Friday, December 31, 2010

My Last Bite of Renata

This is me, eating Sally Jackson cheese – yesterday. That’s right, yesterday. This is the same cheese that was recalled by the FDA earlier this month, putting cheese pioneer Sally Jackson out of business. I got my order in right under the wire, a lucky thing because I’ve been able to share this last wheel of Renata -- made from a single cow of the same name -- with friends and family throughout the holidays.

We have never been happier and healthier. More on the E. coli/raw milk debacle next week. (The evidence against Jackson reads like a ridiculous egg hunt; no one who got sick even remembers eating Sally Jackson cheese, according to The Oregonian.) But for now, happy New Year to cheese lovers everywhere!

And to Renata the cow and Sally Jackson: Many thanks for years of delicious cheese.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Gorgonzola Dolce, The Kissing Cheese

Okay, I made that up. Nobody really calls Gorgonzola Dolce “the kissing cheese,” but they should because it’s mild and it goes with bubbly. Perfect for New Years. Lord knows you don’t want Stilton breath or Roquefort breath, unless your partner is a salty dog…in which case, rock and roll.

Gorgonzola Dolce is sumptuous. The texture is as smooth as frosting, and the taste is as mellow as wedding cake. While many blues have flavor profiles that look like a cardiogram, GD is one-note. That’s right: one note, and that note is Mmmmm.

To read on, please visit the dibruno blog.

Full disclosure: This post is part of a series I write for Di Bruno Bros., my fave cheese haunt in Philly. I pick the cheese, and they pay me to guest blog on their site.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Cheese for a Snow Day

Out here in the East, the world is blizzard bright. Our street looks a little bit like Nuvola di Pecora, a bloomy sheep cheese with a mattress cover of snowy rind. It is pudding glorious and perfect for fattening up your snow-bound kin, which is exactly what I am doing.

My father is in town from the Great Plains, and we are enjoying moments of intrepidness, girding ourselves with fur. This afternoon we braved the wilds, hoping to make it down to the cheese counter, but we only made it as far as the liquor store before the wind blew us back home.
Padre Fromage

If only we had some Nuvola di Pecora in the fridge. If you like sheep’s milk cheese, this is a must-find delicacy. It tastes like sheep’s milk custard -- sweet and vegetal with a hint of steamed cauliflower and a clean, milky finish. It’s not muttony the way some sheep’s milk cheeses are, like the dense and delicious Shepherd’s Basket I tried several weeks ago.

Nuvola di Pecora means “sheep clouds.” Easy to remember. This is a cheese I will dream about – and visualize during sleepless nights, counting ONE Nuvola di Pecora, TWO…. If you can't find it at the cheese counter (it's a new release), beg your cheesemonger to seek this out.

Serve it with blackberry jam, preferably during a snow storm.

Nuvola di Pecora, Tait Farm Blackberry Jam

Friday, December 24, 2010

Three Great Snacking Cheeses

Grana Padano goes with pasta or a stiff drink

When I’m playing dervish in the kitchen, I like to set out a snacking cheese. A little nibble for me, a little nosh for any guests who might be lingering. In my mind, a good snacking cheese must be so full of flavor that it doesn’t need any jewelry – well, maybe a few grapes. But it should stand on its own. And it should dazzle, bite after bite.

I’ve written about most of these before, but I return to them. They live with me. They are my go-to snacking cheeses. And the best part? You should be able to find them at any decent cheese counter – from Whole Foods to your local fromagerie.

Bon appétit and happy holidays! Let me know if you have any snacking faves.

Midnight Moon (nutty, sweet, addictive)
A clothbound cheddar (Keen's, Montgomery, or Cabot)
Grana Padano (sweet, salty, boisterous)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Raclette: Smells Like a...Party!

Melted Raclette over a potato, the classic pairing

The colder the weather, the stronger the cheese – that’s always been the rule in our house. After the first freeze, I start dreaming of Raclette. That’s probably because I grew up with a Swiss mother who was famous for her melted cheese dishes, and the minute she saw some sleet on the ground she pulled out the fondu pot or plugged in her Raclette machine. Those Alpine types know how to stay warm.

Raclette is whiffy – you’ll get your classic scent of dirty socks – but it doesn’t taste as strong as it smells, especially once you melt it. Simmer some spiced wine on the stove, and you won’t even notice the coils of cheese vapor penetrating the upholstery. (Kidding. I actually like the smell – it’s lumberjacky.)

Raclette unadorned, whiffy and creamy

To read on, please visit the dibruno blog.

Full disclosure: This post is part of a series I write for Di Bruno Bros., my fave cheese haunt in Philly. I pick the cheese, and they pay me to guest blog on their site.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Cheese Books for the Cheese Lover

Photo by Linda Olle, author of The Upper East Side Cookbook

I know the holidays are nigh upon us, but if you have a mouse in your life who wants to start a library of cheese books, let me make a few recommendations. These are the books I keep within grabbing reach. They are my Bibles, my inspiration, my everything.

If Ab Fab had featured a cheesemonger, Patricia Michelson would have played the role. She owns a cheese shop in London and has written several books on the subject; her prose is gushy, glorious, and full of observations like this one: “A mild Gouda-type cheese is nourishing first thing in the morning....” Her latest opus is the cheese atlas I have always wanted. Great photos. Great recipes in back.

This reads like a master class on making, tasting, and serving cheese. It is stunning in its girth and in its level of detail. I read this from cover to cover, then kept it on my nightstand and paged through it whenever I couldn’t sleep. This is a great book for anyone who wants to gain a comprehensive understanding of the dairy world right now. I love the suggested pairings (blue cheese and mangoes) , and I find “The Cheddar Lexicon” indispensable.  

If you want to stretch yourself, check out recipes for Blue Cheese Cheesecake and Smoked-Gouda Baked Oytsers with Chorizo. This book offers a great mix of recipes and big, juicy photos – though it should really be called the Great Big Wisconsin Cheese Cookbook since many recipes feature Wisconsin cheeses. I got this as a promotion and I wasn’t sure about it at first, but I find myself leafing through it all the time.

If M.F.K. Fisher and Truman Capote had been blood relations, they might have co-authored this quirky little piece of enchantment. It’s charming and strange – a cookbook/faux-memoir recounted by a protagonist named Parsley Cresswell. Parsley is an Audrey Hepburn-type who lives on the cheap despite her tony address. As she observes her caviar-eating neighbors, she whips up “Green Pie” and “Bird’s Nest Bran Muffins.” I have a feeling this will be a cult classic -- an appropriate gift for hipsters and dowagers alike.

This was my first cheese book. It was a great introduction to artisanal cheese -- how to taste it, how to pair it with wine. It’s simple, elegant, and very focused in its subject matter . The photographs are gorgeous, and the prose is clean and precise. I also like the wine pairing guide in the back and turn to it often. Give this to the person who needs a stepping stone into the cheese world.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Holidays: Through a Macro Lens

Confession: while you have been hanging stockings and stirring fudge, I have been wandering around the house on a picture-taking rampage. You see, I got a new lens. I had to show you.

I know, I know, it’s really geeky, but I can’t help myself. I just took about 50 pictures of the plants on our sill, and then I started in on the teapot – approaching it from every angle. It’s amazing how a nice lens can make even a wanged up teapot look mystical.

I keep telling myself: you’re a writer. All you’ve ever needed was a pencil. You’ve never salivated over a gadget before. But then, I got blog envy. I started peering into the lives of people like Bea over at La Tartine Gourmande and Cenk at Cafe Fernando, and my voyeuristic side started speaking up and begging for things… like DSLR cameras and table-top tripods.

Then my cranky Hemingway-esque side said, You don’t need a bunch of gear. I thought you liked typewriters. And my Sensible side said, If you want a new camera, you better save your schekels, sister.

And so I saved. The change jar on our radiator had to overflow a few times before I could really splurge. But I’m glad I did.

I’m lucky that I have a few friends who are super bloggers – they invited me over for a camera potluck several weeks ago. They brought the gear, and I supplied the cheese. Then we sat around snapping photos for about two hours.

When I left, I knew I was going to need some Canon magic. A new DSLR and 60 millimeter macro lens. And so this is my Christmas: it’s going to be very close-up and very clear.

I can’t wait to show you how good cheese can look. For now, you'll just have to stare at cookies. Thanks for indulging me. And many smooches to Messy & Picky and Foodinjars for letting me handle their cameras with my cheesy fingers.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

How to Talk to a Cheesemonger

 Ian Peacock
Now, let us talk confessions. Every week, people tell me that they are too intimidated to shop at cheese counters. Because they feel unschooled in the world of dairy, they buy shrink-wrapped wedges from the cold case, carefully avoiding the eyes of the cheesemonger. As one man told me recently, “It’s like dealing with a sommelier. I feel so inadequate!”

Oh, sad day! People, don’t fear the cheesemonger. Fear lawyers and astrologists, yes. But not the cheesemonger, even if he (she?) has a lot of hair on his chest.

Here’s the deal: cheesemongers don’t care about your IQ. They just want to talk cheese. If you ask them, “What’s ripe?” they get very excited. Over the last four months, I’ve interviewed half a dozen cheesemongers, and all of them say the same thing: We love it when customers ask us about cheese.

So, because this is high season at the cheese counter, I’m offering a few tips on how to buy cheese like a seasoned geek.

1.    Pretend the cheesemonger is Yoda. Cheesemongers tend to be wise and gentle creatures. Look for one with hairy ears.

2.    Ask, “So, what’s ripe?” Cheesemongers are guides to the dairy case. They know which cheeses are at their peak and which ones need more time to mature.   

3.   There are several styles of cheese. If you want to feel coolio, remember these: fresh (i.e. ricotta), bloomy (i.e. Brie), washed-rinds (read: stinky and interesting), natural rinds (dense, i.e. Mimolette), and blues.  

4.    If you want to put together a special cheese board but you don’t really know what you want, be up front. Lay out your weaknesses. The cheesemonger is like a guidance counselor that way. She’ll probably ask you what kind of wine you’ll be serving and whether you have an adventurous palate. Pick red or white, then say, “Yes.”

5.    Don’t bring up Jarlsburg. As long as you’re at a cheese counter, be a little more adventurous. 

6.   Most cheese counters offer samples. You should always eat the sample, and quite often the cheesemonger will join you. If you want to be schooled on cheese, furrow your brow and say, “Hmmm…what am I tasting?” Then the cheesemonger will say something like, “Well, I get a little butterscotch on the front end and a hint of pineapple on the finish.” Then you’ll know you are in the presence of a master cheese taster. If the cheesemonger shrugs, shrug back and go somewhere else.

7.   Don’t leave without asking for a pairing suggestion. Cheesemongers tend to be very good cooks, and they spend a lot of time looking at the items on the shelves and daydreaming about dinner. They can point out some really inventive pairings you never would have imagined – like blue cheese and chocolate.

8.   Take a risk. Buy a cheese that has a streak of ash or a funky rind. Even if you have a delicate palate, there are wonderful cheeses out there with very subtle notes (like Pantaleo) that will blow your mind.

9.   Don’t be put off by prices and don’t say, “Give me your cheapest cheddar.” That would be like walking into a wine store and saying, “Where’s your Boone’s Farm?” Cheesemongers tend to favor artisanal cheeses, which are hand-crafted – just like craft beer – and they will cost more than Kraft Singles. Ask for a quarter pound, and think of it as tithing. You’re supporting a small farmer somewhere.

10.   Bring a notebook. Yup, a notebook. You can write down what you sampled, and next time you’re at the counter you can whip it out and say, “Hmmm, I really liked the Brie de Meaux from Ile-de-France,” and off you’ll go, trying the next great cheese. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Comté, Six Ways for the Holidays

Comte with preserved walnuts

If you love big, fruity wines, chances are you’ll fall chin-over-stilettos for Comté. It’s a big fruity cheese, and it pairs well with everything this time of year – nuts, sherry, even fruitcake.

Imagine a buttery Gruyere with sweet, nutty notes and a smooth toffee finish. This is the kind of cheese that changes people – once you have tried Comté, you will never settle for a mediocre brick. It is, in a word, stargasmic.

To read on, please visit the Di Bruno Blog.

Disclosure: This post is part of a weekly series I write for Di Bruno Bros., one of my fave cheese haunts in Philly. I choose the topics, but I get paid to guest-blog on the store's site.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Cupboard Fever: Pantry Gifts for the Cheese Lover

Monsieur Fromage likes to joke that nothing makes me happier than a well-stocked pantry, and it’s true. I like to create a cheese board at a moment’s notice. Keeping a stash of nuts and olives on hand makes pairing easy, but it's fun to expand one's repertoire, n'est-ce pas? Here are a few of my loveliest pairing essentials for the cheese lover's lazy susan:

Whole Honeycomb
Yes, that is actual honeycomb, beeswax and all. Texturally, it's wonderful, but if you're wax averse, you can just suck out the honey (hopefully you have a long beak). Pair with salty blues, like Point Reyes, or fresh goat cheese. Just cut the honeycomb into hunks and set it out on your cheese board, along with toasted almonds and dried fruit. Note: hunks of honeycomb are also delicious alongside fried chicken.

No joke, this smoky shmear turns an ordinary egg-and-cheese sandwich into 9 a.m. manna. If you have a jar on hand, you'll find it very convenient when a mad horde of vegetarians descends and you want to impress them with canapes. Baconnaise is...uhm...vegetarian. Forget what's in it, and use it to gussy up deviled eggs, a cheese sandwich, or a cardboard veggie burger.

Walnut Oat Crackers
You know I don’t believe in eating cheese with crackers, but in my book these are oat "biscuits," okay? If you have a cheese lover in your life who needs to graduate from Ritz or Saltines, ween the pour soul onto these. They're made by the Fine Cheese Co. in England, which makes an array of life-altering crackers. These are crisp, nutty, gorgeous for decking out goat cheese. You can bet that the Blue Cheese Brit will find this in his stocking.

Harvest Song Preserved Walnuts
These just might be my favorite discovery of the year -- the walnuts are whole, and they're preserved in a delicate syrup that is not too sweet. Pair these with an Alpine cheese, like Gruyere or Comte, and prepare to have your mind fizz. Harvest Song walnuts look like glistening black rocks. Serve them sliced so you don't alienate your neighbors. Exquisite. They're the new escargot.

This citrusy sprinkle from the Middle-East is great for dressing up soft cheeses, like feta or ricotta. It’s also purple, which is strangely appealing. That's because it contains sumac -- you remember those trees from the playground? The purple berries are ground up to make this blend, which also contains thyme, salt, and sesame seeds. Give Zatar a little shake, and you've got fairy garnish. I also put it on hummus and steamed veggies.

Anything from Tait Farm
I am still dreaming about the time I ate Tait Farm’s red raspberry jam with Lazy Lady goat cheese. I haven't been able to return to Smuckers -- I mean, Smuckers and I are done. As you will note, this is actually a jar of chocolate sour-cherry sauce. I will probably eat it unadorned (well, I might wear pearls), but as soon as I finish it, I will run out and buy the red raspberry jam again and a big wedge of triple creme. This jam turns Delice de Bourgogne into a whispering angel.

Boyajian Pure Lemon Oil
I don't actually serve this with cheese, but in the summer I like to add a few drops to a pitcher of water when I host big shots. This is pure lemon oil, which is great for baking. You can also use it to freshen up marinated olives when life is too hinky to get to the store. If you are hosting a tasting of stinkers, you can pass around the bottle for sniffs -- it is quite refreshing.

Gustare Flavored Oils and Vinegars
A friend introduced me to these oils after she visited the Gustare store in Massachusetts. I loved how light and fresh the grapefruit balsamic tasted when she mixed it with taragon olive oil. It was the perfect backdrop to a green salad with fresh goat cheese. If you are in a salad-dressing rut, this will help you renew your vow to eat more spinach.

Two Gander Farm Buckwheat Honey
I am a big drizzler. I like to spoon honey over a hunk of real Parmesan while I am cooking in the kitchen, and I love to serve goat cheese with toasted pine nuts or almonds and buckwheat honey. For an easy appetizer, toast some goat cheese on a slice of baguette, then add a sprinkle of fresh thyme, a few slices of dried fig, and a little Two Gander buckwheat honey. Now you know all my secrets.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Holiday Cheese Tasting, Dec. 18

It’s the last tasting of the year, a time for cranberries and a downy goat crottins! Leave the dishes in the sink, and join me for a 3-course tasting of holiday cheese pairings.

Where: Quince Fine Foods, 209 W. Girard Ave., Philadelphia
When: Saturday, Dec. 18, 4 p.m.
How: Call to make a reservation 215.232.3425; $12/person

Here are a few photos from past tastings. As you can see, it’s been a delightful, dairy-filled year. Special thanks to Nicole Marcote, Joan Sauvion, and Marisa McClellan for making these tastings a triple-cream reality.

Idiazabal with quince jelly
Marisa of
Humboldt Fog and Walt Wit
David April from Philadelphia Brewing Co.
Pierre Robert with Dried Cherries
"The Blue Cheese Brit"
Madame Fromage (left), Nicole, Joan

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Amanda Hesser's Cheese Ball

Until last night, I had never made a cheese ball. Surprising, oui. I have the Midwestern roots but not the epicure. Then, Amanda Hesser came to town with her Essential New York Times Cookbook, and the stars aligned. I had to make a cheese ball for Amanda Hesser.

I was a little nervous. I have been reading her work in The Times since she started, back when I was working as an x-ray librarian in a subterranean world...before I fell into journalism, before I began cruising cheese counters. I wanted this to be a disco cheese ball, an interplanetary wonder. I even considered making a whole solar system of little cheese balls.

Instead, I stuck to the plan: Make a recipe from The New York Times. Take it to a blogger party. Stay cool. Don’t act like a kooky groupie.

Poopy. I hate decorum.

The cheese ball recipe I picked turned out to be from Amanda's mother – with some updates. It contains a lot of lemon, some toasted spices, three kinds of cheese, and a pistachio jacket. It was a breeze to concoct.

While it chilled (2 hours), I floated through Hesser’s new book, hovering over recipes for Shallot Pudding and Hot Cheese Olives. One recipe calls for blood oranges, dates, arugula, and thin sheets of shaved Parm. I have that one marked – it sounds perfect for a rooftop picnic. I am also titillated by Caramelized Onion & Quark Dip.

Oh, Amanda, (blink, blink) you like quark!

Not surprisingly, many recipes made the dog and me drool. The book is heavier than a ham hock – more than 900 pages – which might sound like overkill, but when you find yourself lost in the head note for Welsh Rarebit, you’ll be glad the author didn’t skimp on words. Or leave out the recipe for Julia Harrison Adams’s Pimento Cheese Spread.

Three dishes of it appeared at the potluck. Along with Amanda, who arrived wearing a giant fur hat, an interplanetary fur hat. I do not exaggerate when I say she looked like a cheese ball with cricket legs.

Here, she is, sans hat…

Like any woman of grace, she ate a little of everything and declared it all delicious, from the three versions of pimento spread to the cheese straws to my lowly cheese ball rolled in pistachios.

Many thanks to and Doris and Jilly Cook for hosting a marvelous fete. It gave me the chance to make the cheese ball of my dreams.

Amanda Hesser’s Cheese Ball with Cumin, Mint, and Pistachios

This recipe appears on p. 85 of The Essential New York Times Cookbook. Be sure to use fresh spices, and don’t skimp on the lemon zest.

8 oz. cream cheese, at room temp
4 oz. goat cheese, at room temp
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano, preferably Fulvi
1 teaspoon toasted, ground coriander seeds
1 teaspoon toasted, ground cumin seeds
½ cup finely sliced celery heart with leaves
1/3 cup chopped mint
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt
1/3 cup salted pistachios, coarsely ground
Very thin plain crackers, for serving

1. Beat the cream cheese and goat cheese in a bowl with a wooden spoon. Add lemon juice and zest. Fold in Pecorino Romano, coriander, cumin, celery, mint, and pepper. Season to taste with salt.

2. Lay a large piece of plastic wrap across the counter, and spoon cheese mixture onto it. Wrap tightly and chill for 2 hours or overnight.

3. Dice pistachios. Roll cheese ball in the nuts until covered.

4. Chill cheese ball for up to 2 days. Serve at room temperature.