Friends, I am in the throes of a deep, dark depression brought on by returning home from 3 glorious weeks in Italy. Every day brought new adventures to enjoy, beautiful sights to behold, and of course the best food in the world to savor. I came back home to the mundane reality of American suburbia, which immediately felt empty and soulless. In Italy, food is made with love. This is a core value throughout Italian culture– people take time to grow, cook, share, and enjoy food. Of course Italy is not immune to the hustle and bustle of modern life, and processed/packaged foods are certainly ubiquitous; but in general, food is exalted and respected there, and you can taste the difference in the quality and preparation of the ingredients.
So what’s a girl to do to quell such distress? Bake, of course. I suppose this is one of the things that I love so much about baking– it is ALL about love. To me, baking at home means using good quality ingredients, taking the time to mix everything just right, and taking pride in creating something with my own hands. There are no box mixes or instant-anything in my pantry; I try to use real food as much as possible. Sharing the fruits of my labor is one of the greatest joys of my life.
I managed to “import” Italian wine, olive oil, limoncello, chocolate, biscotti, and pecorino cheese from this trip; imagine my delight when I saw that this week’s Baked Sunday Mornings recipe is Lemon Pecorino Pepper Icebox Cookies! From the Cheese chapter of Baked Elements, these are a bit of a departure from BAKED‘s typical cookie. I imagined them to be savory little gems like these scrumptious frolline cookies that I had at Caffè Wallner in Verona, and they were somewhat similar.
Don’t expect much sweetness here, as the cheese and pepper have other ideas. The last time we made something with the combination of cheese, lemon, and pepper was the Lemon & Black Pepper Quiche, which I absolutely loved, so I had high hopes for these cookies!
The recipe intro in the book says that these cookies were inspired by flavors in the traditional pasta preparation called cacio e pepe, which means ‘cheese and pepper’. I was so pleased to read this, as one of my favorite meals of the entire trip was pici cacio e pepe at Trattoria La Torre in Siena (Tuscany). ‘Pici’ is a regional pasta of Tuscany consisting of thick, hand-rolled strands– much fatter than spaghetti. While taking a cooking class in Montepulciano, I learned that it was originally a peasant pasta made of primarily flour and water because eggs were not a readily available commodity to most people of common socioeconomic status. It is often prepared simply with pecorino and pepper, and I now cry softly in my sleep for it….
But I digress… Let’s talk about pecorino, shall we? This is a sheep’s milk cheese; the name pecorino is derived from the Italian word ‘pecora’, which translates to ‘sheep’. It may be of a fresca (fresh), semi-stagionato (semi-aged), or stagionato (aged) variety (left to right in the photo), each of which has a unique texture and flavor– all delicious.
I was hoping to be able to use the pecorino that I purchased in Tuscany, but sadly, the semi-aged variety that I brought home is different than the Pecorino Romano called for in the recipe, which is an aged cheese. It is sharp and salty (more than I expected!) and very tasty. Food in Italy is highly regional, and pecorino’s four main varieties possess what is called Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) under European Union law, which means that it may only be produced in certain regions in order to retain that particular name. In the case of Pecorino Romano, it can only be made in the regions of Lazio (where Rome is located), the Tuscan province of Grosseto, and the island of Sardinia. This is one of the oldest cheeses in existence, dating back to Roman times (hence the name ‘Romano’) and still made using ancient techniques. Cool? Yup.
In the gorgeous medieval town of Montepulciano in Tuscany, we ducked into a wine boutique during a sudden rain downpour, and I was ever so delighted to discover that pecorino was produced and aged right in the shop! It is often aged in caves or in ash (con cenere, below), which lends different nuances to the flavor of the cheese. YES, there was a cave in the back of the shop. Also, an ancient Etruscan tomb… no big deal. 😉
So– back to cookies. While there are a number of ingredients to prep (lemon zest and juice, freshly ground pepper, grated cheese, etc.), this dough is quite easy and quick to pull together once your mis en place is done. Start by creaming the butter, then add the pecorino and confectioners’ sugar, followed by an egg plus one yolk, then the pepper, salt, and lemon, and finally the flour, mixing between each group of additions.
The dough must then be chilled prior to rolling into logs. Mine took about 2 hours (rather than the prescribed 30 minutes) to solidify enough for rolling, at which point it was quite easy to handle and shape. The logs then go back in the fridge for about 3 hours (overnight is fine) before slicing and baking. The recipe says to roll the logs in sanding sugar, which seemed a peculiar addition, given the savory nature of the dough, so I decided to try a small number of cookies this way, and for the rest, I decided to play up the cheese flavor by grating extra pecorino on top and omitting the sugar.
Since the cookies contain no leavening agent, they barely increased in size– cute little buttons! You can see the flecks of lemon zest and pepper in each cookie. They baked up in 12 minutes with a hint of color and crunch. I would let them go another minute next time, as the centers were a touch under-baked. I loved both the cheese-topped and sugar-rolled variations. The cheese topping plays up the cheese flavor and the savoriness in the dough, while the sugar brings out the sweetness of the lemon flavor and downplays the cheese. It’s hard to say which one I like better, and the sugared ones really surprised me!
Incidentally, I forgot to measure out the lemon juice– I juiced one full lemon, got distracted, and poured the whole amount into the mixer, so it was likely closer to 2 tablespoons, but I’d probably do it this way again because the lemon would otherwise be hard to detect. The only thing I may change next time is to cut back on the pepper about 25%. While I like the spicy kick very much, the pepper caught in my throat a few times afterwards, so I wouldn’t mind ix-naying that!
If you are looking for an unusual cookie, a sophisticated party snack, or if you just LOVE CHEESE, give these a whirl, really. My second dough log is in the freezer for a future cheese-friendly occasion– I think they are quite versatile. The recipe for Lemon Pecorino Pepper Icebox Cookies can be found at Baked Sunday Mornings, and you can see how the rest of the group liked them. Ciao! 🙂
© Dafna Adler & Stellina Sweets, 2014.