Sant’ Agata dei Goti, Italy - At first they looked suspicious. A basket of browned shortbread cookies is not the kind of thing one usually finds at a wine tasting, especially when the wines are robust, tannic, earthy reds made from Aglianico grapes in Campania. Thinking the cookies were a strange Italian misconception of what they thought a group of Americans would want to nibble between the swirl-sip-and-spit routine of the tasting, I shunned them, turning up my nose when it wasn’t shoved in the glass.
But then, I saw the wine maker himself, the distinguished Leonardo Mustilli break a cookie in half and happily much away. He motioned us to do the same. I snapped off a crumb and let it melt on my tongue. Where I had expected a sugary surge, salt and spice reigned.
These weren’t shortbreads at all, but dainty little cheese crackers with a pungent, meaty, Parmesan edge, as addictive as potato chips but much more sophisticated and complex; the paragon of cheese crackers. They were also the perfect complement to the wines, the rich butteriness softening the tannins. Figuring that they were made in a nearby bakery, I begged for the address to pick some up for the plane ride back to New York.
I was wrong. The crackers, it turns out, were made by Mr. Mustilli’s wife Marily. She didn’t have any left to give me, but what I got was much better—a recipe so simple she could say it in a sentence: “equal weights flour, butter and Parmigiano, bake in a low oven until firm, then brown them in high heat.” It was that extra step of browning the crackers in a hot oven that lent them so much character. It caramelized the cheese, giving it an earthy, almost porcini-like intensity. That and using good Parmigiano-Reggiano are the secrets to success. The technique, no rolling pin necessary, is child’s play. The result, resolutely adult—especially when you serve them with wine.
Adapted From Marily Mustilli
Time: 20 minutes plus 2 hours chilling
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1. In a food processor, combine the ingredients and pulse until the dough comes together. Turn it out onto a piece of plastic wrap and form it into a log 1 1/2-inches in diameter. Chill until firm, at least 2 hours.
2. Preheat the oven to 325F. Grease two baking sheets. Cut the log into 1/4-inch thick crackers and place them 1-inch apart on the baking sheets. Bake until firm, about 12 to 13 minutes. Remove the baking sheets from the oven and raise the temperature to 500F. When the temperature comes up to the correct heat, return the sheets to the oven and bake for another 3 minutes, or until the crackers and deeply golden brown all over. Let cool on a wire rack.
Yield: 40 crackers