Shortbread, Long Story: The Lesser-Known History of a Cookie We All Love

published Dec 20, 2022
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Three photos of ghoriba, polverone, and alfajores cookies
Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

I adore shortbread. It’s rich and buttery — and also delicate, almost ethereral. It’s a sweet treat, but it’s not too sweet. It’s beautifully versatile. Cover it in caramel or chocolate, maybe both? Or infuse it with just about any flavor you can imagine. Once you learn more about the history of shortbread, it opens up even more possibilities.

Mention shortbread and most of us will conjure up a tin in red, Scottish tartan. Of course! Shortbread has a long history with Scotland. But there’s a parallel story of shortbread that begins in modern-day Syria, Lebanon, and Morocco, and then Muslim-ruled Spain. From there the biscuit crosses the Atlantic ocean, landing in South America — where it eventually plays a major role in one of my all-time favorite cookies, the Argentine alfajores de maicena.

Centuries ago, people in the Muslim world — Arabs, Persians, and Magreb — were making biscuits that looked a lot like what we call shortbread. These cookies had the classic ratio of ingredients: one part sugar, two parts fat (typically clarified butter, sometimes oil), and three parts flour. And they went by slightly different names, depending on the region, from qurabiya in Arabia to ghorayebah in Egypt to kourabiethes in Greece. 

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

The Oxford Companion to Food describes ghorayebah as having two possible shapes: either a flattened disk or a “bracelet,” decorated with blanched almonds or pistachios. Often they’re given a fragrant flourish with rose water, as in Lebanese cookbook writer Salma Hage’s recipe for Moroccan-style ghoriba, from her book Middle Eastern Sweets: Desserts, Pastries, Creams & Treats.

When Arabs and Berbers of the Omayyad dynasty came to rule southern Spain, known as Andalusia, beginning in the 8th century AD they brought their cookies with them — including the ghoriba. And the cookies survived centuries of political upheaval, as Christian rulers eventually took over the region starting in the 15th century. 

Medieval convents in Andalucia began to specialize in confections of all sorts. Some made a version of ghoriba with pork lard, called mantecados — naturally, considering pork was (and still is) important livestock in Spain.  

While Muslims still living in Spain couldn’t enjoy these cookies, they did pass along their butter-based version. As Maricel Presilla notes in Gran Cocina Latina: The Food of Latin America, “Convents in Andalusia, where Muslim women often worked as servants, were the repositories of numerous Islamic recipes for sweets, many of which survive to this day in both Spain and the Americas.” Ghoriba became known as polvorones — “polvo” meaning something pulverized into dust. 

In Spain, polvorones eventually left the convents and went mainstream at the beginning of the 20th century when Micaela Ruiz Téllez began mass-producing polvorones (among other treats) at her bakery, La Colchona. It still produces confections today. 

Meanwhile, shortbread traveled again, this time with Andalusian nuns to the Americas in the 17th century. There, the holy and the unholy combined. Europeans brought sugar and the slave trade. Cloistered away from the human toll exacted to produce that sugar, nuns spun it into sweet confections. Eventually the slave trade was abolished and polvorones found their way out of the convents and into the kitchens and hands of the people.

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Today, in Mexico, the polvorón takes a few different forms. There is the rounded, nut-filled mound we often know as the Mexican wedding cookie, or the snowball cookie. There’s also the crunchy, colorfully dyed sugar cookie, as well as the same flattened disk found in Spain.

Pastry chef Teresa Finney created a polvorón recipe for us that is inspired by the Spanish classic. It’s flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg, and orange zest, with almonds, toasted flour, and brown sugar. No doubt the Omayyads would love it.

The Spanish also brought a confection called alfajor (from the Arabic alajú) to South America starting in the 17th century. But it was a different confection to the one we know of now as alfajores: two polvorónes-type cookies sandwiched with something sweet and gooey between them. You’ll find these alfajores throughout Peru, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina filled with everything from chocolate mousse to fruit syrup. Every country, and every region, has their own beloved version. 

In Argentina the most popular are filled with a thick, luscious dollop of dulce de leche. The dough for these alfajores is made with the addition of eggs and cornstarch. In fact, in Argentina they are known as alfajores de maicena, after a popular brand of cornstarch, Maicena. 

Credit: Photo: Julia Gartland; Food Stylist: Jessie YuChen

Gaby Melian, who grew up in Argentina and authored Gaby’s Latin American Cookbook, has shared with us her recipe for alfajores de maciena. She told us the egg in the dough helps provide a little extra structural integrity and gives the cookies a bit of color. And the cornstarch contributes to the texture.

“It’s something in between soft and snappy, otherwise it will crumble right away,” she says. “The joke is that when you eat alfajores de maicena, you’re supposed to chew them and try to talk at the same time, which is impossible.”

These smaller-sized alfajores are the type made for birthday parties, but Melian assures me that they’re appropriate for eating any day of the year (it’s always someone’s birthday) and at any time of the day. They are, after all, from a timeless tradition.