Mary Macleod had been selling handmade shortbread cookies for about a year when a woman in a yellow linen dress stepped into Macleod’s tiny bakery and changed everything.
“It was 1982,” recalls Macleod. “She tried some cookies, then she asked, ‘Would you make shortbread for me?’ I said ‘Sure,’ thinking she was a [regular customer]. It turned out she was a buyer for Holt Renfrew.”
Thirty-two years later, Macleod’s team hand-makes holiday cookies for every branch of the upscale department store across Canada. At Macleod’s own shop, Mary Macleod’s Shortbread, in Toronto’s East End, she sells 12 flavours of shortbread and a variety of specialty cookies over the counter and by mail order to devotees all over the world. (In the two months leading up to Christmas, her staff plows through a 25,000-lb. mountain of butter.)
At 80 years old, Macleod, a petite Scottish expat with a white pixie cut and snazzy round glasses, is ready to pass the rolling pin to her daughter-in-law, Sharon, who is trading corporate banking for the shortbread game.
But MacLeod still consults at the store, and her original recipes are at the heart of operations. Here she talks about crafting the ultimate holiday cookie.
What’s your favourite holiday cookie?
Plain shortbread with a petticoat tail; at New Year’s in Scotland, every house had a plate of those stacked high. Or the chocolate crunch—it’s kind of magical. It’s made with premium Belgian milk chocolate, it’s not overly sweet, and it has a really nice, buttery finish. There’s a definite crunch when you bite into it.
What makes the big holiday bake easier?
Being happy! Shortbread is a difficult dough, but, when you’re happy, everything goes better and you can push it to its limits.
How do you get shortbread dough to cooperate?
Don’t put it in the fridge—it doesn’t like the cold. And work it well, so it’s soft enough. Read all the labels on any extras you’re adding, to make sure they’re pure—butter is a key ingredient in shortbread, so everything needs to meet that quality. And use fine sugar. If yours is coarse, break it down in a freezer bag with a rolling pin.
What additions work well in shortbread?
Candied ginger, orange or almond essence, nuts—just not peanuts. Pecans, hazelnuts or almonds are delicious.
How do you get the colour right?
Bake them low and slow, at around 250ºF—the cookies should just be a little golden.
Any final tips?
When you’re packing the shortbread cookies, make sure they can’t move around and keep them protected from light and oxygen. Don’t use plastic; it has absorptive properties. Glass jars or tins are best. Line the bottom of a tin with a doily, and then put a little doily on top of the cookies, so when the tin is opened, you see this lovely little thing. It’s nice to put as much into the presentation as into the dough.
Mary Macleod’s Traditional Shortbread
1 cup butter
½ cup icing sugar
2 tbsp. white fruit sugar
4 tbsp. durum wheat flour
1 ½ cups cake and pastry flour
Weigh out all your ingredients into different bowls, with the butter in the main mixing bowl. Using a small hand mixer, cream the butter, icing sugar, fruit sugar and durum wheat flour until it’s a pale white colour. When you think it’s combined, take a pinch of it in between your finger and thumb to see if the sugar and durum wheat have broken down into the butter. Clean off the mixer beaters.
Working with your hands, gradually add the pastry flour into the mixture. Stop adding flour if you have a soft, pliable dough. If you don’t use all the flour, that’s okay. You will know when it’s done when the dough does not stick to your hands.
Take the shortbread out of the bowl and place onto a wooden board. Knead it for a few minutes until it’s workable and pliable.
Roll out the dough and cut into cookie shapes. Using a flat spatula or lifter, place on a cookie tray.
Bake at 250ºF for 30 minutes, and then rotate pan. Bake for another 30 minutes until golden brown. (If using a convection oven, only 20 minutes after rotation.)