If you can stand the heat, get into The Kitchen: Review – The Kitchen, Mui Wo

Pizza

A few weeks ago we headed off on one of our walks – on Lantau, the largest island in Hong Kong – between Discovery Bay and Mui Wo. But this time was different. We normally take an easy route, partly along the coast via Nim Shue Wan and then over the hills via the Trappist Monastery. There are some steep stretches but it’s pretty much all paved. It takes around one and a half to two hours depending on how fit you are.

This time, we decided to attempt the alternative route via the Tigers Head. We’d seen this route while hiking around Discovery Bay and thought “how difficult can it be”? We headed off on a Saturday morning with the tops of the peaks still covered in cloud. It turns out it’s quite a long way, it’s very steep, it isn’t paved in key parts and, well, it’s knackering. Now all this is relative – we were passed as we struggled up a steep slope with lots of loose scree by one guy jogging along, carrying a bike. If you’re fit, this won’t be too difficult. But for us it was exhausting.

When you reach the top (465m above sea level) you’re rewarded by amazing views to both sides of Lantau and beyond. Or you would if you weren’t in the middle of a cloud. The first minute or so of this YouTube video by some guys with a drone gives you some idea of the views you get on a fine day – they don’t show the knackering climb to get there though.

So we arrived in Mui Wo after lunchtime having misjudged the time, missed the ferry back we were targeting and very hungry. We had taken over four hours to do seven miles or so. And we headed to what has become our eating place of choice in Mui Wo – The Kitchen.

The Kitchen isn’t much to look at from the outside. It’s small, facing onto a car park near the ferry piers, and is a little bit scruffy. It doesn’t have a menu outside or a website as far as I can tell. When I’d seen it before, I’d wrongly got the impression it was more of a bar with some snacks than a proper restaurant. Checking out TripAdvisor and, especially, OpenRice hadn’t encouraged me. OpenRice has some terrible reviews of the place. On closer inspection, they are old and there is mention more recently of much better experiences and changes in management. But there aren’t many reviews and so it seemed a bit risky. The first time we tried them, it was because the Nepalese restaurant not far away bizarrely decided they were going to shut on a Saturday lunchtime – surely one of the busiest times for a Mui Wo restaurant aimed at visitors.

Anyway, we somewhat dubiously tried The Kitchen and it was a revelation. Their name comes from their open kitchen and they were cooking a range of mainly Italian dishes from scratch in a traditional way. The pizza, when it arrived from their specialist pizza oven, was great. If you’re a fan of deep-dish pizzas, then this is not for you. Their pizzas are wonderfully thin, they’re crispy and they stay crispy – in the picture at the top you can see the amazing cornicione (to give it the Italian term for pizza crust) which had a snap like the thinnest crispbread. This one was a spicy chorizo. They do two sizes – small and large – and this was the small one. Everyone who goes there is surprised by the sizes – they should really call them large and giant. The small one ran for around HK$138 so maybe not cheap for Mui Wo but good value compared to the likes of Pizza Express.

Pasta

Mrs CookWithNoName had a black truffle pasta which was a deep combination of flavours. My iPhone picture doesn’t really do it justice. They have quite a range of pizzas and pastas plus a few standbys like burgers. We were astonished to see one guy who was eating a pizza have a burger and fries to follow – we weren’t around to see if he managed to finish it but, if he did, it was quite a feat.

They have just a couple of choices for dessert. We tried the tiramisu which was OK but, to be honest, nothing special. They have the usual drinks and what looks like an interesting choice of wine although I never saw a wine list.

It’s quite small so you might have to hang around at the bar for a table on weekend lunchtimes but the staff are friendly. They deserve to be better known – a bit of effort to put a menu outside and have a website would probably do them a world of good. But then we might not get in next time we arrive exhausted from some remote peak on Lantau.

Details
The Kitchen
Shop 1, G/F, Scenic Crest, 18A Mui Wo Ferry Pier Road, Lantau Island
大嶼山梅窩碼頭路18A卓濤軒地下1號舖
Tel. 5991 6292
OpenRice (for map)

Conserve Conundrum: Jam from the mysterious yangmei fruit

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It’s not often you come across a new fruit. I’ve lived in Asia for 12 years and thought I knew pretty much all the fruits available. But, walking through Graham Street Market, I saw something I’d never seen before. About the size of a large strawberry but almost perfectly spherical, a dark red verging on black colour and the look of a berry, a bit like a very large round raspberry. What is it, I asked but my language skills and those of the stall holder were not sufficiently in sync. Try one, he suggested. They were deliciously sweet to my taste and had a stone in the middle (a bit like a lychee) so not a berry. Another stallholder told me it was a blackberry which it definitely wasn’t – I ate plenty of those as a kid and they certainly don’t have stones.

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Well a bit of research showed what fruit it was and explained why I hadn’t come across it before. It goes under various names – the Mandarin name seems to be yangmei. The late Pam Shookman renders it as yeung4 mui4 in her useful guide to the wet markets of Hong Kong. The only English name is bayberry but there seems to be some confusion with some other similar western berries of that name. Other names include yamamomo in Japan and Chinese strawberry although, again, there’s some confusion with other plants there. The botanical name is myrica rubra.

I think pretty much all the Asian fruits have gravitated to UK markets by now. I remember reading the produce manager of Sainsbury’s supermarkets in the UK a few years ago saying that he had successfully sold all exotic fruits with the single exception of durian – the pungently-aromaed fruit from Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia which was a step too far for English nostrils apparently, despite its actually rather creamy taste. I’m pretty sure they’ve never sold yangmei though.

So why not the yangmei? Well it seems to have a very short growing season (as short as a couple of weeks according to some sources) and it doesn’t keep well – maybe only a day or two. I suspect that all that could change with some attention from breeders but it’s not currently an attractive proposition commercially in the west despite its very pretty appearance. Supermarkets favour selling fruits under-ripe that stay in “good” condition for weeks. There are though attempts to market the juice in the US under the trademarked name Yumberry – good luck with that!

I said that I found it sweet but it seems to get mixed opinions on that – some people describe it as sour-sweet – I think it depends how much of a sweet tooth you have as to how far the sourness comes through. They have a consistency which is weirdly reminiscent of citrus fruits when you bite into them – slightly fibrous but in a pleasant way. Apparently the dark coloured ones are sweeter than the redder varieties. it’s supposed to have all sorts of health benefits.

They are quite cheap – in the Graham Street market they were running for around HK$12 a punnet and I’ve seen them since for $10 but I have yet to see them in our local Park n Shop supermarket and only a few market stalls seem to have them. The season is right now – late May to early June.

So what to do with them? You can just eat them raw or juice them. But I like making jam so here goes with an almost novel form of jam. There’s not much to go on on the internet about making jam with yangmeis so I took a punt and used the standard benchmark of equal weights of fruit and sugar with just a little less sugar because they seemed so sweet.

The tricky thing is how to handle the stones and the flesh. I de-stoned the fruits by hand which was not too difficult – I guess something like a cherry pitter might help if you wanted to cut down on the hassle. One approach then would be to just use the juice and strain the fruit at some point to get rid of all the fibres. But I like some bite to my jam and figured the citrus-like fruit might make something a little like a coarse marmalade so I didn’t strain it at all. Some people say that you need to wash the fruits thoroughly because of the possibility of bugs although I didn’t see any.

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I used four punnets and after de-stoning the fruit had about 1.2 kg to which I added 1kg of jam sugar. The results are a wonderful colour but the jam is quite thick – I’m not sure if that’s because of high pectin content in the fruit or because I left in all the flesh. If I we remaking it again I think I would boil the fruit for slightly less time and use ordinary sugar to achieve more of a soft set.

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Yangmei Jam
 
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A lovely deep red jam made with the unusual short-seasoned Chinese fruit the yangmei or bayberry
Author:
Ingredients
  • About 1.2 kg yangmeis, after de-stoning (approximately 4 punnets)
  • 1kg ordinary white sugar
  • Juice of half a lemon
Method
  1. Mix together yangmei flesh and sugar and leave for 2 hours or overnight to infuse.
  2. Sterilise jars for 30 mins at 130C fan.
  3. Heat yangmei flesh and sugar over low heat for 5 mins to melt sugar, stirring.
  4. Raise heat to high heat for 20 mins stirring.
  5. Add lemon juice.
  6. If there is a lot of scum on the top of the jam, either remove it with a slotted spoon or add a knob of butter which will naturally disperse it.
  7. Decant the hot mixture into the sterilised jars almost to the top. Seal and briefly invert the jars to sterilise the tops. Take care with the hot liquid.
Notes
This made 3 jars.
If you want a smoother jam without the flesh then strain the mixture after step 3.
These should keep for several months unopened and then several weeks in the fridge.
Read the guidance in tropical jam session for some general tips on jam making.

 

 

 

 

Getting in hock: Ham hock and broad bean slow-cooked soup

 

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Our favoured local value meat supplier at Mui Wo Meats has a classic budget cut on their lists. A mere HK$40 gets you a tasty Spanish ham hock – the part of the leg below the ham itself. As with most budget cuts, this doesn’t look that promising – it’s got skin, fat and bone and not that much meat. But with hours of slow cooking it turns into something magical. The skin and bone add a rich flavour (you get rid of the actual skin and bone before serving after they relinquished all their goodness) and it’s actually not that fatty after all.

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The classic soup combination for hock is with peas – the saltiness of the hock combining with the sweetness of peas. Niki Segnit is the queen of flavour pairings and in her wonderful Flavour Thesaurus she reports that Swedish institutions use to favour a thick pea and ham soup called arstoppa on Thursday evenings to ward off the hunger pangs during Friday fasts.

We’re going for a slight variation with broad beans whose chunkier nature I think suits the dish and the other vegetables we’re adding in. Broad beans are available frozen from many local supermarkets. Some people peel broad beans – the skins do have a slight grey drabness about them and supposedly are bitter. But I just throw them straight in frozen – either broad beans are getting less bitter through cultivation or the savouriness of the ham is working to counteract it.

The choice of vegetables is up to you but you do need beans or peas or something close in there to get the classic flavour combination.

Soup is something of a misnomer for this recipe- it’s more of a stew although I suppose you could put everything bar the meat through the blender if you want a smoother result.

It’s actually a very easy recipe with the only slight faff being the need to skin and bone the hock towards the end of cooking. I used a slow cooker and cooked for about six hours – as you can see, this made the hock very tender and the skin came away easily in one piece with the meat easy to shred from the bone.

 

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If you don’t have a slow cooker (or a rice cooker or something similar with a low setting) then you could cook this, covered, on the stove-top in a heavy bottomed pan or in the oven on a low heat. In both cases it would need less cooking time and you would probably need to add a little more liquid – the slow cooker keeps the liquid in.

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Watch out for the seasoning – the ham hock is already salted so go light on added salt until you’ve tasted the final result.

Getting in hock: Ham hock and broad bean slow-cooked soup
 
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A slow cooked delicious soup using a budget cut.
Author:
Ingredients
  • 1 ham hock – about 550 – 600g (defrosted if it comes frozen)
  • 1 onion – finely diced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, peeled and squashed
  • 1 carrot – diced
  • 2 sticks celery - diced
  • 2 medium potatoes – diced
  • Broad beans 125g (frozen)
  • Stock – about 750ml (from a cube is fine; water makes an adequate substitute)
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 lemongrass stalk, bruised
  • I small leek or 2 large spring onions, thinly sliced (optional for garnish)
  • Oil for frying
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Method
  1. Heat a glug of oil and add the onion. Cook gently for about 15-20 minutes until it starts to take on some colour. You can do this in the container you are eventually going to do the main cooking in if it will go on the stove-top or alternatively in a frying pan or wok.
  2. Add the garlic, carrots, celery, potatoes and ham hock and heat gently for a few minutes.
  3. If you’re using a different container to the main cooker (like a slow cooker), transfer all the ingredients from the pan to that. Add the stock and some ground pepper. You want the liquid to almost cover the ham hock. Don’t add any salt at this stage
  4. Cook slowly, covered, for about 4 hours in a slow cooker; about 2-3 hours on the stove top or in the oven. If the stove=top or oven, check periodically whether you need to add liquid if it is going dry.
  5. Add the broad beans and return to the heat for about one hour more.
  6. Check the meat is tender. If not, cook for a little longer.
  7. Check the seasoning and add salt if necessary.
  8. Remove the ham hock to a chopping board and use two forks to strip the skin. Then shred the meat away from the bones. Return the shredded meat to the soup.
  9. Serve, garnished with the optional thinly sliced spring onion or leek if desired.
Notes
Serves 4 generously.
It’s great served with some crusty bread or you could serve with rice if you’d prefer.
Extra can be frozen. If freezing, re-heat thoroughly before serving.

 

 

 

 

I am going to cook you the best meal you’ve ever eaten: Why the CookWithNoName?

If you’re wondering about the name of this blog…

It’s an allusion to one of the great inspirations for Englishmen to cook – Len Deighton. He is most famous as a thriller writer and, in particular, for the 1960s spy stories he wrote that were turned into films with Michael Caine as the central character, Harry Palmer. But in the books the character was never named; hence they’re often referred to as the “Spy with No Name” series.

Beyond his literary abilities, Deighton was, unusually for his time and background, an accomplished cook. He had had a rather more varied early life than the typical British man in his twenties or thirties post-war: he had worked in professional kitchens in Paris and London to earn money whilst an art student and he had travelled around the world as a steward on BOAC (the forerunner of British Airways). Combined with his passion for self-education, that made him a very serious cook who was at the centre of the slowly-emerging British food scene in the late 1950s and 1960s.

He trained early on as an illustrator and, while working as a book designer by day, turned his drafting skills to making sketched notes on his cooking hobby. When his friend, Raymond Hawkey saw them on Deighton’s kitchen wall the potential for publishing them as “cook-strips” in the Observer newspaper of which he was design director was clear. Those cook-strips established Deighton as a key figure in British food-writing.

You’re quite the gourmet aren’t you Palmer?
Deighton’s books and the film adaptations took off in the early 1960s with his nameless spy figure as portrayed by Caine seen as a working class hero and as a kind of anti-Bond. Compared to James Bond, the Harry Palmer films were much less glamorous, emphasisng the quasi-bureaucratic nature of the espionage word but they retained a cool and entertaining tone with Caine as an attractively chippy hero railing against his Establishment bosses in a way that sat very well in the UK with the spirit of the increasingly meritocratic 1960s.

Both Bond and Palmer are food-lovers but Bond’s tastes, although often expensive, are much less refined. He has his scrambled eggs cooked by his Scottish housekeeper (in the books at least – I’m not sure we ever see any home cooking in the Bond films). Palmer on the other hand is seen not only cooking but shopping in supermarkets- admittedly the one-off supermarkets in London’s Soho which sold more exotic ingredients than my local Tesco did in the 1960s.

And, if I can use the language of the time, Palmer deploys his culinary skills to pull birds. “I am going to cook you the best meal you have ever eaten” he says to the lovely Sue Lloyd in the film of The Ipcress File (see the YouTube clip above) – at last a role model for blokes who liked cooking. You could be a cool, tough spy and get birds with your skills in the kitchen!

I’ll write more another time about the books that were produced from Deighton’s cook-strips and the style of cooking they embodied.

In the meantime, if you want to know more about Deighton, the best starting point is the wonderful website, the Deighton Dossier which is a repository of all kinds of material.

If you want to read the books, then Amazon has pretty much all of them including Kindle editions of most of the spy novels and some of the cooking titles. But be warned, the spy novels are notoriously hard to follow – read them for the style and the atmosphere rather than to comprehend the plot.

 

(Almost) no knead to know: Easy but slow bread baking

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There’s something very satisfying about making your own bread…when it works. My sole childhood memory of my mother baking bread was during one of the numerous bakery strikes that happened in the 1970s in the UK. Sadly, her effort was pretty unpalatable. As for me and Mrs CookWithNoName, we’ve had quite a few disappointing attempts between us. However we’ve both found saviours espousing very different baking techniques and from very different backgrounds.

Mrs CWNN has had success with the methods of the English-based Breton baker Richard Bertinet. He favours the French “slap and fold” method of kneading. His book Dough is excellent and comes with a short DVD which you can watch on YouTube. (The kneading demonstration starts at around 4.30.) This produced a great loaf and only one complaint – from our neighbour upstairs, annoyed about the noise of the slapping on a Saturday morning.

Bertinet is a classically trained artisan baker and his books demonstrate a great variety of loaves. His kneading method is quite a bit of work however and there’s been a trend to no-knead bread that is allowed to develop over a much longer time period than conventional modern baking. As well as saving on effort, the long ferment allows superior flavours to emerge.

The baker I’ve found whose guidance is the most reliable and easy to follow is the American, Ken Forkish, whose book Flour Water Salt Yeast gives very precise, detailed instructions. He is unusual in a number of respects – his breads mainly use all purpose (or plain) flour rather than the strong bread flour normally favoured for its higher gluten content which supposedly gives a better rise. And he bakes his bread inside a container – by preference, a large cast iron Dutch oven – which helps keep the shape and keeps in moisture allowing the bread to rise more before forming a crust. His sole book has essentially one basic method which he then develops into a variety of different recipes around a common theme.

Forkish’s recipes generally make two large loaves – each roughly a 2lb loaf as a traditional British baker would have seen it. But you could easily halve the recipe and produce one of these large loaves or even two smaller loaves. Below, to keep things simple, we’ll make one (roughly) 2lb loaf (or two smaller 1lb loaves).

You need to do quite a bit of planning around the timetable – his method does not need much active work but it does require being there to do things at a few key moments. In his book, he discusses how to vary the timetables and gives alternative recipes like an overnight loaf but again, we’ll keep things simple here.

He is very precise about the temperatures before the actual baking. This is something of a dilemma in Hong Kong where our ambient temperatures in the summer months are significantly higher than he is working with. Perhaps even more importantly, we have very high humidity. I’ve adjusted his recipe to slightly reduce the amount of water to allow for our higher humidity and not warmed the water as well as slightly reducing the time to reflect the temperature. If your kitchen is air-conditioned, that will lower both the temperature and humidity to closer to his assumptions.

Forkish’s method requires no kneading – neither the conventional British way (of pushing with the heel of the hand) nor the French slap and fold. Instead there is a brief mixing of just the flour and water to “autolyse” the mixture and later a very quick folding two or three times after adding the yeast and salt. He has posted videos on YouTube which are very useful

One thing I’ve found is that the shaping phase is very important and perhaps the most neglected element of getting a good rise. Both Bertinet and Forkish demonstrate in their videos how you can build strength into the dough before it goes into the oven so it rises well. .
Forkish bakes longer than most to achieve a very dark crust. Mrs CookWithNoName prefers a slightly less thick crust so we don’t go as far as him.

Equipment
You need a container to mix the ingredients. Forkish recommends very specific large plastic tubs which are great if you plan to do a lot of baking. I bought some of these via Amazon US. But really anything roughly bucket shaped (or quite a bit smaller for the quantity below) would do. Ideally they’d have a lid or you could substitute cling film I guess. I used a very large Tupperware-type container when I first did this. Round ones are better than square ones because you don’t want corners that bits can get stuck in.

You also need something in which to do the final proofing. This will help in the shaping and contribute to the rise. The classic container is a specialised “banetton” or proofing dish. Traditionally made from cane or basket-weave, they help to dry out the surface of the dough which might assist in forming the crust. But these are hard to locate in Hong Kong and, messy to clean if your dough turns out too sticky as it may do sometimes when you experiment. So you can substitute anything which is roughly bowl shaped – a large glass or ceramic mixing bowl will do fine

It is possible to bake these directly on a baking tray on the shelf of the oven but Forkish’s method is big on using a lidded cast iron container and I’m sure that contributes significantly to the result. Sogo sell a range of nice but expensive American Lodge cast iron ware and I use one of their large Dutch ovens. One disadvantage of this is that, unless you have a range of different shapes and sizes, all your loaves will come out pretty much the same shape. I have a couple of largish cast iron enamelled casserole dishes which I have also used for 1ln loaves and that gives a bit of variety

Forkish recommends baking at a high temperature of 240C. Our previous oven would only go to around 220C and, even if yours says it goes higher, it may be lying to you. But it seems, as long as you can get it above 200C, you’ll be OK although you may need to bake a little longer. If you’re using the cast iron container, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a fan oven or gas or electric or whatever because the bread is going to be within in its own hot little world. A fan oven will get hotter quicker however and recover the right temperature more quickly after you open the door.

You’ll need some accurate scales. Other optional extras are a baker’s knife to make a nick or two in the top of the dough to help it break open for a nice finish. (Forkish doesn’t use this, relying instead on it happening naturally in his method.) A cooling rack would help. But you can turn the loaf upside down to cool on a worktop if you don’t have one. A dough scraper helps – these are available cheaply in lots of stores like City Super and the specialist baking stores like Twins.

(Almost) no knead to know: Easy but slow bread baking
 
A 2lb white boule loaf recipe adapted for Hong Kong from Ken Forkish;s Flour Water, Salt Yeast
Author:
Ingredients
  • 500 grams all purpose (plain) flour
  • 360 grams of water
  • 11 g salt
  • 2g instant yeast
Method
  1. Mix the flour and water in your large plastic container. You are simply incorporating the water into the flour. Don’t worry about kneading or anything like that. See Ken Forkish’s video of this stage (but note he is using double the quantity here and a different recipe. The principle is the same though.)
  2. Leave covered in a warmish place for about 25 minutes. (The ambient temperature in Hong Kong will be fine.)
  3. Add the yeast and the salt and mix these into the flour and water by repeatedly folding over the dough and cutting through the mixture with your hand. See Ken Forkish’s method. Cover and store
  4. After about twenty minutes, fold the dough. You need to give a few folds of the dough. This means grasping about a third of the dough from underneath and folding it over itself. You will do this three or four times using a hand that is dipped in a little water to stop the dough sticking to your hand. Ken Forkish’s video shows the method well.
  5. Repeat the folding once more, after about an hour.
  6. After about five and a half hours from when you started, remove the dough from the plastic container onto a lightly floured surface.
  7. With lightly floured hands, shape the dough into as tight a ball as possible. You do this by folding the dough repeatedly in on itself from underneath to the top. Then with your hand underneath the ball you spin it around a little to finish the shaping and place into your proving container. Again Ken’s video shows this very well.
  8. Depending on how long your oven needs to heat up, you’ll need to start pre-heating the oven with the cast iron container inside. Heat to 240C if your oven will go that hot, otherwise, as hot as it will go. (You may get a little bit of smoke coming off the container when you remove it, especially if, like me, you oil the container for storage to avoid rust.)
  9. The dough needs to prove for around one hour in Hong Kong summer temperatures (up to 15 minutes longer in the winter or if your kitchen is air-conditioned). Test the proof by pressing with a floured finger – it should go indented and slowly recover its shape when you remove your finger. If it springs back almost immediately then it still has some proving to do; if it doesn’t spring back at all, then it’s over-proved – you should bake right away but the rise won’t be optimal.
  10. When ready, remove the cast iron container with oven gloves; take the lid off and drop in the dough gently, the other way up from how it has been proving. Take care – this is very hot.
  11. Bake for around 30 minutes and remove from the oven. Again, take care.
  12. Take the loaf out of the container and put it back directly onto the oven shelf for a final development of the crust. I just do this for 5-10 minutes depending in how pale the bread is when it comes out but Forkish goes longer. Test the bake by tapping on the base of the loaf – it should give a nice hollow sound, if not it needs longer.
  13. Remove from the oven and leave to cool on a cooling rack before trying.
Notes
The crust sadly goes soft quite quickly in Hong Kong’s humidity. You can re-fresh the crust by putting it back in a hot oven (say 200C) for 10 minutes.
The loaf keeps well inside a sealed plastic bag – we’ve happily kept this for a week or so.
Alternatively you can freeze it inside a plastic bag. Either defrost and then re-heat the whole loaf or, if you are only going to use a slice or two at a time, you can slice it before freezing and then defrost individual slices in a toaster.

 

Savoury Shortbread: Biscuits for the Fickle

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So here’s the problem. Mrs. CookWithNoName loves nibbling savoury biscuits but she’s fickle. She’ll find a new type in the shops, like it, try it a couple of times but then get bored. On our travels, we spend ages looking at shelves of biscuits. There are too many sweet ones that she’s not interested in and then we’ll find a nice savoury one but she’ll get bored again after a packet or two.

So clearly we have to do some home-made ones but they need that savoury bite and be not-too-difficult to make.

The current favoured solution is a savoury shortbread recipe. Shortbread turns out to be a very forgiving recipe that’s pretty easy to bake and it gives great scope for adding savoury oomph. Below we look at two variations.

It’s got to beeeeeee perfect….
The basic recipe I’ve been using is a savoury version adapted from the sweet recipe developed by the wonderful Felicity Cloake. If you’re not familiar with her, she runs a weekly feature in the Guardian where she takes a standard dish and tests out various cookbook versions with the aim of developing the “perfect” version. She’s got a couple of books that bring together some of her classic articles but I actually prefer the online version because there’s usually a lively interchange in the comments from readers with their own ideas. The Guardian is generous enough to host the entire archive with no paywall. – 268 perfect recipes at last count.

The neat thing is that you can read her reasoning but don’t have to follow her final recipe – you can adapt it to your taste but informed by her research. Her perfect sweet shortbread recipe uses a mixture of plain and rice flour to achieve the right sandy texture.

From sweet to savoury
We now need to convert the basic shortbread idea into something savoury that Mrs. CookWithNoName will like.

A bunch of experimenting here shows that replacing the sugar with grated cheese works well to give a strong savoury back note. And it needs to be cheese with a powerful flavour. I’ve tried it with a French blue cheese but the result was nice yet a little under-powered. The best results come from parmesan – not surprising when you see how much umami flavour a matured parmesan has. The quality of parmesan available here in Hong Kong is pretty variable – ideally you want to avoid anything too rubbery-looking and find a version that’s relatively dry and crumbly with little crystals in it. Those crystals are apparently solid natural glutamates which carry the umami effect.

Once you have that savoury back note, you can add further flavours and textures to keep up the interest of your nearest and dearest. I add some cayenne pepper and black pepper to make the basic savoury shortbread recipe. You might add a little salt but the parmesan already has a fair amount of salt in it. Two further variations follow.

Variation 1: Parmesan, Fennel and Sea Salt Shortbread
In the first option we brush a little olive oil on the surface of the biscuits and then spread slightly crushed fennel seeds and sea salt on before baking. These ones seem to benefit from being rolled a little more thinly and baked a little higher or a little longer than is typical. I got the idea for this from Bon Appetit magazine.

Variation 2: Parmesan and Pistachio Shortbread
Adding crushed pistachios to the mixture gives you the great flavour of those nuts together with a nice bit of textural and colour variation

Mix, chill, roll, shape, chill
As I said, shortbread is a fairly forgiving basic recipe. You need the butter to be at room temperature and then cream it with a fork. Mix in the flour, black pepper and cayenne. You can add the nuts at this stage if you are going for variation 2. I mix this using the dough hook of our KitchenAid mixer but you could do it by hand with a spatula. The recipes tend to say mix until it “comes together” in a ball. I find that it does not quite come together in a mixer but that if you mix it well and then shape it into a ball by hand, that works fine.

This mixture makes enough for somewhere between 15 and 24 biscuits depending on how thin you make them. The dough mixture keeps well in the freezer so if you’re only going to be nibbling the occasional biscuit or want to remove too much instant temptation from your larder, you can freeze half of this mixture wrapped in a little cling film or inside a plastic freezer bag.

The baking seems to work best if you chill the dough for half an hour before rolling it. Felicity Cloake argues that you don’t want to work this mixture too much when shaping and goes for shaping by hand. That’s a bit of a faff and in my clumsy hands would produce a pretty uneven result. So I find the best way is to lay one sheet of baking parchment on the board; put the dough on that and then put another sheet of baking parchment on top. Then you can roll out the dough easily to whatever thickness you like without having to worry about it sticking or needing to spread extra flour around.

If you’ve got cookie cutters, you can use them to cut out neat rounds or you can cut by hand into little rhomboids or whatever shape takes your fancy. Put these onto a baking sheet lined with baking parchment (or a silicon liner if you have one) spaced out to allow a little spreading. You may need two baking sheets depending on whether you are baking the whole batch in one go and on how thick you make them. At this stage you put the biscuits on their baking sheet into the fridge for a few minutes to chill a little.

Bake
Shortbread recipes vary a lot on what temperature to bake and for how long. Partly this is a matter of how you like your shortbread. Classic sweet shortbread is baked quite lightly so that the colour remains very pale and is quite a soft texture. But you may like something that is a bit crispier and that maybe is truer of the savoury ones. I suggest 160C and check after about 20 minutes. Don’t let them go too dark whatever you do.

Remove from the oven, allow to cool for a few minutes and then transfer to cooling rack. Store in an airtight tin once completely cooled. They’ll be at their best for a few days. If lightly baked, they can last a couple of weeks but the crispier ones need eating quickly.

Results
Mrs. CookWithNoName is very happy. But it won’t last. I’ll need to develop some more flavours to retain her love. O woman, thy name is fickle!

DSC02398

Savoury Shortbread: Biscuits for the fickle
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Author:
Ingredients
  • Basic Savoury Shortbread Dough
  • 130g plain flour
  • 40g rice flour
  • 115g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 60 g freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp cayenne

Variation 1: Parmesan and and Fennel Shortbread
  • 1 quantity basic savoury shortbread mix as above
  • 1 tbs fennel
  • 1 tsp sea salt
  • Olive oil for brushing

Variation 2: Parmesan and and Pistachio Shortbread
  • 1 quantity basic savoury shortbread mix as above
  • 75g shelled pistachio nuts, roughly chopped
Method
  1. Cream the butter in a large bowl.
  2. Add both lots of flour, cayenne and pepper (and the pistachio nuts for variation 2)
  3. Mix by hand with a spatula or in a mixer until it starts coming together.
  4. Form into a ball, wrap and chill in the refrigerator for half an hour. (You can freeze all or half at this stage for later defrosting and baking.)
  5. Place a sheet of baking parchment on a board and place the ball on that. Put another sheet of parchment on top and roll out the dough to the required thickness. Between an eighth of an inch and a quarter of an inch. I find option 1 works best thinner and crispier whilst option 2 is better slightly thicker.
  6. Cut out the biscuits with a cookie cutter or a knife and place on a baking sheet lined with baking parchment or a silicon liner. You may need two sheets.
  7. Chill in the refrigerator for half an hour
  8. Pre-heat oven to around 160C. Slightly hotter if you prefer crispier biscuits.
  9. Remove from fridge.
  10. For variation 1: brush the biscuits with a little olive oil. Slightly crush the fennel seeds with sea salt and spread on the biscuits
  11. Place the baking sheet in the oven.
  12. Rotate to ensure even cooking after about ten minutes.
  13. Check after about 20 minutes from the start of baking. For a classic bake, take out just as they start taking on some colour. For a crispier result, especially for variation 1, leave a little longer.
  14. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
  15. After about ten minutes, move to cooling rack and, when they have completed cooling, store in an airtight tin.
Notes
Makes about 15-24 biscuits depending on size and thickness.
Should keep for a week or so in an air-tight tin.