Parmesan Biscuits with Parmigiano Reggiano.
A wonderful hunk of 24-month old Parmigiano Reggiano arrived on my doorstep. It was wrapped in cellophane and tied with a ribbon. What a perfect gift for a foodie under lockdown. Just looking at its craggy edges and deep hue told me something about how it was going to taste. Deeply cheesy, crystals on the tongue, a mature depth to its flavour. It smelled intoxicating and brought back wonderful memories of one of my favourite recipes from home – Parmesan Biscuits.
Parmigiano Reggiano, known as the King of Cheese, has been produced over some nine centuries and the production methods have changed little over the passage of time. Parmesan was originally produced by monks in the Middle Ages who were looking for a cheese that would last a long time and be able to be transported. This resulted in the extending of the size of the wheel and Parmesan’s ability to spread far and wide across the world. Every wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano is inspected at 12 months and given a distinctive mark of origin – that is the explanation for those dots on the side of the wheel of Parmesan. The average wheel weighs 40kg and is produced using 550 litres of milk.
It is a PDO product (Protected Designation of Origin) and in order to qualify as Parmigiano Reggiano (PDO) the cheese has to be produced in a small area of Northern Italy in one of 335 artisanal dairies and all stages of production have to take place in the region of origin. Specific methods of production must be followed including a special diet for the cows that eat forage from the local area of production. At least 50% of the forage must be grown on the farm. No corn silage is allowed to be fed to the cows even though it is commonly used in cattle feed in other parts of Italy. The areas where Parmesan can be produced are Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Mantua and Bologna. Production takes place largely on family-run farms that are rooted in the area. Only three ingredients are used in the production of Parmigiano Reggiano – raw, unpasteurised milk, rennet and salt. The milk is not heated, there are no additives. The rennet is derived from the stomachs of suckling calves.
If like me, you have ever stood in the cheese section of your supermarket and wondered what the difference is between Parmesan and Grana Padano, the answer is that only Parmigiano Reggiano can legally be called Parmesan. Grana Padano has a different production method.
The minimum maturation period for Parmigiano Reggiano is 12 months but it is at 24 months that it develops its distinctive characteristics. Some cheeses are further matured for 36, 40 or 48 months. Depending on its age, the cheese is best paired with different dishes. From 12 – 18 months, the cheese is especially good as an aperitif, served with sparkling wines, or in salads or cold dishes. At 24 months, Parmigiano Reggiano becomes crumbly and grainy and it is paired with full-bodied red wines and used in a range of Italian dishes. At 36 months it is ideally used for baked pasta dishes or eaten with honey and fruit. I love it with a crisp pear as a dessert or tasty snack. At 40 months the mature cheese pairs with a range of selected wines.
One of the handiest cooking tips I have been following for years is to keep the rinds when my Parmesan is finished. They are unwaxed and can be eaten. It is exposure to the air that causes the skin to harden. I put my rinds in the freezer and when I next make a minestrone soup (or any soup that benefits from an extra layer of flavour), I pop in the frozen rinds and they impart a delicious backnote to the dish.
Presented with a lovely chunk of 24-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano, I set about making something good to eat. My first thought was Parmesan cheese biscuits. This is a recipe from my mother who served them at drinks parties over the years when they would disappear off the tray in a trice. The recipe is simple, quick and produces pretty much foolproof biscuits that are utterly moreish. You can serve them with a glass of bubbly if you have an occasion, or with a cup of tea for that matter. They are best served warm and do not last well so don’t make them the day before. That said, it is most unlikely there will be any Parmesan Biscuits left for the day after.
A cheesy biscuit to serve as a nibble with drinks or tea or as part of an Italian Canape Selection
- 125 grams unsalted butter cubed
- 150 grams Parmigiano Reggiano grated
- 150 grams flour
- 1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
- 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds roughly ground
- 2 teaspoons yoghurt
- freshly ground pepper a couple of grinds
- 1 pinch salt
- 1 pinch cayenne pepper
Place all the ingredients into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until the dough forms into a ball.
Remove dough to a floured surface and knead for a minute or two.
Form the dough into a disc, cover with clingfilm and place in the fridge for half an hour
Heat the oven to 190C or 180C for fan oven
Roll out the dough to around 4mm thick and then cut into rounds with a 5-6cm cutter
Place on baking sheets lined with baking paper
Bake for 10 minutes
Best eaten warm
Parmesan biscuits would make a great addition to any Italian canape board and are perfect for nibbling on with a glass of Prosecco or two.