Savory Tea Biscuits (shortbread cookies with carom seeds)

(jump to recipe)

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It’s not often that the world changes so dramatically in a span of just a few weeks. When I started this tea pairing challenge a few weeks ago, none of us had any idea what was coming our way. In most parts of the world at this point in time, life as we know it is upended. In some parts of the world, people are fighting for a chance to live in the resources their hospitals can afford them, while elsewhere, others are separated from their families, far far away. Such stories are normally reserved for third world countries, but it is heartening to see it happen in US and Europe. This pandemic has brought the world to its knees, and we don’t know how life will be in its wake.

Whoa, not something you would expect to read if you were browsing for a nice teatime biscuit recipe, huh? Well, it is rather uncomfortable – talking about tea and biscuits like everything is alright in the world. I’ve written myself into a corner here – there are no elegant segues from this topic to tea pairing, so I’m just going to put a pin in it for now (as we are all trying to do by self-isolating…here I go again!), and talk about my favorite thing in these bleak times: tea.

The last tea from my Simple Loose Leaf box (see previous pairings here, here and here!) was the ultra-fragrant and spicy-hot Tulsi Chai: strong, black tea from India, combined with holy basil leaves, ginger and cinnamon chips. Holy basil differs from sweet basil in that the leaves are smaller and sharper in taste, and there is a certain level of heat in them.

Tulsi Chai from Simple Loose Leaf

This heat, combined with the warmth from ginger root and cinnamon chips, makes this tea almost spicy when freshly brewed, and while it may seem counterintuitive to combine a spicy-hot tea with a savory, flaky, buttery cookie, dotted with slightly zingy, spicy carom or caraway seeds (called Ajwain in Hindi and Owa in Marathi, my mother tongue) and freshly ground black pepper, just stay with me for a bit.

Read this instead of listening the news for a few minutes, and meditate on happy tea thoughts. There, I got it out of my system, and from here on out, we’ll only be talking about these cookies!

These cookies, or biscuits as they are called in the UK and in my motherland, are adapted from the traditional Indian “Jeera Biscuit”, where roasted cumin seeds are used instead. Figuring that carom seeds have more of a spicy, savory quality than cumin, I used them in this recipe instead. But if you don’t have them handy, use cumin seeds by all means, just reduce the quantity to 1 1/2 tablespoons as they are more potent when roasted. Also, due to the size of the cumin seeds, it is easier to incorporate their flavor if you crush them slightly. Carom seeds are tiny, so they can be used as is.

Additionally I added some freshly ground black pepper to bump up the spice level, and sea salt to give the cookies a decidedly savory taste. The cookie dough itself is a basic, eggless shortbread.

If you have neither carom seeds nor cumin seeds, just bump up the freshly ground black pepper to teaspoon and a half for full effect, leaving everything else as is!

Let’s get to it.

From the top: whole wheat pastry flour, confectioners sugar, roasted carom/caraway seeds (Ajwain/Owa), unsalted butter, sea salt, freshly ground black pepper

Prep the dry ingredients by sifting the whole wheat pastry flour into a bowl, and adding the spices. I’ve made these with whole wheat pastry flour, but you can use all-purpose flour or a combination of both. The whole wheat pastry flour makes these cookies slightly healthier and nuttier, and I like to think, flakier. If you don’t have whole wheat pastry flour, substitute the same volume of all-purpose flour!

Next, cream the butter and confectioners sugar together. You don’t need a stand mixer for this, although if you are making a double or triple batch, it might be easier. And you should. You may need to add a few tablespoons of room temperature milk towards the end to bring the cookie dough together.

When you are ready to bake, take the disc out of the fridge and thaw it enough so the dough is pliable but still cold. Roll it out between two sheet of parchment paper so its about 1/3 inch thick. Err on the side of thicker than thinner, to get a softer, flakier cookie!

Bake cookies for 16-18 minutes until the tops are lightly brown and bottoms are uniformly browned. Transfer to cooling racks to cool completely.

While the cookies cool, make your favorite black tea, with or without milk! Enjoy the cookies with hot tea. It’s sure to zap you back to life for your next Zoom meeting!

Ajwain and Kali Mirch Biscuits with Tulsi Chai
Perfectly flaky insides (tolled out 1/3 inch thick), dotted with carom seeds and black pepper
These will disappear quick, so don’t even bother picking a large airtight container for these!

• Recipe •

Ajwain Biscuits
Adapted from Aromatic Essence
Makes 30 1-inch cookies

1 cup + 2 tbsp whole wheat pastry flour, or all purpose flour, or a combination thereof
1/2 cup or 1 stick unsalted butter, softened, at room temperature
3 tablespoons confectioner’s sugar
2 tbsp carom/caraway seeds (ajwain in Hindi or owa in Marathi), lightly toasted
3/4 teaspoon, or to taste, freshly ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3-4 tablespoons milk, if needed, at room temperature

Make the dough
Sift the flour(s) in a medium mixing bowl. Add carom/caraway seeds, black pepper and sea salt, and mix together with a whisk to combine.
In the bowl of a stand mixer or in a large bowl fitted with hand beaters, place the butter and confectioners sugar, and cream together until light and fluffy, about 2-3 minutes.

On low speed, add the flour(s) and spices mixture to the creamed butter and sugar, in 3 or 4 additions. Beat slowly together on low speed until the dough comes together into a ball. If the mixture seems too dry and isn’t coming together, add a tablespoon of milk at a time, until it comes together.

Transfer dough to a large piece of plastic wrap, and shape into a large disk. Chill in the fridge for at least 30 minutes or up to 1 day.

Bake the cookies
When ready to bake the cookies, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line two large baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Remove the disc of dough from the fridge and leave it out for few minutes or up to an hour (especially if you had refrigerated it for overnight), until it is pliable but still cold.

Place the dough between 2 sheets of parchment paper, and using a heavy rolling pin, roll the dough out into 1/4 to 1/3 inch thickness. If the thickness goes down below 1/4 inch, re-roll it, and the cookies will become more crisp than flaky. The thicker the better, upwards of 1/3 inch, is what you are looking for.

Cut into desired shapes using a cookie cutter (I used a 1-inch round fluted biscuit cutter) and transfer to the prepared baking sheets, 1 inch apart. Re-roll scraps as needed, taking care to chill the dough in between for 5-10 minutes to make sure it doesn’t become too soft.

Bake for 16-18 minutes until the tops of the cookies have a slight color and the bottoms have brown spots. If you have used whole wheat pastry flour for most or all of your dough, the tops will look brown throughout the baking process, so it is safer to rely on the bottoms to test for doneness.

Once baked, transfer cookies to a wire rack to cool completely. They may be soft at first but will firm up as they cool.

Store cookies in an airtight container for up to 10 days. Cookies made predominantly with whole wheat pastry flour will become softer faster than cookies made with all-purpose flour. Either way, they will not last 10 days in a family of tea drinkers during a quarantine!

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