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.
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.
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!
- 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
- 1 quantity basic savoury shortbread mix as above
- 1 tbs fennel
- 1 tsp sea salt
- Olive oil for brushing
- 1 quantity basic savoury shortbread mix as above
- 75g shelled pistachio nuts, roughly chopped
- Cream the butter in a large bowl.
- Add both lots of flour, cayenne and pepper (and the pistachio nuts for variation 2)
- Mix by hand with a spatula or in a mixer until it starts coming together.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- Chill in the refrigerator for half an hour
- Pre-heat oven to around 160C. Slightly hotter if you prefer crispier biscuits.
- Remove from fridge.
- For variation 1: brush the biscuits with a little olive oil. Slightly crush the fennel seeds with sea salt and spread on the biscuits
- Place the baking sheet in the oven.
- Rotate to ensure even cooking after about ten minutes.
- 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.
- Remove from oven and allow to cool.
- After about ten minutes, move to cooling rack and, when they have completed cooling, store in an airtight tin.
Should keep for a week or so in an air-tight tin.