Saturday, April 18, 2020

Traditional Shortbread…to go with an English cup of tea

The first thing my landlady said to me as I entered her flat after I finally arrived in London was “Would you like a cup of tea?”  It has been almost thirty years since I abandoned my pursuit of a career in insurance and ran away to cooking school, but I can still hear her voice.  

My first reaction to her question as I stood there in my jet-lagged state was dismay. One of the things I had done in preparation for my trip was to gradually wean myself off of my caffeine habit.  The last thing I had wanted while I was introducing myself to a new country and to cooking school was to be tethered to a “must have coffee now!” schedule in order to avoid a blinding headache.  It had taken me a month to work down to zero caffeine consumption.  And the final break had still been a bit painful.  But as I stood there, exhausted by my first transatlantic trip and all the unforeseen bumps that had occurred navigating the trip from Gatwick to my new home in West London, I also thought about my promise to myself that I would fully embrace each moment of my stay in London.  I decided giving up caffeine had probably not been that important.  A cup of tea sounded like just the thing.

It was not the last time I would hear her ask.  She offered me tea regularly.  Tea was a constant in my London life.  There was always a pot on for breakfast…and often in the late afternoon (if I wasn’t out sightseeing or in classes)…and always in the evening while we watched “the telly.”  Moments of all kinds throughout the day were marked by tea.  Been shopping …or sightseeing…and your feet ache?  Completed a practical exam?  Had a bad day?  Received good news?  Feeling a bit peckish?  It’s cold outside (and in the flat)?  All time for a cup of tea.  This very British habit functions as a daily reward and pleasure.  It seems to help fortify you for the hard things…and increase your pleasure in the good.   I am unable to think of an equivalent universal in American culture. 

Tea in London tasted better than any tea I had ever had before…and I think this is due to the process.  Warming the pot in which the tea is brewed…and the cup in which it is to be served….  Adding the milk to the cup before the tea (I had never had milk in my tea before!  Now I won’t drink it without).  And of course high quality tea…brewed with enough leaves…and a sufficient amount of time…to give a good strong cup.  Ellen (my landlady) always had biscuits (small cookies) to serve with the tea.  McVities digestives were my favorite, but there were others.  The rituals were as much a part of the charm as the substance itself.

When I returned to the states my tea consumption gradually disappeared.  I tried to maintain it for a while, but coffee was (and is still) my natural habit.  I did drink coffee in London too.  In fact, I discovered truly good coffee while I was there.  There was a tiny café across the street from the Cordon Bleu.  I was a regular customer.  (Clearly I never needed to give up caffeine).  But tea was a better fit there.  Once home, coffee once again took over.  (Not that I’m bemoaning this fact.  I love coffee.)

Recently I was unexpectedly reminded of how much I loved the simple, comforting ritual of a cup of tea.  In the early days of our “shelter in place” orders I began watching Instagram video tutorials coming from a bakery based in central London called Bread Ahead Bakery.  I have no idea how I ran across them, but my initial attraction was that they were going to be doing a daily demonstration of how to start and maintain a sour dough starter—sort of a simple, repetitive, hand holding process.  I knew from my learning (and teaching) of other cooking skills that this is what is required to really get something.  You have to observe, execute, make mistakes, ask questions and observe again with the knowledge you gained from your mistake…then try again.  Then repeat.  And sour dough is something that takes time.  I had books…and “someday” intentions…but little time.  Suddenly I have had the time. 

You may be wondering what this has to do with tea.  Well, I was enjoying Chef Matthew and Erika (who is manning the camera and asking the questions) so much that I decided to watch some of their other tutorials (Ginger Cake, Chocolate Cake, Scones, Brownies…etc.).  A lot of the things he is teaching are traditional British baked goods—things I learned to love when I lived in London.  And during almost every session Matthew takes a moment to refresh himself with a cup of tea—brews it and begins sipping right on camera.  Seeing this everyday made me want some tea. 

So one evening I began pawing through my cabinets looking for some real English tea.  As it turns out, I had some.  It was a bit stale…but it still hit the spot.   Matthew mentioned that he thinks the perfect brew is two bags of PG Tips plus one of Earl Grey.  I admit I’m not a fan of Earl Grey.  But I love PG Tips—this was Ellen’s tea of choice.  I can get PG Tips in the states, but shortly after I returned I discovered a British tea I liked even better:  Yorkshire Gold.  I have just ordered a fresh supply (maybe I’ll order PG Tips next time…).

On about the third night I realized my lockdown evening tea ritual was missing something.  I didn’t have any biscuits. I usually have a freezer full of different kinds of cookies, but I had managed to decimate my supply in the first two or three weeks of our lockdown.  Since what I really wanted was a good tea biscuit, I turned to the copy of the Bread Ahead Bakery e-book which I had just ordered.  The last recipe in the book is for traditional shortbread.     

I was particularly attracted to the recipe because I recognized it. It is the “2-4-6 Shortbread” that I wrote about here several years ago.  But the one in Bread Ahead was made with a mixture of granulated, brown and demerara sugar instead of all white sugar.  I thought the caramel notes added by the brown and demerara sugars would be nice.  I didn’t have any demerara, so I used Turbinado—a somewhat lighter sugar, but with a similar coarse crystalline texture.  The results were fantastic—possibly the best shortbread I have ever had.  (I assume they would be as good or better with demerara sugar).  They are so good I wanted to share the recipe here. 

I have made one alteration to the recipe with the goal of giving Americans a textural experience as close as possible to what you would get if you made these in England.  The recipe calls for plain flour.  British plain flour is basically the British version of all-purpose flour.  Unfortunately, they aren’t really the same thing.  American national brand all-purpose flour is higher in protein than British plain flour.  It will make fine shortbread—although perhaps a bit harder and not quite as crisp.  By combining all purpose and cake flour you will get something that is closer to the protein content of British plain flour.  If you have access to a southern soft wheat flour (like White Lily) you don’t need to use part cake flour.  White Lily has a protein content that is closer to British plain flour.

I have of course been working on my sour dough, too.  My first bake was a complete flop (my starter wasn’t quite ready).  My second, while not stellar, was entirely edible.  I am looking forward to the next loaf (my starter is quite active!)  And I continue to tune in daily (sometimes twice) to watch Chef Matthew and Erika.  I have made the Ginger Cake (excellent…and sort of similar to my own English Gingerbread recipe)…and will probably make many of their other recipes.  I have to have something to enjoy with my rekindled tea habit. Watching them…and having a nice cup of tea in the evenings…has added a much needed rhythm to my very strange “shelter in place” days. 

Bread Ahead Bakery Shortbread

200 g. all-purpose flour (1 3/4 c.)
175 g. cake flour (1 3/4 c.)
250 g. sliced cold butter (17 1/2 T.)
65 g. granulated sugar (1/3 c.)
30 g light brown sugar (2 T. plus 1 t.)
30 g. Turbinado sugar (2 T. plus 1 t.)
4 g. fine salt. (5/8 t.)

Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the sliced cold butter.  Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture looks like breadcrumbs, then add the sugars and salt and continue to rub until a crumbly but smooth paste is reached.

On a lightly floured surface, roll the dough out 4 mm/1/6 inch thick and used a 6 cm/2 1/3 inch round fluted or smooth cutter to stamp out the cookies.  (It worked best for me to roll a generous half out first…and then combine the scraps from the first roll with the remainder of the dough.  You can roll out the final remaining bit of scrap to get a few more cookies, if you like).  Place the cookies on parchment lined sheets, spacing evenly. 

Chill the sheets for 30 minutes.  Bake in a preheated 275°F oven (see note) for about 55 minutes, rotating the sheets from top to bottom and front to back half way through the baking time.  The cookies are done when they are firm to the touch—they should not have too much color.  Once out of the oven, sprinkle generously with granulated sugar.  Cool completely (and put the kettle on…).

Makes about 3 dozen biscuits.


  • The original recipe uses 375 g. British plain flour (instead of a mix of all-purpose and cake flour) and 30 g. demerara sugar (in place of Turbinado sugar).
  • The original recipe calls for an oven temperature of 250°F, but in my oven they do better at 275°F.  
  • You can also roll and cut the dough into traditional 1 1/4-inch by 3-inch "fingers" (use a straight edge).  When cut this way you'll get about 3 1/2 dozen rectangular shortbread cookies.

(Recipe adapted from Bread Ahead Online Bakine Recipe Book)

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