Mary Macleod’s Shortbread
639 Queen Street East
Some people say Disney is the happiest place on earth. I’d say those people are wrong. I have proof that the happiest place on earth is on Queen Street East, just past the Don River, where Mary Macleod and her small team of bakers make the very best shortbread ever.
Don’t believe me? Take James’ Beard’s word for it – on a visit to Toronto in the early 80s, the acclaimed chef declared Macleod’s shortbread the best he’s ever tasted.
Mcleod emigrated to Canada from Scotland in 1955 when she got married. She shares a story of meeting her mother-in-law for the first time; her reputation for being a great cook had preceded her, and her mother-in-law had asked that she bake an apple pie. Not used to the differences in North American flour compared to the softer, more delicate products used in Europe, Macleod’s pastry was a disaster, and she set about researching the different flours and how she could add other natural ingredients to manipulate the dough to work more like the European products she was used to.
She reveals that it took 25 years to perfect the shortbread recipe, passed down from her Grandmother, to accommodate the Canadian ingredients.
In 1981, with a marriage broken up and two sons to support, Macleod opened a small shop at Yonge and Eglinton, next door to the Capitol Theatre, that she ran almost entirely on her own. The shop did well but Macleod found her fortune made when a buyer from Holt Renfrew stopped by her shop.
“A beautiful girl in a yellow dress came in and said ‘would you bake for me?’” Macleod recalls with a note of fondness in her voice. That girl walked out with a cookie, but left behind her card.
Macleod processed the Holt’s order for delivery in November with the help of a friend. Then word started to spread – Macleod also mentions a write-up in a local paper – and one day in December she discovered people lined up outside her shop. Far more people than she had cookies for.
“I had a friend who ran a restaurant down the street, and I had her give them all coffee and we gave everyone a bit of shortbread, and I said, ‘I’ll take your names and phone numbers and I’ll call you when I have more stock.’”
Those people came back for their shortbread, and have returned every year (or more often) and Macleod notes that the children and grandchildren of those original customers are now regulars.
“It was kind of frightening at first because of all the people,” she says. “Because in those days I didn’t have a mixer or anything, it was all made by hand, so I could only do 2 pounds of butter at a time.”
After the recession of 1992, Macleod came close to losing the business. In addition to the cookie shop, she was running a large restaurant with her son. They had over 20 staff, but overnight the business stopped as customers just stopped eating out. She sold her house and moved into a smaller shop in the same Yonge and Eglinton neighbourhood, but it didn’t have enough space for all the packing that was necessary for her corporate orders.
She looked for a building for two years and finally, one December, her real estate agent showed up while she was in the process of rolling dough and insisted she check out the Queen Street East building where the business now resides.
The 177-year-old building provides space for Macleod’s baking business as well as commercial tenants on the top floors. While the location was considered a bit out of the way when Macleod first set up shop there, the gentrification of the neighbourhood has increased her walk-by traffic. Who can resist the smell of baking shortbread, after all?
While the business has definitely expanded, Macleod and her staff continue to make the cookies out of all-natural ingredients. The small but sun-filled kitchen includes 3 ovens – each can hold 11 sheet pans – and one industrial Hobart mixer. A large table in the centre provides space for packing and decorating the thousands of tins of cookies that will go out over the next few weeks as holiday gifts.
The cookies are a distinctive shape, dropped from a spoon with a domed imprint in the centre, and come in 8 flavours. Besides the original shortbread, there is the famous chocolate crunch.
“When I made the chocolate crunch, it took about 18 months of working on a Saturday night until Sunday morning to come up with the correct amount of butter with the amount of chocolate,” Macleod explains. “It’s very difficult, no one had ever [mixed chocolate] into pastry before, so I was pretty well the first one in Toronto that I know of that would do that. So I came up with one and I called it chocolate crunch, and everybody loved it.”
From the chocolate crunch recipe comes other flavours including a Dutch crunch, hazelnut, chocolate orange, and chocolate mint. Coffee and coconut shortbread round out the selection in the small, pretty shop at the front of the workspace.
There’s also the lesser known but equally amazing butterscotch shortbread fingers. When I bring some of these home to share with my husband we joke that they might be the key to world domination, they’re so impossible to resist.
Touring Macleod’s workspace, I am struck by the collection of cookie cutters on display. Besides the flavoured shortbread, Macleod also offers a variety of seasonal holiday cookies, made out of the traditional rolled shortbread.
From bells and trees at Christmas, cute cats and bats for Halloween (no, seriously, the cats are awesome!) to teapots and flowers for Mother’s Day and tools for Father’s Day, there is something on offer for every holiday. And every holiday becomes a justifiable reason to head to Macleod’s shop for a treat.
“I’ve been very fortunate and grateful that people love it as much as they do because everyone that comes in here, they’re always very happy,” Macleod says of the many repeat customers.
The products, though, speak for themselves. My own first experience with Macleod’s shortbread came about 20 years ago when I was working in an office and a client sent us a tin of cookies at Christmas (50% of Macleod’s business is corporate orders and they even design cookies and packaging with corporate logos). Years before we had the ability to look things up easily on the Internet, I scoured phone books and Perly’s map books to find out where this place was so I could have more of these amazing cookies.
Besides the quality products, the other factor that makes Macleod’s shop my personal happiest place on earth is because it’s just so joyful. It’s impossible to be cranky here. The staff are sweet and friendly and dedicated (one of Macleod’s bakers has been with her for 18 years), and everyone who walks through the door is just made to feel so very welcome.
A small part of this must be attributed to the joy Macleod herself receives from her work. “The feel of the dough is kind of spiritual,” she explains, “and I just get a lovely feeling and when I’m making the shortbread. I always think what patience it’s got because I’ve done everything with it and it just works, whatever I want – like my vision of a cookie, or I’m creating a cookie and it just comes out exactly as I’ve envisioned it.”
For the rest of us, our spiritual experience will come from stopping by the shop and eating one (okay, maybe one more) of Macleod’s ethereally good cookies. Happiest place on earth, people, I’m not kidding.
Mary Macleod’s shortbread is also available at Future Bakery in St. Lawrence Market, and at Holt Renfrew, as well as other retailers across the country. But I recommend visiting the shop in person for the full Mary Macleod shortbread experience. I guarantee you’ll leave with souvenirs.