These thin, triangular, crisp, rich biscuits are thought to date from twelfth-century Edinburgh, and later on to have been a favourite of Mary, Queen of Scots. There is some dispute over the name and the recipe: it could derive from the French for little cakes, ‘petites gatelles’, or from ‘tally’, the word for a cut-out pattern. Writing in 1826 in her book The Cook and Housewife’s Manual, Meg Dodds says, ‘. . . 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 ancient court ladies’, ‘petty cotes’ being a wide panelled skirt. The traditional pattern is made by cutting a disc in the centre of the shortbread round, then cutting the surrounding dough into segments.
The recipe is butter-rich and crisp. Caster sugar can be used instead of icing sugar, and you can use either cornflour or rice flour. The mixture can be left plain, or flavoured with caraway seeds or a few drops of almond extract.
You will need
150g unsalted butter, very soft
40g icing sugar
200g plain flour
50g cornflour caster sugar, for sprinkling
2 baking trays, greased with butter a 5cm round cutter
Makes about 18 pieces
Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas 4.
Beat the butter and sugar until light and creamy, using a wooden spoon or an electric whisk or mixer. Sift the flour and cornflour on to the mixture and work it in with your hands to make a firm dough. Knead gently to bring it together (some cooks add a very little milk in cold weather). Divide the dough in half, and shape each portion into a ball. Set each one in the middle of a greased baking tray, and gently roll with a rolling pin, or press out with your hands, to an even circle 18cm across and 5mm thick. Press in any stray crumbs or cracks, to give an even surface.
Pinch the outside edge of each circle to decorate. Press the round cutter into the centre of each disc, but do not remove the circle of dough. With a sharp knife cut the dough around the centre circle into 8 segments, without cutting into the centre circle.
Bake in the preheated oven for about 18 to 20 minutes, until lightly golden and crisp all over. If necessary, rotate the trays halfway through the baking time so that the shortbreads cook evenly.
Sprinkle with caster sugar and gently cut along the marked lines, but leave to cool completely before removing from the tray. Traditionally, the triangular segments would be served arranged in a ring, with the centre circle set in the middle.
Store in an airtight container.
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