Great Aunt Lois’s Scottish Shortbread

My first mother-in-law, Laurie Thorp’s mother was Daisy Anderson Thorp of Scots and Quaker stock. Laurie’s Great Aunt Lois (Anderson) lived in North Carolina over near Guilford or Greensboro as I recall. She had this recipe from the previous generations and taught it to us one afternoon when we were visiting with her in the mid-1970s.

Making her shortbread has become a holiday tradition at my house. There are people in the world who don’t think Christmas has come until a small box of my shortbread turns up. Mostly, people hide it from guests and little children (I can’t be held to account for their behavior…). It inspires a certain stinginess. But, it is so easy to make, it really shouldn’t be that precious.

Aunt Lois used her hands to rub the butter into the flour and sugar, letting the warmth of her hands soften the butter. Here’s her recipe:

1 stick of butter
1/4 c. sugar
1-1/4 c. all-purpose flour

She worked it with her hands until she had a pliable dough, patted it out to 3/8″ thick or so, pricked it deeply with a fork so she could break it after it had baked, and to let the steam out of the dough as it cooked (American butter is about 20% water, which has to go somewhere). She baked it for a little over 20 minutes at 325-350° F. until just barely browned. It was heavenly.

Over the years, I have volunteered at an impromptu dinner party where no one had brought dessert to make shortbread. Almost everyone has a little flour, a stick of butter, and a little sugar about. Forty minutes later: shortbread appeared much to everyone’s amazement.

My recipe is very much the same now, though I always use salted butter at home and add a healthy pinch of Kosher salt. Each late November/early December, I go through six or eight pounds of butter and send shortbread out to 18-20 households. So, I no longer work the dough by hand in these marathon baking sessions.

Scaling Up

I use a stand-mixer now, and work with a pound of butter at a time. Here are the directions.

In the bottom of the mixing bowl put:

1 c. of sugar (usually–it being Christmas and all–I use a rounded cup of sugar)

A generous pinch (1.5 T.) coarse Kosher Salt, less if you’re using a finer milled salt)

Add on top of that

4 sticks (1 lb.) of salted butter (this can be cut into pieces if its cold or just dropped in if it’s room temperature)

Cream the butter, sugar and salt. I used to use the K-paddle for this, but a dough hook, if you’ll scrape down the sides of the bowl now and then will do just fine and is much easier to clean. (You’ll need to change to the dough hook anyway, so…)

Then add:
5 c. all purpose flour
And mix at a low speed, clearing the sides of the bowl often until the dough in the bowl is a pleasant yellow color and all the butter and flour are incorporated. You can check this by stopping the machine and kneading the dough with your hands. Get into the bottom of the boll and makes sure you’ve got all the scrappy bits incorporated. Usually, at this stage, you’ll be able to knead together and lift 98% of the dough out of the bowl in one go, then go back for the little bits. The warmth of your hands will help. (It’s not like pie crust, croissants, or pastry where everything needs to be kept really cold.)
Lay out a big cross of plastic wrap and put the dough in the center of it. Shape it into a rough rectangle, maybe and inch thick, incorporating all the little scrappy bits from the blender bowl into one dough. Wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, then take a rolling pin to it gently to make it a uniform thickness and press the edges out against the restraining plastic wrap and let the dough rest at least 30 minutes at room temperature to fully hydrate.
I use a pastry cloth to roll out shortbread and all other crusts, pasta, etc. Here are three batches of shortbread (1 lb. of butter in each) that sat overnight on the counter, ready for rolling out and cutting.
When I roll this out, I lay two long wooden spoons on either side of the dough and use them as thickness guides, allowing my rolling pin to eventually rest right on them as they straddle the dough. Flour the pin frequently to keep it from sticking to the shortbread.

Then, I cut shortbread with cookie cutters, setting them as close together as possible to minimize the number of times I roll out the scraps.


I line rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper and set the cut pieces about 1/4″ apart, a pound of butter will do roughly 4 full-sized sheet pans of cut pieces.

Gather up the scraps, press them back into a cohesive ball of dough (the edges will crack, just ease them together as needed) and re-roll it to the same thickness. Cut again. Do the same until you’ve used all the dough. (There is always a little nubbin of dough that I just roll into a ball and flatten to the right thickness and tuck onto a pan. One has to test these things, right?)

Shortbread needs to be pricked, and, again it being Christmas, I gild this particularly lily by using a small strainer to sift sugar onto the surface of the cookies from a height of about six inches. Then I use a table fork to prick the tops of the cookies. Taking some care in placing the fork holes will make for a very pretty cookie.


If your house or your kitchen is particularly warm (ours is not), you might want to chill these trays before taking them to the oven.

Bake them at 325°-350° F., for roughly 20-25 minutes, rotating the pans a bit more than half way through. Start checking them for color at around 20 minutes. The moment you notice them starting to brown, remove them from the oven and let them cool in the pan for a few minutes. If you insist on touching them with your fingers when they first come out, they will dimple, so hands off until they’ve cooled. Transfer them to wire racks to fully cool before packing them up.

Now, a word of warning: Be careful how many households you train to expect these.


This year it took two full days to go through six pounds of butter for twenty friends and family. But, with the pandemic on, I won’t be turning up in person, so this is the next best thing. And if they had to choose, most of them would probably want the shortbread over a personal visit anyway…

And offer a prayer to our Scots ancestors and Great Aunt Lois.

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