Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Granny's shortbread

"Granny made some shortbread for you."

Six simple words, yet the joy they promise is boundless. I lift the lid of the gaudy plastic ice-cream tub, so incongruously matched to its sublime contents. I pull back the corner of the kitchen paper to reveal wedges of golden, burnished biscuit, thickly dusted with a snowy layer of sugar. I inhale the sweet, musty fragrance of butter, flour and sugar, picking at a stray crumb before extracting my chosen piece, always going for the largest in the box despite knowing it's inevitable I'll come back for a second. And a third.

I'm not alone, I'm sure, in possessing childhood memories of my granny that revolve around food. They're perhaps less conventional than some. I don't, for instance, fondly recall tugging at her apron strings as she showed me how to whip up a fabulous sponge cake, or licking the cake bowl after she'd finished. I don't recall a bubbling pot of jam, stew or soup on the stove, and the condensation it produced at the windows in winter. 

I do, however, recall very vividly the mini rotisserie attachment on her cooker, that allowed a chicken to be spit-roasted to succulent perfection. I remember the little crisp crackers she would put in a bowl when the grown-ups had their evening drinks - I always called them 'stars' even though they came in all sorts of shapes - diamonds, circles, and (obviously - there was some logic to this) actual stars. I would nibble the points off the stars until only the mutilated centre remained, like a tragic soggy starfish that's been cruelly mauled by a hungry shark.

I remember breakfast every day in her lovely light conservatory, where we were spoilt for choice, totally different to our usual standard bowl of cereal at home. There were tinned grapefruit segments, swimming in their cloudy tart juice. Being a picky child and totally unconcerned about my vitamin intake, I naturally ignored these. They were for the grown-ups. There were boxes of bran flakes, my favourite cereal back then. I remember watching someone put sugar from the sugar bowl onto their bran flakes, and remember trying it and being distinctly unimpressed with the results. Even as a child, I wasn't into sugary cereals. There was a toaster waiting to hungrily accept crumbly slices of soda bread, which until very recently I always referred to as 'Granny's bread', so strong was the mental association. 

I remember a warm, gooey apple cake she once made, served with lashings of vanilla ice cream that melted and soaked creamily into the sweet, tender crumb. I think I remember she had one of those fancy dinner party serving cabinets that keeps the food warm while you bring it to the table. She made excellent roast potatoes, and I know now that she makes a wonderful coffee cake, but my childhood self was unlikely to take a bite of that weird creation, so its sumptuousness would have to wait a good decade to make its way into my life.

It's a bit of a cliché to go on about how great a cook one's granny is (come on Britain, 'fess up - surely there must be some culinarily-challenged grannies out there; I refuse to believe they're all paragons of kitchen perfection, daintily arranged in spotless aprons churning out Victoria sponges for their adoring grandchildren), but in my case it is just plain factual. Perhaps it's something to do with the fact that she spent a lot of time living in various locations in Asia when she was younger, absorbing recipes and cooking tips by some sort of osmotic process. 

I was lucky enough to read through her recipe book recently, and it's a fascinating mish-mash of English and Asian, with sweet-and-sour fish sitting happily alongside jellied ox tongue, lemon meringue pie, and blackcurrant bake. There's a recipe simply titled 'Mohammed's bread', named after the family cook when she was living abroad (I forget where, but I think perhaps Calcutta). The pages are crinkled and the handwriting has faded, slightly, but it's a fascinating treasure-trove of memories and inspiration, one that I hope to cook from one day.

But when I think of my granny and food, one thing will stand out for me every time. Her shortbread.

She knows how much I love it; so much so that every time she comes to visit, she can be found earnestly pounding butter, flour, sugar and semolina together in a bowl with a wooden spoon, to provide me with my favourite treat. Sometimes she has to produce more than one batch in a very short space of time, such is the speed with which it's devoured.

How to describe the sheer simple beauty of a piece of granny's shortbread? 

For a start, it's nothing like that stuff you get in a tartan packet masquerading as shortbread. That stuff is often too sweet, too bland, too mass-produced. This is the real deal. 

It has a hefty amount of butter and sugar. That's why it tastes so good. You mix them together with a wooden spoon until they are soft and creamy.

It has semolina, which gives it this amazing crunch. You fold that in after, along with the flour. That's literally it. Then you press it firmly into a greased tin, prick it all over with a fork to stop it puffing up in the oven, and bake it for around an hour at a low temperature.

It's somehow satisfyingly crunchy and crumbly, yet melt-in-the-mouth buttery and sweet. 

Granny dusts it with a thick layer of caster sugar while it's still in the tin, which gives it even more crunch when you come to take a bite. 

Think of how good the buttery topping of a crumble tastes, or the crispy pastry bits around the edge of a fruit pie. This is how the shortbread tastes. Crispy, crunchy, rich, buttery. It's just unbelievably good. Better than any biscuit you will ever make or buy, I'd wager. So simple, yet so perfect. 

I am physically incapable of having just one piece. In fact, I reckon I could eat the whole tin in one go. I normally eat this stuff in three-piece portions, simply swept away by the sugary rush into eating more and more. It's addictive. 

I think granny is always amazed that I rave about her shortbread so much. Every time I do, she laughs and tells me "It's just Delia!" There's no grand family secret recipe behind this post, nothing in granny's carefully-written recipe book; simply the work of the good old Delia Smith. 

What I don't think she understands is that for me, it's not about where the recipe came from, or who wrote it. It's about the fact that granny has made the shortbread with me in mind, knowing how much I love and adore this irresistible combination of ingredients. That, for me, is special, and is the reason why this shortbread will always have a special place in my heart, as a reminder of my lovely granny.

That, and the fact that it tastes incredible, of course.

Should you also want to replicate the perfection that is granny's shortbread, the recipe is here, on Delia's website.
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  1. LP @dishclips21 June 2012 05:39

    I love the picture of the old hand-written recipe book. Definitely shows that it has been passed down. 

  2. nutmegs_seven21 June 2012 09:14

    Me too! I love things like that, it made me more conscientious about actually hand-writing my recipes down instead of having them all digitally. Less fun that way...

  3. inspirededibles21 June 2012 23:55

        Ah, butter and sugar and flour – the stuff from which all good things are made ;-).  And it sounds like your Granny did it just right.  But, to answer your question, there are plenty of grandmothers  (and mothers) out there who can’t cook for beans – our family is full of them! Lol.  Gorgeous shortbread Elly.

  4. I love going through my grandma's famous recipes. This looks fun and I bet it's great!

  5. nutmegs_seven22 June 2012 09:37

    Thanks for confirming that Kelly! :)

  6. Grandma's recipes are the best, both in flavor and because of the memories attached to them.  This shortbread looks so delicious!

  7. I think the recipes that are passed down from generation to generation are the best, not jus tbecause it's tried and tested and most often very delicious, but because of the memories! I'm loving all the traditional puddings you have here on your blog! I didn't grow up here, so a lot of these actually sound really exciting and exotic to me, things that I've only come across in my old english books or enid blyton's hah.And that old book, all torn and tattered, is a treasure! You're so lucky!

  8. nutmegs_seven22 June 2012 16:50

    Thanks Shuhan, it's great to know I'm doing my bit to champion good old-fashioned British cooking! (It's a little neglected I think...)

  9. The shortbread looks delicious and inviting. Could you tell me from what china pattern are your plate and teacup?

  10. Gorgeous memories and I love the photo of that handwritten recipe. Memories of my granny and food go hand in hand - although she never made shortbread she made a mean rock bun!

  11. nutmegs_seven2 July 2012 18:31

    I believe it's Wedgwood Hampshire. But unfortunately it's no longer in production! It's my parents', from ages ago.


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