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September 10, 2003

Delicious Deception to Go With Wine


A BASKET of browned shortbread cookies is not the usual fare at a wine tasting, especially when the tasting is in the Campania region of Italy and the wines are robust reds made from the Aglianico grape. Thinking that the cookies were my Italian hosts' misconception of what a group of Americans would want to nibble, I did not try one.

But then Leonardo Mustilli, head of his family's winery in Sant' Agata dei Goti, Italy, broke a cookie in half and motioned to me to do the same. I snapped off a crumb and let it melt on my tongue. I had expected a sugary surge, but salt and spice reigned.

These weren't shortbreads at all, but dainty little cheese crackers with a pungent, meaty, Parmesan edge. They were the perfect complement to the wines, their rich butteriness softening the tannins. Figuring that the crackers were made in a nearby bakery, I begged for the address so that I could pick some up for my trip back to New York.

But the crackers, it turns out, were made by Mr. Mustilli's wife, Marily, who happily gave me the recipe one so simple she could say it in a sentence: "Equal weights flour, butter and Parmigiano, bake in a low oven until firm, then brown them in high heat."

It is that extra step of browning the crackers in a hot oven that lends them so much character. It caramelizes the cheese, giving it an earthy, almost porcinilike intensity. That and using good Parmigiano-Reggiano are the secrets to success. The technique, no rolling pin necessary, is child's play. The result is resolutely adult especially when you serve them with wine.


Adapted from Marily Mustilli

Time: 20 minutes plus 2 hours' chilling

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano.

1. In a food processor, combine ingredients, and pulse until dough comes together. Turn dough out onto a piece of plastic wrap, and form it into a log 11/2 inches in diameter. Chill until firm, at least 2 hours.

2. Heat oven to 325 degrees. Grease two baking sheets. Cut log into 1/4-inch-thick crackers, and place them an inch apart on sheets. Bake until firm, about 12 to 13 minutes. Remove baking sheets from oven, and raise temperature to 500 degrees. When temperature comes up to correct heat, return sheets to oven, and bake for 3 minutes more, or until crackers are deeply golden brown all over. Let cool on a wire rack.

Yield: 40 crackers.

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