My favorite recipes are those that intertwine the idea of sweet and savory. When I mentioned to a friend that my next still life painting was titled Mound of Butter she suggested I make shortbread. Updating the typical sweet cookie recipe into a savory biscuit makes the perfect base for a roasted tomato or a slice of spicy chorizo. A baking note: the shortbread should be nearly white when fully baked, overcooking will result in a very dry biscuit. It can also be formed into one of three traditional shapes; fingers, rounds, or a Petticoat Tail (a large circle cut into pointed segments).

Antoine Vollon, Mound of Butter, 1875-1885
oil on canvas, 50.2 x 61 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Antoine Vollon was a Realist painter who was influenced by Chardin and best known for his still life paintings and kitchen genre scenes. Painted at the same time Impressionism gained momentum in Paris, Mound of Butter is composed of expressive brushwork that gives the still object a sense of fluidity. The oily paint was applied in thick impasto strokes creating the impression that the canvas was covered with butter itself. The scale of the mound is complicated by the inclusion of the two eggs at the bottom of the canvas. The dairy portion appears to be commercial rather than domestic reflecting the fact that butter began to be produced commercially in the late 19th century.


{Parmesan Mustard Shortbread}

1 3/4 cups flour
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, (plus extra to top the shortbread)
1/4 teaspoon salt
pinch of cayenne pepper
1 cup chilled unsalted butter, cubed
1 tablespoon seeded mustard

To serve: roasted tomatoes, chorizo, or prosciutto

Preheat the oven to 175C and line a tray with parchment paper.

Mix flour, 3/4 cup parmesan cheese, salt, and cayenne pepper in a bowl. Add the cubed butter and mustard and begin to rub the butter into the flour mixture. Continue working the butter and flour until the dough comes together and clumps like wet sand.

Roll 1 tablespoon worth of dough into a ball and flatten with the palm of the hand. Line the flattened shortbread on the baking tray, top with a bit more parmesan cheese and slide into the oven. Cook for 10 minutes (be careful not to over cook or the shortbread will become very dry). Best served with roasted tomatoes or smoked meat (with a bit more mustard added to the top).