Thursday, June 12, 2008


June 12 ...

A young Scot called James Anderson McLauchlan was bound for Australia aboard the good ship City of Adelaide on this day in 1874. Passengers on long voyages such as this were pre-occupied with the food, for obvious reasons, and often recorded their meals in their journals. James was no exception.

“Friday 12th ... expecting to get into the Trade Winds soon ... preserved meat and preserved potatoes for dinner today, which is a fine change from the salt Horse (as the sailors term it) which had almost taken the skin off my mouth. Our baker made us a piece of short bread for Tea. ... would have been nice but was spoiled in the firing .... ”

I wish James had indicated how the ‘preserved meat’ was preserved, if it was not salted as in the ‘salt horse’ which he mentions – which was salt beef, really, but sailormen will have their little jokes. I would like to know how the ‘preserved meat’ was preserved, if it was not salted. Preserved potatoes were almost universally hated by those at sea, so perhaps the passengers on this voyage were lucky in their supply. The shortbread must have been a treat, even if it was a bit overdone, and James could be expected to give a knowledgeable opinion on it, for it is particularly associated with his homeland.

The dictionary describes shortbread as ‘an article of food, in the form of flat (usually round) cakes, the essential ingredients of which are flour, butter, sugar, mixed in such proportions as to make the cake ‘short’ when baked’. This definition requires another definition , and ‘short’ in this context means crumbly. Good shortbread has the sort of crumbliness that is also a meltingness. The ingredients could just as easily be made into a sweet bread, but the crucial difference of texture is not simply due to proportions as the dictionary suggests, it is also due to technique. What makes flour butter and sugar crumbly or chewy (or hard) depends on the amount of gluten in the final mixture, and gluten development depends on a number of things including how lightly or heavily the dough is handled. Minimal handling keeps the gluten strands short, which makes the finished product ‘short'.

Of course, shortbread got its name before the gluten science was worked out.

Shortbread made with the basic ingredients above is as close to pastry heaven as it is possible to get, but those who are unafraid of gilding the lily can always value add. There are historical precedents to do this. A Scottish dictionary of 1825 says ‘carraways and orange peel are frequently added’, and that wonderful Scottish authority Mistress Meg Dodds (aka Christian Isobel Johnstone) shows in her Cook and Housewife’s Manual (1828).

Scotch Short-Bread.

To the fourth of a peck of flour, take six ounces of sifted sugar and of candied orange-peel, citron and blanched almonds, two ounces each. Cut these in rather large pieces, and mix them with the flour. Rub down among the flour a pound of butter in very minute bits, and melt a half-pound, and with this work up the flour, &c. The less kneading it gets the more short and crisp the cakes will be. Roll out the paste into a large well-shaped oval cake about an inch and a half thick, and divide this. Pinch the cakes neatly at the edges, and mark them on the top with the instrument used for the purpose, or with a fork. Strew caraway-comfits over the top, and a few stripes of citron. Bake on paper rubbed with flour.

Tomorrow’s Story …

A menu of sorts.

Quotation for the Day …

If every Frenchwoman is born with a wooden spoon in her hand. every Scotswoman is born with a rolling-pin under her arm. There may be a divergence of opinion as to her skill in cooking, but it is certain that she has developed a remarkable technique in baking not only in bannocks, scones and oatcakes, but also in the finer manipulations of wheat, in cakes, pastry and shortbread.
F. Marian McNell.

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