How many of us grew up with ‘Cheds’ or Savoury Shapes (the original ones, not the later barbeque or pizza versions)? While cheese with biscuits or crackers has been around for centuries, whoever got the bright idea of putting the cheese in the biscuit was really onto something. I’ve been trying to find a good historical candidate to serve as nibblies when friends drop by, and after some trial and error ‘Cheese darlings’ from Nina Terry’s (nee Rouse) Mrs Maclurcan’s cookery book in the Rouse Hill House and Farm collection came up trumps (recipe below).
The trial trail
One of the most enduring recipes is Mrs Beeton’s Cayenne Cheeses featured in her Book of household management in 1861.
1642. INGREDIENTS.--1/2 lb. of butter, 1/2 lb. of flour, 1/2 lb. of grated cheese, 1/3 teaspoonful of cayenne, 1/3 teaspoonful of salt; water.
Mode.–Rub the butter in the flour; add the grated cheese, cayenne, and salt; and mix these ingredients well together. Moisten with sufficient water to make the whole into a paste; roll out, and cut into fingers about 4 inches in length. Bake them in a moderate oven a very light colour, and serve very hot.
Time.–15 to 20 minutes. Average cost, 1s. 4d.
Sufficient for 6 or 7 persons. Seasonable at any time.
You can see why ‘cayenne cheeses’ became known as ‘cheese straws’ when cut into four inch (10cm) fingers. Using equal quantities of cheese, butter and flour and a good pinch of salt and cayenne pepper (hot chilli powder) they produce a decadently rich but light wafer-like biscuit or straw (depending how you cut them). I was interested to find that almost 150 years later the Cheese straws recipe in Stephanie Alexander’s Cook’s companion uses the same ratio of ingredients, but using grams rather than ounces – 100g each of cheese, butter and flour and a pinch of salt and cayenne.
Try as I might however, I’ve never had much success with them. Even using different cheeses – various cheddars (Stephanie recommends a mature cheddar), gruyere or parmesan – I’ve found them greasy and crumbly, with most of them falling apart before they reach the serving plate. They were deliciously flavoured but always seemed to have too much butter and not enough flour. Not wanting to stray from historical accuracy, I didn’t feel right changing the formula (even more-so since Stephanie Alexander, whom I greatly respect, stands by them) and put it down to my poor baking abilities. But there was hope for me yet – and it had been under my nose for a long time!
I had the good fortune to be invited to Hannah’s Long Lunch, a fundraising event in historic Hill End, which celebrated colonial cookbook writer Hannah Maclurcan’s achievements and her legacy. Guest Chef Rebecca Sutton recreated recipes from Mrs [Hannah] Maclurcan’s cookery book, first published in 1898. When guests arrived they were greeted with saucers of sparkling wine and ‘Cheese darlings’ – deliciously moreish cayenne cheese biscuits that while rich and short, were not greasy and held their form. Nabisco Savoury shapes came immediately to mind (my favourite childhood biscuit) and Cheds (everyone else’s favourite cheese biscuit). The higher ratio of flour really helps – cornflour in this case, which means they’re quite light – and gluten free!
So I have to credit Rebecca with leading me to these darling biscuits. We have a 1903 Mrs Maclurcan’s cookery book in the Rouse Hill House and Farm collection, which belonged to Nina Terry (nee Rouse) and although the recipe’s charming name caught my eye, I’m kicking myself I didn’t try the recipe sooner. They outclass Mrs Beeton’s cayenne cheeses, for my tastes anyway. Cheese darling anyone?…
- 90 g cornflour, sifted
- 60g cheese, finely grated ((aged cheddar, gruyere and/or parmesan))
- 60g butter
- pinch cayenne pepper
- pinch ground white pepper
- 1 Small egg, well beaten
Adapted from Mrs Maclurcan's cookery book (1903) Cheese darlings are the original 'savoury shape' and are decidedly moreish.
|Put the cornflour into a large bowl, add cheese and stir through. Chop butter into small pieces and rub into the flour until the mixture resemble bread crumbs or use a food processor if you prefer (the cornflour has an oddly squeaky feeling between your fingers). Mix in a good pinch of salt, cayenne and pepper. Mix in the egg to form a soft dough. |
Roll the dough into a log shape, wrap in baking paper and refrigerate for half an hour.
|Preheat oven to C180° or C160° fan forced. |
Divide the dough into 3 portions and one portion at a time, roll them between two sheets of baking paper dusted with cornflour until 2 millimetres thick. Cut into small rounds or desired shapes and place on a lined baking tray. Bake for 12 minutes or until lightly browned on top. The biscuits will harden as they cool. once completely cold, store in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.