Thursday, December 31, 2009

Oysters Rockefeller

I have always wanted to make baked oysters, ever since I was a young girl and read M.F.K. Fisher’s Consider The Oyster, a mini masterpiece about the bivalve. In the spring, I am teaching this book in my Food Writing class at St. Joseph’s University, so I decided this winter that the oyster would be my pet project.

Luckily, Oysters Rockefeller calls for cheese...Parmesan sprinkled over the top. I searched all over for recipes – it seems every famous chef, from Julia Child to Emeril Lagasse, espouses a different version. (Lagasse’s recipe requires green food coloring. Ix Nay.) Most involve oysters, breadcrumbs, spinach, and a splash of Pernod. Yee-haw.

I can’t seem to make any recipe without tweaking it, so my version below is a mélange – I based it on the original, from Antoine’s Restaurant in New Orleans, then gleaned a few ideas from epicurious,com, which features 5 different versions.

All this goes to say: these were the hit of our family Christmas dinner. With a little champagne, this put everyone in a loving mood. I think I will make this a tradition, as everyone was very eager to help peel potatoes in the kitchen once we’d had a round of bubbly and oysters. On a snowy day, it was a perfect afternoon snack.

Oyster’s Rockefeller

2 cup fresh spinach, loosely chopped

½ cup chopped scallions

1 garlic clove

1 Tablespoon chopped parsley

1 stick melted butter

½ cup dry breadcrumbs

2 Tablespoons Pernod (or Pastis)

1 teaspoon fennel seeds

Splash of hot sauce

15 oysters (local, if possible)

½ cup freshly grated Parmesan

Combine first nine ingredients in a food processor (or finely chop everything) – you don’t want to grind this too intensely; there should be some chunky bits. Then find a family member with a strong forearm to shuck the oysters, leaving the little mollusk on the half shell. A Madeleine pan makes for a great platter and will keep you from spilling the coveted oyster liquor.

Preheat the oven to 450. Then, top each oyster with 1 Tablespoon of the filling and sprinkle with cheese. Bake until browned, about 10 minutes. (If you have leftover filling, you can make a divine nibble by toasting it on a baguette.

Serve with lemon wedges, bubbly, and a broad grin.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Cheese Creche ‘09

Here it is, this year’s cheese crèche put together by The Brothers Gruyere, a.k.a Andre Darlington and Todd Stregiel, with cut-outs by Jen Holmes. It was regal. It was deluxe. It took us four hours to nibble and break it down.

We started locally with a beautiful goat log by Firefly Farms, a melt-on-your-sweater cheese with an elegant, yogurty finish. This was our mellow introduction to a trio of goat cheeses rounding out the barnyard portion of our crèche. Its yule-log shape made for a perfect party kick-off.

We followed it up with a pyramid of Valencay, our Star of David – what a knockout. I love anything dusted with ash, and this French sparkler was ethereal: smooth, lemony, light. Think of sweet hay, then package it into something cute. Valencay.

After a round of pistachios, we cut into a purse-sized wheel of Drunken Goat, a perennial favorite. This red-wine soaked Spanish wonder makes a great little picnic cheese – it’s fruity and tangy, with a winey edge. Even with piles of snow on the walk outside, it felt meadowy at the table.

Should I keep going? Well, we had some Epoisses whiffing up the crisper, so we broke it out to sample alongside the manger, a gorgeous little leaf-wrapped cheese called Banon. When I see this cheese in cases, I have the same reaction that people used to have when they saw Beanie Babies – I squeal and grab it. This cheese has to be one of my top 10 faves, and not just because it’s swaddled in booze-soaked chestnut leaves. I love the consistency. When you peel it open – very dramatic – its fragile rind cracks, releasing the most aromatic fondu. Imagine a savory dulce du lece, yes, there you have it. Drag some crusty bread through it, and you’ve gone to heaven. Banon really is an ideal manger cheese.

We couldn’t help ourselves, at this point, we got very riled by a French cow cheese, called Gaperon, which comes wrapped in yellow ribbon and looks like a bloated Christmas ornament. Rob Kaufelt calls Gaperon “the salami of cheese” because it is flecked with garlic and pepper, and it really does make you crave a cured-meat chaser. From Auvergne, this cheese was originally traded for dowries and hung outside of people’s homes to signify wealth. If we had any left, I’d run out and hang it from a stop sign. I want everyone to try this fabulous spiced cheese, which has the creamiest center and the most divine, tissue-thin rind.

Some guests might have pooped out at this point, but suspense is the key to a good cheese board, and we had a wheel of perfectly aged Pierre Robert, pocked by three wisemen, that everyone was dying to try. This triple crème is really the Taj Mahal of bloomy cheeses -- ghostly in color, architectural in terms of its rind to really-creamy-middle ratio. We broke out some sour cherries, then sliced ourselves cheesecake-like slivers of this gorgeously runny salt lick. Our moans made the candles flicker. The mouthfeel = a slipper, and the taste calls to mind a mousse made of broccoli sprouts – vegetal glissandos of flavor.

So what was the star of this year’s Cheesemas pageant? For Monsieur Fromage, it was the Gaperon. He’s already calling it “the new mistletoe.” Maman fell in love with a nubbin of Mahon that I failed to mention; really, it was the quince jelly that made her heart murmur act up. Brother Gruyere had a fainting spell after eating the Epoisses, and his lady love stole secret nibbles of Pierre Robert when the party, blessed out and sipping wine, moved on to Youtubing “The Muppets.” (After a silly amount of dairy, puppetry is really the perfect après diner.)

But for me, the leaf-wrapped Banon will always be the highlight of Cheese Creche ‘09. Maybe I like the poetry of unwrapping a cheese that looks like something made by caterpillars and finding…ahhhh, molten glory. That’s what the Christmas story is all about anyway, right? Wonder bundled in wonderfulness?

Yes, and now, merry cheesemas to all, and may your next cheese be ripe.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Tasting Cancelled

Today's cheese tasting at Quince is cancelled due to the snow I've been wishing for. Stay home and work on your cheese creche. We'll reschedule in January.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Make a Cheese Crèche

I’ve always had a fondness for the nativity – maybe because it’s theatrical, and over the years I’ve made visits to wax nativity museums and sought out the live encampments that appear around town churches in late December. However, I’ve never owned a crèche. Figurines creep me out. And I hate the idea of stuffing the basement full of more holiday ticky-tack.

That’s why, two years ago, my family and I started a tradition of the edible cheese crèche. It might sound sacrilegious, but it’s not intentional. On Christmas Eve, we assemble it with care, having selected sheep’s milk cheeses to represent the lambs and strong cheddars to stand in for the wise men. We carve a crude dwelling from a round loaf of bread, and sing carols as we tuck evergreen around the cheese board and tape paper angels to toothpicks for added drama.

Then we turn off all the lights in the house and sit around burning candles, telling stories. And feasting. Each year the cheese crèche looks a little different, but we always try to buy artisanal cheeses that support independent farmers, people who work with their hands. To me, that’s the holy part of the holidays – supporting artistry and appreciating all the sweat, milk, and time that goes into cheesemaking.

Should you decide to dazzle your friends with a cheese crèche, here are some suggestions for a striking and thematically appropriate cheese board:

Stable: 1 large round loaf of crusty bread

Mary: a mild blue, like Saint Agur

Joseph: Pere Joseph, a strong Belgian cheese

Manger: a salmon terrine or paté

Sheep: 3-4 rounds of chevre or pyramids of Valencay

Cow: Banon, a soft cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves

Three Wise Men: Any variety of pointy hard cheeses (gouda, cheddar, parm)

Happy holidays, cheese lovers!

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Fridge-Door Canapés

One of my all-time favorite things to eat for dinner is a nibble-and-pick platter. It feels like you’re sitting down to fancy canapés, but really, it’s a just an excuse to work your way through the last, lingering condiments in the back of the fridge.

Right now, with company looming on the horizon, I’m all about the nibble-and-pick. In fact, I’ve become so attached to this way of eating, I may just snack-platter my way into the New Year, and frankly, I think everyone who comes over will be very glad to see the open-faced sandwich revived, in much the same way that I’ve been so gleeful about seeing deviled eggs on every trendy menu around Philly. (I just had a deviled egg today at Village Whiskey, and it was tasty, although not as feisty as the deviled egg I had last week at The Swift Half. I have yet to try the deviled egg of the day at Supper.)

Hmmm…maybe I will work up a cheese-laced diva-ed egg for Christmas this year…what do you think? Blue cheese and bacon?

Okay, okay, I see you rummaging in the fridge, working up a nibble-and-pick from the floating world inside the door. Here are a few suggestions. If you want to make the open-face platter company-worthy, consider a few sound investments:

1 jar of really good grainy mustard

some exceptional salami

a jar of tapenade

2 cheeses (one mild, one strong as hell)

a jar of chutney or fig jam

cornichons (wee pickles)

crusty baguette

If you are going to skimp, skimp on the stuff in jars. Don’t buy gloomy processed cheese or subpar salami. Trust me. Buy small amounts, but spring for a really good stilton or a really nice Parm. Then go Acme on the jam. Trader Joe’s is a great source of inexpensive pickly things.

Here are some yummy combinations for open-faced canapés:

Parmesan, minced sundried tomatoes in oil, a spiced pecan

Stilton and fig jam (or plum jam or chutney)

Aged cheddar, grainy mustard, and pickled red onions (or caramelized onions)

Fresh goat cheese, tapenade or roasted red peppers, and capers

Grainy mustard, salami, sliced cornichons

Butter, parsley, fresh anchovies

To recommend: Di Bruno Brothers' Fra Mani Toscano Salami is my fave cured meat of the season -- made with red wine, sea salt, coarse ground pepper. It's so good, I almost want to start a salami blog, but of course I won't...cheese, cheese, all the way, and Cheesemas is just around the corner.

P.S. We still have a few slots for our tasting this Saturday afternoon, Dec. 19 at Quince Fine Foods (209 W. Girard). If you want to reserve a spot, call 215-2323425 or email Put on a big sweater, and come eat some cheese.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Stilton Shortbread

So, Cheesemas approaches. Until this year, I’d never started off the baking season with anything savory, but this time around it’s different. I have a lot of cheese on hand, and lately, I’ve been eyeing a very veiny block of stilton every time I open the fridge. I love stilton, especially at the Mann Center in June – there’s nothing better than hearing the Philadelphia Orchestra live while crunching down on a huge baguette shmeared with chutney and Colston Bassett.

Our friend Emma, a Scottish scientist, used to meet us there, arriving with a blanket under one arm and a backpack full of smelly cheese slung over her shoulder. (The mosquitoes always swarmed the other direction.) Then Emma took off to California to eat oranges and gab in a lab, leaving us stilton-less. To commemorate those days, Dr. E. sent me a stinking mass of cheese for my birthday a few weeks ago. There’s no better birthday present than stilton.

Today, I put on some Ravi Shankar and began working my own lab of sorts, baking away in the blue kitchen. I think everyone in Fishtown knows I baked stilton shortbread today because the house is whiffy…wonderfully so. Even the dog is roaming in a stupor.

I’m going to take these stiltony biscuits to a potluck tonight, and instead of breaking out the port (which I’d do at home), I’m taking along of jar of onion-fig jam that I’ve been saving for just the right occasion. Truth is, this Mt. Vikos onion-fig jam may be better than my shortbread. It’s so good, my brother still remembers when I served him some two years ago, and he asks for it by name. I was planning to save this jar for him, but alas, the stilton beckons, and these shortbready biscuits need some sort of sweet side. They’re very heady.

A stiltony shout-out to Lauren T., of the blog Sensuous Particulars, who gave me the idea to make blue cheese shortbread in the first place. She sent me a Washington Post recipe for walnut-blue cheese cookies; I took a detour into Epicurious because I only had pecans on hand, and friends, the wind is a sourpuss today, and I didn’t want to walk to the store. Instead, I stayed home and rocked some sitar’n stilton. What could be more…cheesemasy?

Stilton Shortbread

1/2 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 3/4 cups flour
1 cup Stilton, crumbled
1/4 cup ground pecans (or walnuts)

parchment paper

Combine butter, sugar, and salt -- I used a mixer. Add stilton and ground pecans, then mix dough with your hands until the mixture holds together, loosely. It will be dry, the consistency of damp ashes. Mold the dough it into two logs, the thickness of your wrists. Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and refrigerate for an hour. Dance around the house to stay warm, then preheat the oven to 325. Cut parchment paper to fit a large cookie sheet, then slice the logs into quarter-inch rounds. Bake about 20 minutes. Cool before serving with port, figs, dark lipstick.

Note: Mt. Vikos Fig-Onion Jam is available at Quince Fine Foods, and at Downtown Cheese in Reading Terminal Market.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Tasting: December 19

Last month's tasting at Quince was such a success, we've decided to make it a regular happening. Thanks to a comment from Ann Green, our focus will be on how to pair cheeses. I've got two creamy dreamies for you to sample, including one wrapped in chestnut leaves that can be grilled (woo hoo!), and a life-changing gouda. Together, these three will make a spectacular holiday cheese board. One of the cheeses even looks like a Christmas tree.

Come join us! We'll have recipes, pairing ideas, music, and complimentary wine. Here are the details...

Cheeses & Chestnuts: A Tasting with Madame Fromage

Where: Quince, 209 W. Girard Ave., Philadelphia, 19125

When: Saturday, December 19, 2009 4-6 p.m.

How: $12/person; reservations appreciated: 215-2323425 or


Hope to see you!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Purple Haze

Cheese or bath bomb? You decide.

I, for one, am having a love affair with this goaty disk, dredged in fennel pollen and lavender. It’s a good cure-all for a gray-weather hangover, and I’ve been enjoying it for breakfast. It goes nicely with Rose Earl Grey and thin toast. You don’t want to overpower the herbiness of the fennel pollen, which lends a hint of licorice.

Licorice and goat cheese? Oh, don’t be irritable.

Purple Haze is made by some of the best dairy dreamers in the business, Cypress Grove – makers of the legendary Humboldt Fog. One of their most recent creations, Truffle Tremor, was featured on this blog when it won top honors at this year’s Fancy Food Show in New York.

The folks at Cypress Grove don’t mess around. Founded by Mary Keehn (a goat hobbyist turned breeder), this California cheese company is recognized as the premier artisanal goat-cheese maker in the country. If you’re on a quest to learn about artisanal cheese in America, Cypress Grove is a good place to start.

In fact, this month Cypress Grove is running a holiday special, where you can have three of their award-winning cheeses over-nighted in a tote bag for just under $50. Pretty cute. A good gift for the tough-to-please foodie on your list. The special includes a wedge of Truffle Tremor, a wheel of Fog Lights (a mold-ripened cheese, covered in ash), and an herbed chevre.

Tonight, I’m going to try a recipe off the web site: Purple Haze-stuffed figs, served warm, with honey. Meow. It’ll be perfect to serve to a few food nerds who are coming over for a game of Agricola – my other recent obsession. Think wooden animals. Think Euro games.

Hey, if I can’t have my own goat farm, at least I can pretend. Plus, the game pieces look kind of like cheese cubes.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Raclette Parties

My grandparents, who are from Switzerland, always hosted Raclette parties around the holidays, filling their Cleveland house with the smell of strong cheese and boiled potatoes. As a child, my favorite part was sitting around the Raclette grill, an electric table-top device, and using my own little fry pan to toast bite-size portions of a meal that lasted several hours. It was a thrill to watch the adults do the same, as if we were all partaking of an Alice in Wonderland-style event around a Holly Hobby Oven.

Raclette is a cow’s milk cheese made on both the French and Swiss side of the Alps. It melts beautifully, and its strong flavor is tempered by heating it. This is a semi-stinker, nothing to be afraid of; if you like Morbier, it’ll go down easy. Many cheese shops and groceries stock Raclette (and even raw-milk Raclette) around the holidays.

In December, I always host several Raclette dinners. It’s a cheap, easy way to entertain – once you buy a Raclette oven (about $99 from Swissmar) – and friends always remember it from one year to the next, and request it. The 8-person Swissmar Classic Raclette Grill I bought a few years ago is really a dream, since it comes with a grill top – perfect for roasting wursts as a second course.

So, how does a Raclette party work? First, you can only invite as many people as your Raclette grill can handle (most grills come with 6 or 8 little pans). Then you ask everyone to bring a condiment; cured ham, pickled onions, cornichons, and baby corn are the traditional add-ons. My grandmother always served chopped scallions, my mother always provided a dish of chopped, sweet red pepper. As the host, your only real job is to boil a big pot of red potatoes and slice up a hefty wedge of Raclette.

When guests come over, break out the lager, and fire up the Raclette oven. Then plan to sit around toasting slices of cheese on top of boiled potato-halves for, oh, the next two hours. Between cheesy bites, guests can snack on pickled condiments. If you’ve invited some impatient carnivores, you can offer them sliced sausage and raw onions to grill on top of the oven, or you can create a separate course of marinated veggies or shrimp.

After dinner, our family always plays a traditional game, passed down from my Swiss grandparents. We call it “The Chocolate Game.” When the Raclette grill is put away, we set out a whole dark chocolate bar on a cutting board, and everyone at the table receives a fork and a knife. Then we pass a dice. Anyone who rolls a 6 may eat the chocolate bar, using the silverware, but only until someone else rolls the lucky number. The game goes on until the chocolate bar is gone. Usaully, there is some hysteria involved.

Raclette grill+chocolate game=perfect holiday meal with very little cooking. It’s also a great way to stay warm when the temperatures drop. Just pretend you are in the Alps.

Sunday, November 29, 2009


I’ve been having a renewed love affair with Parm ever since I learned to make omelets last week from a pair of former monks. It was the kind of evening I love: a big dinner out, a few drinks back at the house, followed by a kitchen dare. In this case, the dare ended with a vigorous round of omelet-making at about 10 p.m. on a Thursday accompanied by a little scotch. I’ve been making omelets with fresh herbs and Parm ever since.

So, a little background. Our omelet man is a former Trappist who left his abbey a few years ago to work in a fine restaurant kitchen. I’d heard about his omelets from my friend Gerard (a former Benedictine), who loves to regale me with food stories, usually over a cloudy glass of Pernod. Gerard has often said to me, “There’s no better dinner than a perfect omelet, and no one makes omelets like my friend Jeff in Colorado Springs.”

When Jeff the Trappist came to Philly to run the marathon recently, I knew I had to see his omelet action. After all, how good can an omelet be? To me, it has always tasted like a potholder – one of the least enticing dishes on a menu and something I rarely attempt unless I am in a bitter mood with poorly behaved guests over for breakfast.

Jeff schooled me on The Omelet. And I have been practicing every night.

The key to a stupendous omelet is, apparently, a decent omelet pan (Jeff recommended a small All-Clad frying pan), a couple tablespoons of canola oil, and a pat of butter. You brown the butter in the oil, essentially, so that you get the taste of butter without burning it at high heat. Jeff kept sniffing at the bubbling pan until it smelled right to him – and when the fat was at a super-sizzle, he dropped in a pair of whisked organic eggs, and I stood back as that yellow liquid puffed up like a butterfly.

Then, Mr. Trappist Omelet shook the pan vigorously over medium heat, fluffing the eggs for about 20 seconds, before adding a sprinkle of Parm, a pinch of salt. Within a minute, he’d tumbled the whole thing into a pretty fold, plated it, and topped it with black pepper.

It was the lightest cloud. I nearly wept.

Monsieur Fromage and I have gone through two cartons of eggs in the last week. We have cleaned a lot of splattered yolk off the kitchen burner and spent a lot of time at the sink, working up to a flip. Our omelet-offs are always hair-raising, and usually there is some shouting, and the dog darts to her kennel, and I get very bossy and Monsieur Fromage scowls, but then we sit down with knife and fork and bite in, and we get very settled looks on our faces. An omelet is such a mood-mellower.

Well, a good one.

We are still approximating the Omelet Monk’s fluff-master-deluxe level of virtuousity, but we are getting very close. When our omelet doesn’t end up on the floor, it tastes buttery and so light, much more like a quality bed ruffle than a potholder. The Parmigiano-Reggiano is, secretly, what makes it. I always keep a plate of it freshly grated on the top shelf of the fridge now. Actually, it’s just past ten – a perfect time to crack a couple eggs and work on my serve.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


The star cheese of our Thanksgiving plate was a little French wheel washed in brandy. I’d read about it in The Cheese Primer, in Murray’s Cheese Handbook, and in a book on pairings by Janet Fletcher, Cheese and Wine. Here was an old monastery cheese that was rumored to taste like meat and garlic, an Old World stinker perfected by monks. Époisses is also rumored to be banned from French trains due to its smell.

So, I expected a real whiff-burger, but my wheel of Epoisses did not stink up the fridge. And it did not offend our brazen band of dinner guests, who spent a whole afternoon eating and drinking around the cheese board while Monseiur Fromage prepared his time-consuming “Turkey in a Shroud.” The real key, though, was pairing this cheese with a great wine. Wow, the white Burgundy that several Internetters recommended brought flavors out of this cheese that were absolutely novel to witness. Rarely have I enjoyed such an optimal pairing.

We drove to New Jersey to find a bottle of 2008 Joseph Drouhin Saint-Véran (about $15). Cooled it on the back stoop, brought the cheese to room temperature, and let our couch-clan of tasters descend. The response was YouTube-able; a sip of wine after a nibble of Epoisses had everyone’s eyebrows on the ceiling. “Oh my god,” exclaimed our Blue Cheese Brit, who had just arrived with a bag of delicious patés and cheeses under his arm.

With all the hype, Époisses may sound scary. I found it surprisingly tame but perfectly balanced. It’s a bit whiffy, but only when you take it out of its round package – the fragrance calls to mind onions, mushrooms, a damp carpet of leaves. The taste, however, is wicked; think of a brandy-spiked venison pate, then add a velvetine mouthfeel, and give it a tangy orange rind.

Wine-and-cheese guru Janet Fletcher recommends serving Époisses with a Riesling or a Dry Pinot Gris, while others suggest a Cab. Frankly, I would never serve it without the Saint Véran white burgundy we enjoyed over Thanksgiving. It was truly…it sounds canned, I know…but I mean it: astonishing.

Other highlights from our Thanksgiving cheeseboard:

Keen’s Cheddar: a flawless raw-milk farmhouse cheddar that our friend, the Blue Cheese Brit, calls his old steady. He says it’s “a must” in any gentleman’s crisper.

Forsterkase: A bacony-flavored, washed-rind, raw-milk cheese from Switzerland that is cured in spruce bark. Yes, bacony! This is a fantastically heady and bizarre cheese that calls to mind hunting lodges and men wearing wineskins into the woods. The rind looks like a dirty hiking boot but is whack-delicious in a herdsman kind of way.

Yes, yes, that is the famed "Turkey in a Shroud." There's our bird after two days of marinating in a mustard rub. The cheesecloth shroud was draped over her at half past twelve, and she was basted every quarter hour, which meant that she wasn't ready until almost 7:30 p.m. Was she a fine bird, our little Nefertiti? Oh, she was.

Sunday, November 22, 2009


Last night's tasting was a great success. Quince, the little cheese shop in my neighborhood, looked beautiful -- full of flowers, baskets of bread. The cheese case was stocked, the shelves lined with chutneys and nuts. When people began arriving, I felt my first twinge of holiday spirit.

Our hosts, Joan Sauvion and Nicole Marcote, who own Quince, plated our three cheese selections so beautifully. We started with warm Cana de Cabra, drizzled in orange flower honey with pine nuts, and ended with a glass of sherry and a wedge of leaf-wrapped Valdeón accompanied by a bit of fig cake.

The triple-creme Brillat-Savarin proved to be the big hit -- a sensuous cheese that needs little in the way of dressing, but Nicole's idea to serve it with an apricot and some marcona almonds was a stroke of genius.

Brillat-Savarin really is a perfect holiday cheese. The texture is satiny, rich, and the flavor is mild and slightly sweet -- easy on the palate during months when most foods we eat are heavily spiced. It makes a great dessert course, so easy to prepare. Just let it come to room temperature and serve it with berries, like cheesecake. It's also perfect alongside a champagne toast -- who doesn't like bubbles and brie?

We had such a great time last night that we've already set the date for a second tasting, Saturday, Dec. 19. We haven't chosen a theme yet, but if you have ideas...hmm?

And if you'd like to sign up, down hesitate to email Nicole at Quince:

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Blue-Cheese Stuffed Pumpkins

Today's cheese tasting at Quince is sold out! Yee-haw. Here's the recipe I'll be sharing for a quick Thanksgiving side dish. It's adapted from a Deborah Madison recipe that I've had marked for about the last three years.

I tested several versions last weekend, using different cheeses; the original recipe called for gruyere, but that got gluey when baked. The blue cheese melted beautifully, combining with the cream to form a piquant cheese sauce that was a pleasant contrast to the sweetness of the pumpkin.

You can use ornamental pumpkins for this dish – yes, the squat, ridged ones that most people use as decorations. Several people at my local farmers’ market expressed skepticism about this idea, insisting that these squash were merely decorative, but I baked them up, and they tasted wonderful – similar to acorn squash in flavor and texture. In fact, they were tastier than the small pie pumpkin I also tried for this recipe.

The nice thing about this recipe is that you can adapt it to the number of guests at your table, and very little prep is required, other than slicing off the caps of the pumpkins and scooping out the seeds. The presentation is simple and memorable – who will forget the year you served baby pumpkins stuffed with blue cheese?

Baked Miniature Pumpkins With Blue Cheese

1 miniature pumpkin


freshly ground pepper

2-3 Tablespoons cream

1-2 Tablespoons crumbled blue cheese*

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and slice off the top of the pumpkin, scooping out the seeds. Rub the inside with a dash of salt. Pour in the cream, cheese, and add several cranks of black pepper. Replace lid and bake in pan, 45-50 minutes. Serve hot.

*I used Roaring Forties Blue, which is on the sweet side and very creamy. Hook’s Blue Paradise (from Wisconsin) or Cashel Blue (from Ireland) would probably be comparable.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pierre Robert

I’ve never been a brie freak, probably because brie is the hummus of English departments, and I overloaded on it at mixers during grad school. So often brie is rubbery, flavorless – glue on toast. I almost never buy it unless I am hosting people I don’t know well, then I figure it will be a pleaser.

Today, however, I took a whole wheel of Pierre Robert, a French triple-crème, into my Fiction Workshop – an exceptionally good class this year. I felt it was time to induct these 15 students into the world of cheese now that they’re seniors. And, come on, eating brie is an English major’s rite of passage. I wanted them to sample the good stuff.

Pierre Robert was recommended to me by a local cheese maven, and her recommendation was spot on. I’ve been reading a lot about Brillat-Savarin lately (also a triple crème), which I’ll be serving this Saturday at my first public tasting. From everything I’ve read, Brillat-Savarin is body butter – rated #2 sexiest cheese in my Murray’s Cheese Handbook. So, I was curious to see how Pierre Robert compared.

Mmmm…it was decadent. Pierre Robert has the texture of a mousse, dense and yet light. The rind melted on my tongue – not the least bit rubbery. And the flavors were more potent than I’d imagined, grassy and peppery. I’m still a stink-bomb lover – the blues have it – but I will buy the Pierre Robert again, for picnics, for hot-night desserts. Bring on the champagne, or, as one artisanal cheese site recommended: Tequila Sunrises.

My students definitely passed the brie test. Honestly, I thought they’d find the mold off-putting, but they descended on this snow-white cake like a pack of writers, which is to say, like wolves! Even the box went out the door under one person’s arm. So, I guess there will have to be more cheese inductions for senior English majors. Maybe I’ll work up to a salty wedge of tongue-numbing Cabrales.

My mind is working on a list of cheese-and-writer pairings – hmm…what cheese would go well with Joyce Carol Oates?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Cheesegiving Ideas

One of the things I like to do when I can’t fall asleep is dream up menus. It’s a strange obsession, I know. Lately, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the Thanksgiving dinner I’m planning for my Pops and his wife, Dayle, who will be flying in from Iowa. I’m even considering changing the name this year to…yup…Cheesegiving.

It might be overkill to put cheese into every dish, but I’m definitely planning to blast through tradition and try some new recipes. Here are some fave ideas, culled from food blogs, that I'm considering:

- Ezra Poundcake posted a butternut squash casserole recipe with cheddar cheese. This could be a nice change-up from sweet potatoes with marshmallows.

- Who doesn’t love a cheese appetizer, or an amuse served after the salad course? The Cheeselover posted about tumblers full of marinated goat cheese served with a mini baguette. It looks fairly easy to recreate, although she doesn't give an exact recipe.

- Blue Kitchen’s wild mushroom casserole with ricotta has me moaning within. Maybe for supper the night before Thanksgiving?

- I have a weird food crush on Closet Kitchen’s Jalapeno Popper Dip. It’s a little bit bowling-alley, but it would make for great nosh while people are chopping.

- Homemade butter at Food in Jars looks like something good to have on hand. I'm a cheese lover and a butter gal.

- Because I hate the thought of not having a solid breakfast before I start cooking, here’s what I’m thinking for Thanksgiving morning: Smitten Kitchen’s Bloody Mary’s, baked eggs, and chive biscuits. I’d add some cheddar to the biscuits, of course.

Finally, I can't resist previewing the baked blue-cheese-stuffed miniature pumpkins I tested the other night, thanks to Deborah Madison. The photo is at the top of this post. I'll be sharing the recipe at this Saturday's tasting, then I'll post it online. I think it's the best of Cheesegiving in a shell -- blue cheese, cream, black pepper, and individual pumpkins, all baked into a glorious blend of sharp, sweet, and saucy!

What are you making for Cheesegving, dahhhhlink?

Sunday, November 15, 2009


On Friday, I made a great discovery: there’s a cheese importer in my neighborhood. Tucked amid the row houses, two unmarked garages function as a wholesale warehouse for International Food Distributors Inc., a company that’s been in business since 1939. I can’t believe I’ve been walking my dog down this block, past coolers full of triple-creams, shelves of stilton and manchego. Somehow I have to believe that this is not just a coincidence, that it’s destiny.

Trugole, a beautiful cow’s milk cheese from the Piedmont region of Italy, was one of the cheeses I tasted on Friday, when I toured International Food Distributors in preparation for next weekend’s tasting. Nicole Marcote, of my local cheese shop, Quince, was kind enough to make the introduction.

I spent an hour in the cooler with a broad-shouldered she-Viking named Jayne, who was kind enough to school me on some of her favorite cheeses, including this one, a staff-favorite at International Food Distributors. In fact, when Jayne took the wheel into the cutting room, about five people appeared, noses in the air, sniffing. “Is that Trugole?” each one asked.

Trugole is a sharp, sweet cheese with a lingering taste of caramelized onions. The texture reminds me of an aged Provolone, but the taste is more characteristic of a Parm or an Asiago. When I served it tonight, alongside lagers and pickles, Monsieur Camembert exclaimed, “This would be good in a plowman’s lunch.”

There is something infinitely snack-worthy about Trugole. It’s full-flavored and fruity, and it pairs well with just about anything – fruits, nuts, olives, cured meats. It was especially good on a sesame-crusted baguette.

Trugole (pronounced True-goh-lay) comes from the foothills of the Alps, where the mountain grasses and foliage must be heavenly, because the sweet notes in this cheese are out of this world. This is a washed-rind cheese, and for every day of Trugole’s 60-day aging process, the wheels are turned and sprayed with water and salt.

The result is a pleasantly sharp semi-soft cheese that I think would fit nicely on the Thanksgiving table, especially if you have risk-averse friends who might shy away from stinkier business. Trugole would be a great mediator – a cheese to impress the foodies and the non-foodies. And it melts well, which means it would be great at midnight when you are contemplating a grilled turkey sandwich and scrabbling about the crisper for a cheese that can hold its own against layers of cranberry sauce and gravy.

Mmm…I’m already dreaming about leftovers. Dangerous.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

You're Invited

It's official. I've teamed up with my neighborhood cheese shop to host a tasting, and you, my beloveds, are invited. See that card above? That's my lifeline -- when Quince opened three years ago on Girard Avenue in Philadelphia, I just about lost my mind. I peered through the window and saw wheels of blue-veined Valdeon, slabs of Spanish ham, and...wheee...cornichons! Amid the check-cashing stores and nail salons, here was a reprieve.

Quince is the dreamchild of mother-daughter team Joan Sauvion and Nicole Marcote, who moved to Philly from northern Spain. Their store carries all sorts of Spanish delicacies, plus extra-strong coffee, soups, and sandwiches. (I yearn for their pate-and-pickle combination on a crisp baguette.)

On Satuday, November 21, Nicole and I will be talking about Cheesegiving ideas for the holiday ahead. We'll be sampling three divine cheeses, and you'll walk away with recipes and ideas for wine-and-cheese pairings. Hungry? Here are the deets:

WHERE: Quince Fine Foods, 209 W. Girard Avenue
WHEN: Saturday, November 21, 4-6 p.m.
HOW: The cost of the tasting is $12, and reservations are appreciated. To reserve, call Nicole at 215.232.3425 or email

I look forward to noshing with you. If you've never been to Northern Liberties, this is a great excuse to visit the famed Piazza and pick up a Brown Betty cupcake on your way home. more thing. If you're looking for other pre-holiday things to do, check out the cranberry-preserve canning classes that Marisa is offering over at The dates are below, and there's a registration link on her site.

Cranberry Jelly
Sunday, November 15th
3 - 4: 30 p.m.
Philly Kitchen Share
$45 (price includes all supplies and one pint of cranberry jelly to take home)

Cranberry Chutney
Saturday, November 21st
11 - 12:30
Foster's Homewares (their new location at 33 N. 3rd Street)
$39 (price includes all supplies and one half pint of cranberry chutney to take home)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Finally, A Fabulous Cheese Book

I’m so impressed by The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin (University of Wisconsin Press, 2009), a new book by James Norton and Rebecca Dilley, I hardly know where to begin. First off, the pictures are exquisite, capturing the essence of small towns in rural Wisconsin and the dairy hives within them. What Robert Frank did in the 1950s, capturing stark images of post-war America, photographer Becca Dilley does for the cheese state, peeling back the shrink-wrap to give us glimpses of Amish milking barns and portraits of hair-netted men with muscled fingers stirring curds. She captures the zeitgeist of artisanal cheesemaking.

What Dilley does in her photographs, Norton does in his writing, creating intimate scenes rather than lists of facts. The reader follows Cedar Grove’s Robert Wills into his living wastewater treatment plant (it looks like a lily pond) and learns about his annual curd-fattened bluegill fishfry. Doug Peterson, of Mazomanie, talks about how he left a large dairy cooperative in order to develop a cheese for high-temperature pizza ovens. What this book does, unlike other primers and atlases I’ve picked up, is connect readers to the impassioned few who dream up cheeses like Faarko, maple leaf cheese, and cinnamon-rubbed butter jack.

Dilley and Norton, who are part of the Twin Cities food blog Heavy Table, embarked on this book project to explore the Master Cheesemaker Program run by Madison’s Center for Dairy Research, an organization that Norton describes as “a Jedi High Council of Dairy Knowledge.” The program takes between 13 and 15 years to complete and has certified 44 Master Cheesemakers in the state of Wisconsin, as of 2008. Dilley and Norton set out to meet each one in person.

The book is organized by region, with useful maps, tasting notes, and visitor information. It’s a pleasure to look at and worth keeping in the kitchen by the cheese board or on the coffee table during a tasting. But the thing I admire most about this project is the storytelling, done through both words and pictures. The Master Cheesemakers of Wisconsin does what more cheese books ought to do: it connects us to the hands behind the wheels.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Roaring Forties Blue

It’s been a very long time since I went to a spontaneous dinner party, but tonight was a full moon, and the time change made everything seem possible. So off I shambled, summoned to a last-minute harvest supper. It was a good thing I had a blue cheese to fit the mood. I threw it in a bag with half a bottle of sherry. Voila: dessert.

Here are 5 things that make a spontaneous dinner party delightful:

Random ingredients.

People sitting around on stools.

A chopped apple salsa w/ purple onion, ginger, cilantro, and lime juice.

Conversation-piece lighting.

Experiments in the oven, in this case: lavender-infused pork chops.

My friend Shanta put on an exquisite feast in her converted garage. The best part was watching everyone chop squash and fry bacon and sip wine around her great big counter. Some people just ate pumpkin seeds and read the Sunday New York Times, which felt truly decadent.

The Roaring Forties Blue fit right into the beautiful whirr of it all. I can think of no other blue that makes a more perfect dessert. Who doesn’t love a cheese that comes in sapphire wax (spectacular by candelight). And the texture, it’s like cheesecake – ultra-creamy, sweet-sharp, with a complex, grassy head and a burnt sugar finish.

Truth is, I’ve searched for Roaring Forties Blue since I read about it on Miss Cheesemonger. What a delight to come upon it this weekend, unexpectedly, in the cold case of a small Center City market, where a grab basket of wedges drew the cheese-curious. There it was, my Roarting Forties, a peacock in the mix.

Roaring Forties hails from King Island, a craggy blip off the Australian coast. The island has a strong dairy industry, and it’s thought that seed from shipwrecks during the 15th and 16th centuries washed ashore and created the lush grasses that make the milk so rich. King Island cows are renowned for their sweet milk. The name "Roaring Forties" is actually the name of a gale.

So, there you have it: shipwrecks spontaneously generating pastures, cheese shops mysteriously appearing with curious cheese, and harvest parties happening spur of the moment. Synchronous cheese+spontaneity. Could there be a more auspicious beginning to November?