Years ago, my daughters and I were invited to a Christmas tea at the home of a sweet friend. Stepping through her door on that cold winter day, we were immediately ushered into the gladness of the season—the festive décor, the warmth of the fire crackling in the woodstove, holiday music playing quietly in the background, and our hostess’s welcoming smile. The entire afternoon was a perfect blend of coziness and elegance.
Once we were seated at the table trimmed with Christmas finery, she brought out a lovely platter of dainty golden cookies. With the first buttery bite I knew they were some type of shortbread.
When asked, our hostess smiled and said, “These are petticoat tails.”
Petticoat tails. What a fitting name for these delicate confections!
And they are indeed shortbread. In doing a little research, I learned that shortbread is originally from Scotland. Traditionally, it is cut into one of three shapes: a large circle divided into triangles and usually called “petticoat tails” (Think of the triangles one gets when slicing pizza only much smaller.), individual round cookies called “shortbread rounds,” or a thick rectangular slab cut into “fingers.”
The name “petticoat tails” itself is interesting, and no one seems to really know its exact origin. I read of three theories.
Some believe the name comes from a mispronouncing of “petites gatelles” or little cakes in old French. Others believe it came from the French “petits cotés” which are pointed cookies eaten with wine. Still others believe the name dates back to centuries ago and refers to pieces of fabric used to make frilly full-gored petticoats. Take your pick! I kind of like the idea of frilly petticoats, myself.
In my book The Christmas Cactus, Katie Jo taught Hannah to make petticoat tails from a recipe handed down by her Scottish grandmother, Granny MacDougal. Which of the three shapes she chose to make the cookies is anyone’s guess.
At the Christmas tea I attended, my friend chose wee shortbread rounds for her petticoat tails. That is the recipe I offer here. Enjoy!
- 1 cup soft butter
- 1 cup sifted powdered sugar
- 1 teaspoon vanilla
- 2 1/2 cups flour
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
Mix butter, sugar, and vanilla.
Blend in flour and salt. (Finish mixing by hand if necessary.)
Mold into rolls about 2” in diameter.
Wrap in wax paper and chill several hours or overnight.
Remove wax paper and slice rounds ⅛” thick.
Bake 8-10 minutes at 350°-375°.
Photography by Anja Johnson