A traditional Christmas and New Year’s or Hogmanay treat in Scotland, this crisp butter cake is a direct descendant of the oatmeal bannock served at pagan Yule celebrations. The bannock was a round cake with a circle in the center and ridges around the rim symbolizing the sun and its rays. This decoration is still used for shortbread, which can be made in special wooden molds or as described here. It is considered unlucky to cut this with a knife. Superstition has it that shortbread should be broken into portions.
Yield: Makes two 8-inch cakes
1½ cups (¾ pound) unsalted butter
1¼ cups confectioners sugar
3½ cups flour
½ cup rice flour or cornstarch
Cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Sift flour with rice flour or cornstarch (the former is preferable if available), and cut into butter until it resembles coarse meal; mix as you would for pastry. Add just enough of the flour mixture to make a dough that can be gathered into a soft ball. Knead on a lightly floured board for a minute or two, only until smooth. Do not knead too long or dough will become greasy and the shortbread will be tough.
Divide dough in half and press each portion into an unbuttered 8-inch layer-cake pan. Using the back of the bowl of a wooden spoon, press a round indentation into the center of the cake and crimp the edges. With the tines of a fork, prick cake all over, right down to the pan. Bake in preheated 350° oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until shortbread is an even pale golden brown.
This will be soft when removed from the oven and can then be cut into wedge-shaped portions; or break when cold and crisp.
Variation: If you have the wooden shortbread molds, dust them with cornstarch or rice flour, press dough into them and invert onto a buttered and floured cookie sheet.