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A Genius, Soft-Crisp-Crumbly-Cheesy Skillet Shortbread

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If you want to be a very popular guest—or host, or coworker or friend, make this shortbread. Though it’s as simple to mix together as any cookie, there’s a world of tender, crisp, and crumbly textures inside, and a haunting flavor that doesn’t quite know if it’s sweet or savory.

Charlotte Druckman’s Cacio e Pepe Shortbread
Charlotte Druckman’s Cacio e Pepe Shortbread

And, in my experience, it doesn’t matter—you don’t need to justify it as one thing or another. Every time I set it out, I explain nothing—at first. Hungry lurkers inevitably swarm and empty the plate, without stopping to wonder what genre of snack they're eating.

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The recipe comes from the brilliant mind of Charlotte Druckman, co-founder of our Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks and author of a growing number of books herself, most lately Stir, Sizzle, Bake: Recipes for Your Cast Iron Skillet.

In writing it, she wanted to give cooks new techniques and unexpected recipes they wouldn’t find in other cast iron cookbooks—this enigmatic shortbread is a perfect example, and has become the one she makes most often.

Charlotte was inspired by pastry chef Caitlin Freeman’s shortbread dough-whipping technique (“until the mixture takes on a thick, creamy, almost shiny texture, like mayonnaise”), and Mark Ladner’s fiesty cacio e pepe, and wondered what would happen if she were to graft a pasta recipe onto a shortbread.

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She worked in not only the cheeses (cacio) and the black pepper (pepe), but semolina flour—to give the shortbread a hint of warm, wheaty, pasta-like flavor, but also an added softness, and a tight, fine crumb structure.

“It gives you the best crumb,” Charlotte wrote to me. “But then you get this subtle contrast where the cheese's graininess comes through. So there's a little grit in it, but it comes from the cheese, the way it would in proper cacio e pepe.” (She also described this texture, delightfully, as "cat's tongue, slightly scratchy.")

She then bakes in one more round of crisp outer texture and toasty flavor by pressing the dough (carefully!) into a hot cast iron skillet, brushing the top with olive oil, and sprinkling over more pepper and cheese—the only clue the swarms will have of the blurred sweet-savory line before they dive in.

How to serve it? As I mentioned above, you need little justification or prior planning. But here are just a few serving ideas from that brain of Charlotte’s:

  • With aperitifs, like a proper Bellini or something with Lillet Blanc (or Champagne, rosé, or Riesling)
  • With after-dinner drinks, as a cheese course of sorts—with a spiced chutney, onion jam, fruit conserves, or smoky tomato jam
  • For breakfast, with a thin sheet of prosciutto and a soft-cooked egg
  • With tea and a fruity, sweet jam

Or—nothing. Charlotte says, “I really love it straight, though, most of all.”

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Charlotte Druckman’s Cacio e Pepe Shortbread

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Serves 10 to 12
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 teaspoons finely grated Parmesan cheese, using the small holes of a box grater (divided)
  • 1/2 cup plus 2 teaspoons finely grated pecorino Romano cheese, using the small holes of a box grater (divided)
  • 2 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper (divided)
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup semolina flour
  • 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil (divided)
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Photos by Bobbi Lin

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected]