 8 ounces of butter to 6 ounces of flour, with no eggs or leavening. That's 44 percent of the total ingredients by weight—proportionately double the amount of butter in ordinary cookies.

The characteristic fork-pressed edges mark shortbread as a home-baked product, rather than one baked professionally. Today, however, tins of commercially made British shortbread are exported to every corner of the globe.

Mary, Queen of Shortbread

Shortbread has been attributed to Mary, Queen of Scots, who, in the mid-1500s, was said to be very fond of this supernally buttery biscuit. It's been suggested that the name "petticoat tail" may be a corruption of the French petites gatelles ("little cakes").

Author Theodora Fitzgibbon offered another theory: "....we rather think the name petticoat tails has its origin in the shape of the cakes, which is exactly that of the bell-hoop petticoats of our own ancient Court ladies!"


1 cup (2 sticks) best-quality unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
Pinch salt


1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F. Lightly butter two 8-inch round cake pans; set aside.

2. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar with a large wooden spoon. (Nan Lang notes that "this recipe must be mixed by hand.") Work the mixture vigorously for about 5 minutes—this requires some muscle. Add the flour and salt, about 1/3 at a time, working in each addition thoroughly but gently. The last addition will make the mixture quite stiff, finish mixing with your hands, if you like.

3. Press 1/2 of the dough into each pan, patting it gently into an even round with smooth edges. With the back of a spoon handle, press indentations around the edge of each round of dough. With the tines of a fork, gently prick both rounds of dough at regular intervals, pressing all the way through to the bottom of each pan. With a sharp paring knife, score each round into 12 even wedges.

4. Bake until the shortbread is very pale gold—watch carefully, as it should not become too brown, 28 to 30 minutes.

5. Cool in the pans on a wire rack for about 5 minutes. While the shortbread is still very warm, gently cut through the score marks with a sharp knife. Cool completely. Store the shortbread in the pans or in a tin, layered with wax paper and covered tightly. Shortbread keeps well and should be handled very gently to prevent shattering.

Buy the Book!


Classic Home Desserts
A Treasury of Heirloom and Contemporary Recipes

By Richard Sax
Houghton Mifflin, May 2000
Hardcover, $35.00
688 pages, 48 color photographs
ISBN: 0-618-00391-6
Recipe reprinted by permission.


Classic Home Desserts



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This page created June 2000