Every two or so months I buy a 2-3kg block of “parmesan” cheese from a little gem of a shop in Sydney Rd Brunswick called the Mediterranean Supermarket. Little is probably not the right word as it is spreads over several shop fronts and resembles a cavern of Italian food – I mean it is HUGE. There are aisles and aisles of all sorts of Italian produce – pasta, cheeses, salumi, olive oils, tins of tomatoes – and an amazing selection of retro-looking Italian liqueurs and vermouths. Visiting the deli part on a Saturday morning or the panettone section in December is akin to being at the Colosseum in Rome at midday. That said, they are a bit old-fashioned about social media. They tell you not to take photos if they spot you pointing your iPhone suspiciously (so I have no sneaky photos taken in the shop) and their website consists of a seldom updated Facebook page. That said, they don’t need any advertising, the aisles of Italians pushing shopping trolleys around speaks volumes for the quality of what they sell. Now back to that block of cheese…
The terminology around this type of cheese can be a bit confusing though. Essentially it is a hard cheese made from cow’s milk aged for at least 9 months, up to more than 20 months. The term “parmesan” refers to parmigiano (meaning from the province of Parma in Italy) – and Parmigiano Reggiano (the reggiano part referring to the province of Reggio-Emilia) is known as the “King of parmesans”. The terms “parmesan” and “parmigiano” are protected under European law and the cheese must be produced in certain designated regions of Italy. So that is fairly straightforward, but then there is Grana Padano, which is very similar type of cheese. it is milder and generally aged for less time ands is often referred to as grana (i.e. the natural “grain” along which the cheese splits when you cut it). This one originates from the Padana valley (through which the Po River flows) and its name is also protected by European law. Both are available at the mediterranean Supermarket with the reggiano being bit more expensive. So which do I buy? Generally the “king” (aged for 18 months) as it is sharper, more complex and when you buy it in a 2-3kg block, it is not that expensive. The more it is aged, the more it costs. Buying the block allows me to divide it up amongst the family (mainly with my mother) and that way we get through it in around 2 months. I use it on all pasta dishes, risotto, polenta and then I eat little chunks of it with an aperitif, dipped in truffle honey if I have any in the pantry. Divine! I also use it to make these little savoury biscuits/crackers.
The recipe is a modified version of one I found online, by Ian Garten. You could use Grana Padano or another local parmesan cheese if you cannot find Parmigiano Reggiano. The addition of cayenne pepper gives them a lovely savoury sharpness that is great with a glass of wine, a prosecco or a spritz. they keep in a sealed container for a couple of weeks, so there is no excuse not to have some when guests pop in (except you might have eaten them all..).
biscotti con parmigiano (parmesan rounds)
110g unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups plain flour
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter for 1 minute. With the mixer on low speed, add the cheese, thyme, salt and pepper and combine. With the mixer still on low, add the flour and combine until the mixture is in large crumbles, about 1 minute. If the dough is too dry, add a dash of water. Try pressing it together with your hands to check how cohesive it is.
Place the dough onto a lightly floured board and roll into a 23 cm log. Wrap in cling film and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180C. Remove the log from the fridge, remove the plastic and cut the log into 1 cm thick rounds and place them on a lined baking sheet . Bake for 15 minutes, until very lightly browned. Rotate the pan once during baking. Cool and serve at room temperature.Store an an airtight container for at least a week.