20th century, boston cooking-school, canada, confusing recipes, dessert, history lesson, summer

Shortbread fans (and a bit about ovens)

It’s the last gasp of summer, friends. The air is getting cool at night (sometimes). Stores offer apple cider in big displays. And this week I go back to school.

To mark the occasion, let’s look at one more recipe from this summer’s Canadian vacation. It’s a pretty basic shortbread recipe, one that calls for three ingredients and a modicum of decoration. But things get interesting with the instructions.

First, the original recipe calls for “washed butter.” Why would you need to give your butter a bath? According to the many homesteading blogs that encourage you to make your own butter, you have to wash fresh butter well in order to drain away all traces of milk. Otherwise it goes rancid. The only other reason I can think of for using “washed butter” here is to make sure your butter is, well, buttery. Shortbread depends on a specific blend of butter, flour, and sugar, and there’s no room for anything else.

Once you’ve mixed all the ingredients and prepared the cookies, you’re instructed to “bake in a slow oven (325 F).” What?

cooking range, c. 1910

The phrase “slow oven” comes from a time before ovens had regulated temperatures. You’ll find it in early American cookbooks when food was baked in Dutch ovens and in later ones when women used monstrous ranges, the predecessor to today’s stove-oven combination. Until the 1920s, when most families had made the transition to gas ovens, women had to rely on their understanding of heat to put on enough wood or coals to bake bread, or to let the coals burn out to bake something more delicate, like cookies. Even into the 1920s and 1930s, some families didn’t have “heat regulators,” as the editors of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book called them. And if that was the case, “judgment and experience must be the guides.”

The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, from where this recipe originates, used both points of reference (“slow oven” and a specific temperature) because many Americans were in the middle of switching over when it was published in 1930. Some readers had heat regulators, while others didn’t. It’s fascinating to see how the smallest details can illuminate a turning point in American domestic history.

I am hopelessly reliant on temperatures, just as I am pretty dependent on recipes. But I was pleased to see that when reading colonial recipes, my interpretation of “slow oven” as 300 to 325 F was right on the mark.

Shortbread Fans
(slightly adapted from The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book)

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup butter, softened

Preheat the oven to 325 F (yes, we use temperatures around these parts). In a medium bowl, whisk flour and sugar together. Work in butter with your fingertips until well blended.

Roll out the dough on a floured surface to about 1/4-inch thickness and cut out rounds with a measuring cup. Slice each round in half and press each half-moon four times with the tip of a knife, creating a fan-like decoration. Bake for 10 minutes at 325 F, or until browned on the bottom.

Works cited: Cooking range photo from Family Lineages and History.

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