Over the years, I’ve continually decreased the amount of sugar I use in cookies and other baked goods. So it was only a matter of time before I discovered savory cookies.
Cheesy thumbprint cookies with spicy Drambuie tomato jam, French onion/Gruyere cookies, Kalamata olive shortbread – the combinations are endless once you find a base cookie recipe or two that work and let your imagination go wild.
This isn’t a new idea. The long-standing British biscuit is the same concept, but in the age of food bloggers, foodies and internet recipe searches, the variations have greatly multiplied. One news outlet noted a savory cookies “trend” in 2012, so I may be a bit late to the game.
They are lovely to serve with wine or cocktails and make an attractive and tasty addition to a party or afternoon tea buffet. Because many recipes incorporate cheese, you can forgo the traditional cheese and cracker plate for something a little different.
I wanted to try some without cheese, though, and that’s when I found the shortbread recipe with Kalamata olives and black pepper. Delicious.
But then, of course, I followed the blogger’s suggestion and topped them with Brie – adding the cheese I had sought to omit. It was divine. If you like your Brie atop a black pepper water cracker, this takes it up a notch. Or four.
While some combinations may sound like a daunting kitchen challenge, these cookies can be quite simple. With the fresh herbs that soon will be available at farmers markets, you can put your favorite flavors together in a savory cookie.
Shortbread is one of the simplest cookies and you can make the dough ahead of time and slice and bake when you want them.
The aroma of herby, cheesy cookies in the oven is so enticing that you can hardly wait to try them. However, with some, such as the asiago lemon thyme shortbread I recently tried, I’ve found they taste even better a day or two later after the flavors have melded. So you need not worry if you want to make them a couple of days before serving them.
For the thumbprint variety, you can use prepared fillings such as a pepper jelly or a jellied chutney.
I discovered a thumbprint filling should have a jellied consistency and glossiness to produce the best filling. I tried a homemade spicy peach cherry chutney, and while tasty, the relish-like consistency caused it to shrivel a bit during baking and the cookies didn’t have a nice, glossy appearance. Next time, I’ll cook down the chutney a bit and perhaps add a tablespoon of sugar or honey to achieve a better consistency.
I’m already thinking about how to make a strawberry balsamic filling without too much sugar (strawberries are sweet enough on their own) for a springtime treat.
If you make your own filling, it can be made well ahead of time. In fact, my daughter Eila and I so liked our own version of a tomato jam as condiment or cookie filling that we plan to can it during tomato season this year.
I have not made any gluten- or dairy- free savory cookies yet. The olive cookies without cheese were not dairy-free because they were made with butter.
But there are recipes out there – and you could adapt your flavors with a basic gluten-free shortbread or other cookie. I have had success with gluten-free and paleo recipes in the past from Elana’s Pantry and Gluten Free Girl.
A word of caution, though. Just like everything on the internet, you must consider the source. Sometimes I wonder if some websites or bloggers actually test their recipes.
If I’m trying something new, I usually browse a few websites, including some trusted ones, to look for similarities in ingredients and proportions.
For example, the New York Times gives some great guidelines on shortbread: one stick of butter (½ cup) to one cup of flour and never more than about a tablespoon of liquid. If another recipe veers too far from that I hesitate to use it.
Recently, I came across a Martha Stewart recipe for ham and Gruyere thumbprint cookies made with a puff pastry dough. I had to try it and I wasn’t disappointed, although I was puzzled about the only partially-melted cheese cubes.
After trying, ummm, a few, I went back to the website to check. Sure enough, I hadn’t printed Step 5. (Don’t you hate it when recipes won’t print on one sheet of paper?) She reheats her frozen cookies in a 425-degree oven “until cheese is melted.”
I looked further. Delish.com has the exact same recipe (hard to know which came first), but it tells you to add the cheese cubes and return to the oven for about 10 minutes, “until cheese is melted.”
The oven was off and cooled, the cookies were in a tin. But as I went to bed that night, I thought, “I’ll try putting them back in the oven in the morning.” It worked, and not only that, it gave me an idea. You could make the cookies a day before a party, not freeze them and do the “return to oven” step just before serving so the cheese is soft and maybe even a bit warm.
Another note: I substituted the American-made and slightly less expensive Grand Cru for Gruyere, which is a name staunchly guarded by the Swiss.
The cookie’s puffy lightness would add a nice texture contrast on a tray of savory cookies, or it would be a great standalone with a crisp white wine or summer brew on a hot summer night.
Oh, and they’re good for breakfast, too.
Sometimes I totally ignore my own advice about internet recipes, and it’s not as easy to fix as it was with those. I was skeptical about a dough recipe for parmesan rosemary cookies with cranberry marmalade but decided to give it a try.
The soft dough stood up during baking, but as soon as I started to remove the cookies from the baking sheet I realized my suspicions had been right. Soft and crumbly. Really crumbly. I asked my tasters to hold a plate under their chins when they tried them.
Great flavors, wrong dough. I should have stuck the dough recipe we adapted from The Flavor Bender. (Oh, man. I wish I hadn’t just gone to check and scroll through that website. The latest post is for Choux au Craquelin with Salted Caramel Cream – sounds like something right out of the Great British Baking Show, and I’m a sucker for anything with “salted caramel” in the title.)
I don’t mind experimenting and failing. I rarely must throw out a mistake, and we ate those crumbly cookies over the sink or with a plate under our chins because the flavor combination was wonderful.
When I made the asiago lemon thyme shortbread, I added a teaspoon of lemon extract, but thought they were a little dry and would probably reduce the flour a bit next time. Eila, however, liked the slightly crunchier shortbread texture. So, sometimes it’s a matter of taste.
Also, because I live and bake at high altitude (currently 9,700 feet) I’ve grown accustomed to occasional imperfect results.
Still, next time I’m saying “I don’t know about this recipe” perhaps I’ll switch to a tried and true one.
Cheesy Thumbprint Cookies with Spicy Drambuie Tomato JamIngredients:For dough:1 cup unsalted butter, softened1 cup cheddar cheese, grated1 cup chile jack cheese, grated1 deseeded jalapeño, finely choppedLeaves from one large sprig of rosemary, finely chopped1/2 tsp salt2 Tbls sugar1 egg1-1/2 cups all-purpose flourScant cup (about 9/10ths) semolinaFor jam:1 lb cherry tomatoes, halved2/3 cup sugar5 Tbls apple cider vinegar1 Tbls crushed red pepper1 large clove of garlic, mincedHeaping quarter cup of diced onions (about half an onion)1/4 tsp cumin1/2 tsp salt4 Tbls DrambuieMethod:For cookies
Roughly chop the cheeses and mix with rosemary and jalapeño.
In a large bowl, cream softened butter, sugar and salt; add the cheese mixture and mix thoroughly. Mix in egg until well incorporated.
In a separate bowl, mix the flour and semolina. Add the flour mixture in two batches to the butter mixture and mix; using floured hands, bring the dough together.
Cover and chill for about 30 minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees (365 at high altitude). Line baking sheets with parchment (or use unlined stone baking sheets).
Form dough into 1½ inch balls and place two inches apart on baking sheets. Create a deep well using a moistened thumb or finger. Fill each well with tomato jam.
Bake in preheated oven for 20-25 minutes, starting on a lower rack and moving up midway through baking, or if baking two sheets at once, switch their positions midway through baking. When golden on the bottom and light gold on top, remove from oven and cool and baking rack.
Store in a cookie tin; if thoroughly cooled they can be stacked with wax paper between the cookies to keep jam intact.
Mix all ingredients except the Drambuie in a saucepan; stir on medium heat until mixture comes to a boil, then increase the heat slightly to keep it boiling. Stir and gently crush tomatoes as mixture boils for about 5 minutes.
Add Drambuie and continue to cook until mixture becomes thick and syrupy (the time depends on amount of moisture in the tomatoes and your stove).
Store mixture in a jar in the refrigerator until ready to use if making ahead of time.
Makes enough for 1½ to 2 batches of cookies; or excess jam can be used as a condiment with meat or scrambled eggs.
NOTE: The original jam recipe calls for bourbon but we didn’t have that, so we substituted Drambuie and were pleased with the flavor. I’ve also made the jam successfully using canned roasted tomatoes, drained.
Source: Adapted from The Flavor Bender (www.theflavorbender.com).
For cookie dough, switch cheese to 1½ cups shredded Gruyere and ½ cup shredded asiago.Omit jalapeño and rosemary, and substitute 1 teaspoon thyme, 1 teaspoon caraway seeds (ground slightly using mortar and pestle) and ½ teaspoon nutmeg.Onion marmalade
Ingredients:1 medium to large onion, diced
1-2 Tbls. olive oil (or dill flavored olive oil)
2 Tbls sugar
3 Tbls lemon white balsamic vinegar (can substitute cider vinegar)
½ tsp salt
1 clove garlic, minced
1-2 tsp minced lemon zest
1 tsp dill
1 tsp dried fennel stems or fronds, chopped
½ tsp allspice
4 Tbls dry red wine
Method:Sauté onion in oil until soft, add sugar and caramelize.
Add vinegar, salt, garlic, zest, dill, fennel and allspice and cook 3-5 minutes over medium heat until glossy. Add red wine and reduce until thickened.
Follow directions for assembling and baking cookies.
Parmesan Rosemary with Cranberry Marmalade
For cookie dough, substitute 1½ cups grate parmesan cheese and ½ cup asiago for the cheese; omit jalapeño; add ½ tsp freshly ground black pepper.Cranberry marmalade ingredients:½ cup water½ cup sugar½ cup fresh cranberriesLeaves from 2 sprigs of rosemary, finely chopped1 ½ cups orange marmalade1 Tbls orange blossom waterMethod:Bring water, sugar and cranberries to boil in small saucepan. Add rosemary and simmer until cranberries soften, about 10 minutes.
Remove from heat and stir in marmalade and orange blossom water. Return to heat and simmer 10-15 minutes, until it thickens. Let cool.
Follow procedure for assembling and baking cookies.
Note: This variation is sweeter than the others because of the filling; I used a low-sugar marmalade that worked well.