“That’s the spirit, George. If nothing else works, then a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through.”
– Blackadder Goes Forth
You could call me persistent. If you’re feeling charitable, that is; what I really am is stubborn. The surest way to get me not to do something is to command me to do it. Conversely, when I choose to do something, I so loathe admitting failure that I will keep banging my head against the wall in question until I succeed or drive myself and everyone else crazy, and quite possibly both. It’s a family trait.
I mention this to provide context for my insistence on spending the last two nights in a row baking savory cheese biscotti until past midnight. There are so many other productive things I could have been doing, things more directly pertinent to the fact that we’re moving 3000 miles away in three weeks, but no, it’s I’m going to get this right, dammit.
It started with a recipe for almond and cheese savory biscotti that I had pulled off the package of yerba mate tea bags and stuck on the refrigerator. I really liked the idea of a cheesy biscotti, and on Monday night I decided to finally translate the recipe into English and try a batch, hopes high, only to have them dashed. Bzzt! No, I’m sorry. Thank you for playing.
They sucked, actually. They were way too eggy and stretchy, had no actual cheese flavor to speak of and little of any flavor besides eggs, and the almonds just didn’t work, structurally or tastewise. I threw out the recipe, relegated this batch to dog treats, which the Monster is ecstatic about, and insisted on trying again. Since all but a few of my cookbooks have already been packed up, I was going to have to find a new recipe on the interwebs instead. Much Googling later, I found this recipe, which had all the features I was looking for: extra fat for a shorter, more tender dough; a much higher proportion of cheese, considerably more seasonings, and no distracting nuts. I made a few more tweaks to better fit the mental picture I had developed and use up more pantry items.
I originally thought about flavoring them with caraway, in a re-creation of the yummy cheddar and caraway cheese straw I had as a breakfast appetizer in Pike Place Market in June, but then I recalled the jar of nigella seeds I’ve had sitting around forever. They were another no-idea-why-I-bought-it impulse snatch, committed during some past trip to the Penzeys boutique. (It’s a good thing it’s way out in the burbs, because I can’t make it out of there without spending less than $50 and giving the poshly-groomed sales ladies a coronary by cross-sampling their entire chile section.) If you don’t do much Indian cooking, you’re probably familiar with nigella seeds only from their use in Russian rye bread. They have a very similar flavor profile to caraway seeds — pungent, resinous, faintly oniony — and I thought they would go well with cheese for the same reasons caraway does.
The cheese ended up being half extra-sharp Canadian white cheddar and half Parmeggiano Reggiano, because those were the dry cheeses I had in my cheese drawer. Where the original recipe uses wine, I had wanted to use up the dregs of a bottle of sherry, but it ended up not being enough, so I supplemented with brandy as the closest match.
I could tell immediately that this was more like it, since the dough was easy to shape into two loaves for the initial baking. While baking, it filled the kitchen with the cheesy-winey smell of fondue, and that can never be a bad thing. The loaves came out a perfect golden brown, and when I cut into them, they had a nice tight but holey structure, threaded with strands of cheese and an even distribution of wedge-shaped black nigella specks. The still-warm end bits I tested before the refrigeration step had a good strong seedy flavor and a soft, rich texture.
The twice-baked slices were exactly what I was hoping for the first time: crisp and light, cheesy but not oily, with a nice contrasting bite from the nigella seeds. Now I’m really curious about what a gruyere and blue cheese with brandy variation would be like, or a dry aged gouda and Belgian beer. I’m also tempted to swap some of the oil and cheese for the tapenade I have in the fridge, coupled with herbes de provence.
In addition to achieving vindication, I used half the jar of nigella seeds, all of our sherry, more of the olive oil, and half our store of cheese, the other half of which went into mac & cheese for dinner tonight. I also managed to pack up half the kitchen while I was in there anyway for these and the Sunday baking.
See? Sometimes pig-headedness can pay off.
Cheddar-Parmesan Biscotti with Nigella Seeds
(Adapted from Savory Cheese Biscotti at Su Good Sweets, originally adapted from A Passion for Baking by Marcie Goldman)
Makes approximately 6 dozen thin biscotti
1/2 cup olive oil (extra-virgin not necessary)
3 large eggs
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
4 teaspoons nigella seeds (aka kalonji or charnushka) or caraway seeds
1/4 cup each sherry or brandy, or 1/2 cup of either one
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus additional flour as needed
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup grated extra-sharp cheddar
1 cup grated Parmeggiano Reggiano
Preheat oven to 350 F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a stand mixer, blend oil, eggs, sugar, salt, pepper, garlic powder and nigella seeds. Add the sherry and/or brandy and mix well.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add the cheese and toss together lightly with your fingers until the cheese is evenly distributed and coated with the flour.
Add the flour and cheese mixture to the liquid ingredients and mix on low speed until well combined. If necessary, add just enough additional flour to get a dough that holds together but still looks moist and soft; do not add so much that it turns dry and crumbly.
Divide dough in half and shape into two parallel logs, around 12 inches long by 3 inches across, with an even, flat top. Bake 40-45 minutes, until the loaves are golden on the top and bottom and slightly cracked.
Cool the loaves to room temperature, then wrap each well in foil and refrigerate for one hour.
Return oven to 300 F. Remove one loaf from the refrigerator and slice on the diagonal into thin slices, not more than 1/4 inch thick. Set the slices flat on a parchment-lined sheet and bake until crisp, approximately 30 minutes, flipping halfway through baking. Repeat with the second log.
Cool completely on the sheets, then store in airtight containers to preserve crispness.
I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: do not be tempted to make biscotti as thick as the ones you get with your latte. It’s much better to risk making them too thin than to err on the side of wider, resulting in biscotti that take forever to dry all the way through and, once dry, are so hard as to risk jaw disclocation.
I might increase the salt to 1 1/2 teaspoons next time. If I had used only parmesan, it would not have been necessary, but a half-cheddar mix could use just that bit more salt to set off the cheese flavor.
I’m really not sure the refrigeration step is necessary. The original recipe insisted that it would make sure the biscotti stayed intact while slicing, but the two thin edge slices I took off as a test while they were still warm came off just fine, and a delicate enough hand while transfering to the baking sheet should really take care of the rest. I might try it without that step next time to see if it changes the texture at all or if the room-temperature slices are just too delicate to handle.