Parmesan, fennel, and sea salt shortbreads

Okay, stay with me. The title of this post might sound…odd. But I promise you, these are one of the easiest and most addictive nibbles around.

This recipe was my introduction to savory shortbreads, and I’m absolutely hooked. The flavor combination is sophisticated and lovely: fragrant with fennel, savory with salt, and sharp with cheese and black pepper. They’re a fabulous snack or party nibble, and I tend to make them for every potluck I’m invited to these days. Or, sometimes, I’ll just whip up a batch for myself and parcel them out over a week or so, as an afternoon treat with a mug of tea.

I’ve tweaked the proportions a bit from the original Bon Appetit recipe, dialing back the sugar and slightly upping the cheese. I also modified the method: instead of chilling and rolling out the dough, I simply press it into a baking dish. Then, while the shortbread is still hot from the oven, I cut it into squares with a sharp knife. It’s easier and less messy than rolling out, and it means you can go from “I want cookies!” to having cookies in the oven in a matter of minutes.

Honestly, the hardest part of this recipe is grating a giant pile of cheese. You do need a lot of it–at least 1 cup, though you could go as high as 1 1/2 cups if you’ve got the patience (and the arm strength). And the cheese really does need to be freshly grated, if at all possible. Pre-grated Parmesan–even the relatively good-quality stuff–just won’t have the same flavor, and the added anti-caking agents can mess with the bake.

This is one of those recipes that’s gloriously adaptable. I’d recommend making it at least once as written, but then feel free to tweak it as you see fit. You could use just about any tangy hard cheese in place of the Parmesan, like aged Manchego or Gruyere, or even extra-sharp cheddar. You could omit the fennel seeds, or replace them with another seasoning–maybe some cumin or caraway seeds on top, or minced fresh rosemary or thyme in the dough itself. For me, the only non-negotiables are black pepper in the dough and flaky sea salt on top.

parmesan fennel shortbread plate

Parmesan, Fennel, and Sea Salt Shortbreads (makes 16 shortbreads)

Adapted from Bon Appetit

Note: To double this recipe–as pictured above–use a 9×13 baking dish. You can also easily make these gluten-free by using a flour blend like Cup4Cup or Bob’s Red Mill 1-to-1.

1 tbsp whole fennel seeds

1 cup (2 sticks/8 oz) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/3 cup (40 g) powdered (confectioner’s) sugar

1 tsp ground black pepper

3/4 tsp kosher salt

2 cups (240 g) all-purpose flour

1 heaping cup (about 2 1/2 oz) finely grated Parmesan cheese

1 tsp flaky sea salt

Preheat the oven to 325º F, and position a rack in the middle. Line an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper. If you have a mortar and pestle, use it to lightly crush the fennel seeds. Otherwise, put the seeds in a zip-top bag and bash them a few times with something sturdy, like a rolling pin or small skillet.

In a large mixing bowl (or the bowl of a stand mixer), beat butter until smooth. Add powdered sugar, pepper, and salt, and beat until light and fluffy. Add flour and Parmesan cheese and mix until a crumbly dough comes together.

Press the dough evenly into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the crushed fennel seeds and sea salt over the top, and use your fingers to gently press them into the dough. Bake for 45-50 minutes, until the shortbread is set and just barely golden around the edges.

Remove the pan from the oven. While the shortbread is still hot, use a sharp knife to cut it into 16 squares. Let the shortbreads cool cool in the pan for 30 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.

Make ahead/storage: After pressing the dough into the pan, you can cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours before baking. Once cooled, store the shortbreads in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.

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