KISS meals and shortbread

Posted on February 24, 2017 in John's Current Blog

February 24, 2017; Savannah, Georgia: I had some old friends visiting for a few days. They wanted to take me out to some of the hot new restaurants in Savannah, but we ended up having all our meals here at home — shad roe with a bacon/butter/lemon/caper sauce one night (accompanied by grits and okra — see photo), pasta with the first of the green peas (cipollini melted in chanterelle butter, dried porcini soaked in hot water, the mushroom water and cream added to the onions and reduced to form the sauce), lamb chops and eggplant on the grill, and, our final evening with other old friends joining us, a “city ham” with wilted collards, twice-baked sweet potatoes, and cathead biscuits. I was trying not to repeat myself with any of my fiends, though most of them know and love my usual repertoire of pilaus, fried chicken, grilled quail, fried fish, and various shrimp and oyster dishes. They also know my regular starters of pimiento cheese, cheese straws, pickled shrimp, and Rockefeller Turnovers — the recipes for which (as well as the recipes for the ham and biscuits) all appeared on this blog 9 years ago. Originally I had planned to make oyster sausages (I ran the recipe in The Washington Post in 2010) but decided to “KISS” the menu, as the saying goes (Keep It Simple, Stupid!). After all, nothing is simpler than putting a ham in a slow oven all day. I even put the sweet potatoes in the oven with the ham. And, later, I baked pears in it as well. I wanted time to spend with my visiting friends, and not in the kitchen. For dessert, we had the pears (halved, cored, doused with some French rosé wine sweetened with a little sugar and brightened with the juice and zest of a lemon) with a selection of rich cheeses.

I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth. I’ve always been one to crave yet another glass of wine at the end of the meal instead of chocolate or custard. I do love a good pie or cake, but I prefer them for breakfast: the only time I seem to really appreciate sweet flavors (jam on toast, sorghum on biscuits, sugar in espresso, or a slice of cake or pie). Consequently, I have been finding myself more often than not offering my guests an assortment of cheeses after dinner. I usually serve a soft creamy type such as Brie, a bold blue such as Stilton, and a hard slicing cheese such as Manchego (though I also try to find some of the excellent local cheeses being made — I’m particularly fond of Caly Road’s “Red Top” and Thomasville Tomme). I realize that nearly everyone else appreciates a sweet ending, so I often poach pears or make a simple tart, but lately I’ve been relying on a tried-and-true shortbread recipe that I have been making for years. The shortbread is delicious by itself, but it’s also a great accompaniment to the pears and the cheeses.

In 1985 I was living in New York and apprenticing with Nach Waxman at Kitchen Arts & Letters. I had returned from living in France and Italy and was missing in particular the foods of Liguria, where I had lived. The New York Times Magazine hired me to write about Ligurian cuisine, but the article didn’t run until 4 years later, when I contacted Eric Asimov and asked him what had happened to the piece for which they had so long before paid me. Eric, now the wine editor, got it published that August. In the article, I wrote about “the surprisingly buttery and fragile canestrelli (”little baskets”) from the pasticceria in nearby Ovada. Ovada, at the confluence of the Orba and Stura Rivers, and Gavi, whose straw-colored dry white wine accompanied our meals, are officially Piedmontese, though they share Ligurian geography, dialect, and gastronomic tradition. They perch on the northernmost edge of the Ligurian Apennines, overlooking the Lombard plains, which stretch north to the Alps, beyond Milan. The butter that shortens these canestrelli is a rare ingredient in Genoa’s cooking. It comes from these upland plains, and underscores another difference between the city and country cooking of Italy’s smallest region. It was several years after leaving Genoa that I rediscovered these biscotti as I remember them. They were made by an English cook, Rona Deme, who owns the Country Host, an English food emporium in Cheshire, Connecticut. She prepares her grandmother’s recipe for shortbread that, other than its shape, is a perfect canestrello. The secret ingredient is a bit of semolina, long used by commercial pasta manufacturers because it dries so well but is seldom found in the Italian home.” When I wrote the article, Rona owned the Country Host, next door to Kitchen Arts & Letters, but by the time it was published, she had moved to Connecticut. Any time anyone chastises English cooking, I remind them that some of the best dishes of the South — and of early America — are purely British. I often lunched on Rona’s potted meats, pâtés, and savory pies, and took her shortbread, lemon curd, pickles, and jams home to accompany dinner. Here’s a New York Times article about the shop from 1986. (Note that the author, my friend Nancy Harmon Jenkins, had to explain to readers what blood oranges were then!)

In truth, shortbread recipes vary little. They are, as one of my Facebook friends noted, “dead easy.” Rona’s recipe calls for butter, sugar, semolina, and flour. She presses her dough into a pie plate and decorates the edges of the pan with fork tines. In Rose Carrarini’s “Breakfast Lunch Tea” cookbook from her famous London natural food store, Rose Bakery, her proportions are exactly the same, but she uses rice flour* instead of semolina, and adds a pinch of salt and either vanilla extract or lemon zest for flavor. I’ve never much cared for vanilla with fruit or with cheese, and you don’t need the zest, so I usually stick with my old favorite of Rona’s. Plus, the Rose Bakery recipe calls for cutting them into cookies and instructs to bake them for 15-20 minutes “until just turning golden. The shortbread must be cooked but should remain pale.” If you look at the image from the book, however, they look almost burned to me (see photo, above left). I much prefer Rona’s method, which calls for baking them for 20 to 25 minutes “until golden.” I ended up baking them even longer, about 35 minutes, in a clear glass pan. All ovens are different, but I am amazed that the Rose Bakery cookies turned brown in 15-20 minutes at 325º.

Baking in a pie pan with slanted sides makes removing the cooled wedges of shortbread easier. I also use a food processor now to mix my dough.

KISS SHORTBREAD, adapted from The Country Host Cookbook

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup semolina or rice flour*

pinch of salt

1/4 cup sugar

1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 325o. Place the flour, semolina, salt, and sugar in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse until blended. Cut the butter up into dice and add to the processor. Process until the dough comes together on top of the blades in a ball. Turn the mixture out into a 9-inch pie plate (preferably glass) and press evenly into the pan.

Place the pie plate in the freezer for about 10 minutes to chill. Remove from the freezer and using a fork, press the dough around the edge for decoration. With a pastry wheel or pizza cutter, mark out the portions before baking. Rona says “This makes and ideal gift left in the pie pan, wrapped with colored cellophane paper and tied with a ribbon.”

Bake the shortbread for about 30 minutes, or until the shortbread is golden brown. Place on a rack and allow to cool completely before slicing the portions again and removing with a spatula. Store in airtight tins.

Makes 8 to 10 wedges.

*Rice flour began appearing in English and Scottish cookbooks after the establishments of rice plantations in the Carolinas. Both it and semolina also provide texture. If you use rice flour, it should be a fairly coarse, natural product, not the processed Southeast Asian type.