Shortbread: An After School Special

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After changing out of her prim, all-girls’ school uniform, her back sticky with sweat from the short walk home in Melbourne’s suffocating summer heat, the young girl took a bag of ice from the freezer and touched it to her head. Still standing, she poured herself a lemonade, grabbed a tub of unsalted butter from the fridge and heated a large pot of water. She knew that the butter should be room temperature (rather than melted) for her shortbread recipe, but today she was too impatient. As the water heated up, she grabbed a bag of caster sugar from the pantry and carefully poured 50oz into a large mixing bowl.

Why haven’t I gotten my period yet, the young girl wondered, as she dug a knife into the rigid butter, spooning 8oz into a small stainless steel bowl that she had set atop of the simmering pot. Most of the other girls in her year had gotten theirs, and she was 12 and a half now. Isn’t that when it’s supposed to start?

Careful not to melt the butter entirely, the young girl removed it from the heat and tipped it onto the sugar. Whipping them together was her favorite part of the recipe. “Knowing when to stop beating is the secret to many a cook’s perfect sandy shortbread,” her grandmother would say; so, just like she was taught seven years ago in her grandmother’s small, rustic kitchen back home in New Zealand, she waited until the mixture was white and sufficiently fluffy—but still slightly crunchy. With no one around to watch her, she dipped her fingers into the mixture and ate it raw, right out of the bowl.

Turning the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit, the young girl grabbed a baking tray and measured 12oz of flour, 4oz of cornflour and—most importantly—a generous pinch of salt “to add some kick to the flavor,” sifting the dry ingredients into the large bowl. Mixing it with the wet ingredients, she suddenly had a strong urge to knead the dough as though it were an oversize stress ball. But she knew better. The trick was to simply pat, or, on a day like today where her hands were particularly hot, lightly roll it into two small logs.

The young girl performed these steps on autopilot. This was not a recipe that required complicated procedures, and she had memorized the measurements years ago. It was her half-Scottish great-grandmother’s recipe, one that gave her a comforting sense of belonging despite being 1630 miles away from home; as if she was willing her great-grandmother, who had died three years earlier, and her grandmother, her closest ally, into the room with her while she baked. Her hands moved on their own while her mind drifted elsewhere.When did my mom get her period?

“She would probably lose her appetite for dinner—she was already full from the fistfuls of raw butter— and her dad would be mad because of it, but the giddy pleasure baking gave her was worth his indignation.”

With her two dough logs on an ungreased baking tray, she made room for them in the fridge so they could chill. She always wanted to skip this boring step, but again, she knew better: “Cold dough cooks to the size and shape of each biscuit; room temperature dough melts and spreads in the oven.” So she poured herself a fresh lemonade and waited at the kitchen table, still distracted, still frustrated at her body’s unwillingness to ‘grow up’. Her friends had gone to buy tampons after school. They walked out of the gate whispering and giggling in what seemed to her like a special code, one that only girls with recently swollen chests understood. The young girl wished she had someone to talk to about it. She blushed, and then shuddered, at the thought of telling her dad. How mortifying. The two of them had just moved to Australia from New Zealand, and she was desperate to enter her new friends’ chic, grown up world. She wished her body, with its chest as flat as parchment paper, would hurry up—catch up—so she could have a chance to belong.

Fifteen minutes later, the young girl took the baking tray from the fridge, quickly cut the dough into rectangles, pricked each biscuit with a fork, and slid the tray into the oven. 30 minutes and they will be done, she thought. She would probably lose her appetite for dinner—she was already full from the fistfuls of raw butter— and her dad would be mad because of it, but the giddy pleasure baking gave her was worth his indignation. Taking out her new laptop, she put on Lauryn Hill, a singer her 20-year-old nanny, Shannon, had introduced her to. Back home, Shannon would pick her up from school in a beat up VW convertible with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” playing at full volume.

The young girl wished she could talk to Shannon about these things. They used to tell each other everything during ad breaks of “Saved by the Bell”, when she was supposed to be doing her homework. Sometimes they made shortbread together, and Shannon even told her once that it was ‘orgasmic’. That was the first time she learned about the ‘real meaning’ of sex.

Switching on the light in the oven, the young girl checked the shortbread. This was always the most challenging step: “They should be cooked through, but never browned,” her grandmother would say. And she always had perfectly pale shortbread, with bottoms as gold as the young girl’s new locket; so she invariably strived for the same accomplished result. After boiling the kettle to make a cup of tea, and allowing the shortbread to cool for a couple of minutes, she sprinkled them with a little extra caster sugar.

Curled up next to a big window on the carpeted living room floor like a content kitten lazing in a patch of sun, the young girl quickly dunked the shortbread into her tea, careful not to let the biscuit get too soggy and fall into her cup, which happened when she didn’t pay close attention. She picked up the cordless phone to dial New Zealand, and thankfully, her mother picked up on the second ring.

Olivia Fleming is a New Zealander writing in New York who is known for her love of desserts. Her stories appear or have appeared in Bullett, The New York Observer,The New York Post, The New Zealand Herald; on Vogue.com, Elle.com and others. She is also a contributing editor at The Unlimited magazine.