Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Yes, a cheese-cookie!

Christmas is, as we are all aware, a great time for sweets. Candies and cookies are as much a part of December as snow...well, as much as snow here in Ohio. Snow really isn't so much a part of December in, say, Australia. But they do like their sweets Down Under. I digress.

If you throw parties during the holidays, or host the family for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day at your house -- heck, if you work in an office -- you are bound to encounter more trays of cookies and gilded boxes of candy than your waistline appreciates. Chocolate abounds; gingerbread is all over the place; peppermint is omnipresent. How nice it is, then, to put together a savory and delicious cheese board from time to time to counteract the sugar. A little salty dairy to break the sweet-monopoly.

I love a good cheese board, one that's well-constructed with lots of different types of cheeses and complementary garnishes like toasted nuts, a bowl brimming with warmed and spiced olives, crispy crackers, dried or fresh fruit, maybe even a shallow dish of dukkah. I tend to favor sheep's milk cheese, hence my cheese boards always include Manchego or a young Italian Pecorino. There has to be something tangy in there, like the King Island Dairy Roaring Forties Blue or maybe the Humboldt Fog. Maybe an Australian cheddar if I can find it, or some solid aged Provolone if Dad will be coming over. When my friends Kerrie and Greg visited from Australia this past summer, I made it my business to stock the refrigerator with a variety of delectable cheeses, so a cheese board could be manufactured at a moment's notice.

So to properly outfit your holiday cheese boards, today I offer a dynamite Pecorino shortbread. These buttery, salty, cheesy bites fit squarely alongside whatever else in included in your cheese course, and with whatever cocktail is in your hand. They're not really a cracker, more like a cheese...cookie. Yes, a cheese-cookie! Brilliant, just devilishly brilliant. I can't think of a better thing than a cheese-cookie to inject a little savory into sugary December.

Pecorino shortbread is great homemade-gift material. Though, being shortbreads, these rounds are a bit crumbly so you'll want to choose your gift packaging carefully. I can see them stacked inside a wide-mouth Ball jar...beautiful to look at, amazing to eat.

But just for the record: you don't have to give them away. You don't even need to build a cheese board to go along with these shortbreads. Just eat them, yourself, straight off the cooling rack. I won't tell if you don't.


Adapted from "Bon Appetit"

1 3/4 c. all-purpose flour
3/4 c. grated Pecorino cheese, plus more for sprinkling
1 t. kosher salt
1/2 small garlic clove, minced
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 c. (2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with a Silpat or parchment paper.

Combine the flour, 3/4 c. Pecorino, salt, garlic and cayenne pepper in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse to combine. Add the butter and process until the dough begins to come together. This takes longer than you would expect, so keep processing. Eventually the butter will hydrate the dough and the mixture will begin to clump together.

Turn the crumbly dough out onto the counter and shape into a ball. Divide the dough in half. Roll each half into a 12-inch log. The dough is crumbly, but the log doesn't have to be perfect. Cut each log into 1-inch pieces, then roll each piece into a ball. Arrange the dough balls on the prepared baking sheet, spacing about 1 1/2 inches apart. Using the bottom of a drinking glass, press each ball into a 2-inch-diameter round. Sprinkle Pecorino over the rounds, to taste.

Bake the shortbread rounds until the tops are dry and bottoms are golden brown, about 20 minutes. Transfer shortbread to a rack and cool completely.

Makes 24 shortbread rounds. Shortbread can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature, or frozen for up to 1 month. So you can always have some on hand for when the cheese-mood strikes.

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