It had all started back in the fall when Teresa had been carrying on about how it would be their first Christmas as a family. Family? He still couldn’t quite figure that one. And anyway, what did people actually do at Christmas? He had a vague idea that they all gave each other gifts. And that was a worry in itself. He couldn’t really afford fancy gifts – he spent all his money on bullets or in the bordello. And he sure as hell wasn’t touching the thousand dollars he’d been given for an hour of his time. He never felt like he’d earned it and so he’d stuffed it under his mattress and it had stayed there ever since.
But Teresa, being Teresa, had gone on and on about this coming Christmas. And boy, could she carry on. She’d wanted to know all about Christmas in Boston and then the old man had chipped in with some story about Christmas back in Scotland. “What I miss most,” the old man had said, “is real shortbread. You just can’t get it out here and it would be wonderful to taste that again.”
Well, if the old man had hoped for a reaction, he’d have sure been disappointed. Teresa had just carried on asking Scott about Boston. Johnny was just grateful she didn’t ask him anything about Christmas in Mexico. Could hardly tell her that his Mama had usually been drunk through Christmas. He remembered that when he was small she didn’t usually have a man in on Christmas Day, had even played games with him then. But by the time he was seven or eight that had all changed. She used to get cheap tequila and drink herself senseless. That was hardly a story to tell the family over dinner.
But later, Teresa had pushed him and Scott into the kitchen. “That’s what we give Murdoch for Christmas,” she’d announced, with a huge smile plastered across her face.
Scott looked blank. “What? What do you want to give him?”
Teresa had sighed loudly, looked at him and Scott like they were both dumb or something. “Shortbread, of course.” Then she’d looked kind of puzzled. “Do you know what shortbread is? I know how to make ordinary bread but I’ve never heard of shortbread.”
Johnny had just given her one of his looks. Like he’d know what shortbread was! But even old Boston had looked doubtful.
“To be honest, Teresa, I’m not sure, but I’ll wire my grandfather’s chef for a recipe. Good enough?”
And Teresa had been all smiles and then been beside herself with impatience waiting for the reply until several days later Scott had come back from town with the recipe.
“According to my grandfather’s chef, shortbread is a kind of cookie that they bake in Scotland.”
“So not bread at all?” Teresa looked a bit put out.
“No, not bread. Apparently it’s made from flour, sugar and butter, but the chef says that a proportion of the flour should be rice flour. It’s apparently the secret of the crispness of shortbread.”
Teresa looked even more put out now. “What’s rice flour? I can get rice, but I’ve never heard of rice flour.”
Scott grinned. “It’s OK. Anton, my grandfather’s chef, says that he assumes it’s difficult to get out here so he is sending us some rice flour.”
And that was how he now found himself watching Teresa try and make these damn cookies. She was there with two different types of flour, butter and sugar and getting herself in a right old stew. And making one hell of a mess.
“Read the recipe again, Scott.” She could be real bossy at times. Still, least it was old Boston having to read the damn recipe. Johnny perched himself on the edge of the table, he figured his job to be chief taster.
“Six ounces of flour, two of which should be rice flour. Four ounces of butter and two ounces of sugar. Rub the butter into the flour and sugar until it resembles fine bread crumbs. Then, knead it together, roll it out and cut into shapes, prick all over with a fork and bake on a greased tray in a moderate oven for 15 minutes.”
Scott peered over Teresa’s shoulder. “Well, it does look like breadcrumbs now, so try and get it all together and roll it out.”
Johnny leant over to have a look and grabbed a piece of the mixture. “Tastes fine, Teresa,” he grinned as he ducked the blow she aimed at his head.
Teresa put the tray in the oven and then they all hung around waiting. But after 15 minutes had gone and Teresa looked at the shortbread, she looked kind of upset. “It doesn’t look cooked. It’s still really pale. Perhaps I’d better leave it longer.”
And so they all hung around some more until Teresa figured it looked really good and brown. Johnny grabbed one of the shapes off the tray and tasted it. “Tell you something, Teresa, it tasted a hell of a lot better before you cooked it.”
Scott tasted a bit too. “It tastes burnt. I’m sure it’s not meant to be like that, Teresa. Perhaps you should have taken it out after the 15 minutes. Perhaps it’s not meant to be dark brown.”
Well, that was the wrong thing to say. She got all huffy and threw them both out of the kitchen and said she’d do better without their smart comments.
He figured it was best to stay out of her way for a while and let her calm down. He’d slip in later and see how the next batch turned out.
As it turned out, he had to go into town on an errand and it wasn’t until that evening that he was able to sneak into the kitchen where he found Teresa surrounded by plates of biscuits, some brown, some black and one plate of really pale ones. She greeted him as though she hadn’t seen him in years. “I did it! Try these.” And she pushed the plate of really pale ones towards him.
He looked at it doubtfully. Sure didn’t look cooked, still, he wasn’t prepared to risk annoying Teresa by saying so. Never paid to piss off the person who prepared your food. So he took one of the biscuits and bit into it. It kind of melted in his mouth. It tasted real good, better than any cookie he’d ever had. Scott would probably know some real fancy words to describe it, but boy, did it taste good.
“Well?” She was looking at him like she was waiting for a prize or something.
He grinned. “Tastes real good, Teresa, and I like the sugar you’ve scattered on the top.”
“The recipe said you should do that. But it doesn’t seem as though it has much to do with Christmas.” She was kind of frowning and looking real worried. “When I think of Christmas flavours I think of cinnamon and oranges.”
Johnny shrugged. Women! They were never satisfied. Well, ‘cept maybe when he’d satisfied one, he was good at that. He grinned to himself. That was more the Christmas gift he had in store for himself. A hell of a lot better than shortbread or knitted scarves.
He was kind of worried about the scarves. He’d caught Teresa busy knitting one and she’d said it was a gift for Scott. Sure as hell hoped she wasn’t knitting him one too. Shit! What self respecting gunfighter would be seen wearing a knitted scarf? Hell, he’d freeze to death before he’d wear one.
He glanced at Teresa, who was still fretting over the damn cookies. “Don’t worry so, Teresa. Murdoch’ll love ’em.” He grinned again and grabbed another biscuit before scooting out of the kitchen, narrowly missing the swipe she aimed at his head.
He found that he enjoyed the days leading up to Christmas. Teresa made him and Scott drag in lots of greenery so that she could decorate the house and she burned pine cones on the fire in the Great Room which made the house smell real welcoming. He’d managed to choose gifts for his new family without too many problems having first sought out the advice of Delice on a trip into town. She seemed to have some pretty good ideas and so he’d bought Teresa a pretty silver slide for her hair and a box of real good cigars for Scott. He’d even carved a pipe stand for the old man as Delice seemed to think Murdoch would like something that Johnny had actually made himself.
And so he’d awoken on his first real Christmas morning to a house full of bustle and wonderful smells coming from the kitchen. When the rest of the family had hurried off to a morning service at the church, they’d left him behind with strict instructions on basting the turkey which was sizzling in the oven.
He was just trying to shove the damn thing back in the oven, having burned himself on the roasting dish, when they all arrived home. Teresa shooed him out of the kitchen, but didn’t seem too interested in his burned hand. “It’s your own fault, Johnny, it’s what the oven mitts are for. If you haven’t enough sense to use them, you deserve to get burned.”
So much for the Christmas spirit, he thought sourly, as he nursed his sore hand. But it wasn’t too sore to hold the glass of champagne that Scott thrust towards him as they all stood in front of the roaring log fire.
Scott called, “Come on, Teresa, we’re all waiting for you.”
She came into the room carrying two plates of cookies. She offered the first plate to Murdoch. And boy, did the old man’s face light up. “Teresa, is that real shortbread?”
She nodded, looking real proud of herself. “I made it especially for you. Is it OK? Did I do it right?”
Murdoch took a bite as they all watched. It was like they were all holding their breath, waiting to see if the old man would approve.
Murdoch gave a contented sigh. “Darling, it’s just perfect. Exactly as it was back in Scotland all those years ago.”
Teresa smiled in delight. “Well, I hoped I’d got it right. But because this is our first Christmas as a family, I’ve invented another type of shortbread – Lancer shortbread, and I think you’ll like this even more. It’s got all the flavours of Christmas – try a piece.” And she offered them all a cookie from the other plate she’d carried in.
Johnny took a piece and bit into it. It tasted of cinnamon and orange, like no biscuit he’d ever had.
Scott was grinning. “I think, Teresa, this really is your piece de resistance. Lancer’s very own shortbread. I decree that you must make this henceforth for every Christmas we’re together. It really is a great recipe for a family Christmas.”
Teresa’s Lancer Shortbread
6oz flour – (4oz plain flour and 2oz rice flour (rice flour may be labelled as rice semolina or ground rice in the USA)
4oz unsalted butter
2oz caster sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
Grated zest of an orange
A drop of extract of orange (usually found in tiny bottles in the baking area of supermarkets)
Rub the butter into the flour and sugar, using your finger tips until it resembles fine breadcrumbs, add the cinnamon, orange zest and a drop or two of orange extract. Knead it well and then roll out on a floured surface. Cut into shapes such as holly leaves, Christmas trees, stars or bells and place on a greased baking sheet. Prick all over with a fork and bake for about 15 minutes at 180degrees centigrade, 350 degrees farenheit or gas mark 4. The shortbread should only be lightly browned – this shortbread though is slightly darker than plain shortbread. It will still be fairly soft when you remove it from the oven. Sprinkle it with some more caster sugar (and extra cinnamon if the fancy take you) and lift the pieces onto a cooling tray. Leave to cool completely before storing in an airtight container.
And a Happy Christmas to everyone.