Saturday, May 21, 2011

For the Love of Cheese

I love cheese. I can hardly think of a more interesting and unique transformation of one food into another where, by employing different techniques and processes a single food item-- milk, takes on a completely different identity. Part of the miracle is that cheese has so many identities! From the soft spongy texture of fresh buffalo mozzarella to firm, smooth yet grainy texture of a good aged cheddar and everything in between, cheese provides so much experience diversity.

In the spirit of good cheese and good times, here are some tips on creating a glorious cheese platter as well as one of my personal favorite cheese platter combinations. If you enjoy wine with your cheese, ask an expert recommended pairings. The right pairing makes all the difference!

Choose three types of cheese for your platter. It is important to serve some cheeses them within a day or two of purchase. Ask a cheese monger when your cheese is best consumed.

  • Soft ripened cheese/ semi soft cheeses: Brie is the most common soft-ripened cheese, but I would recommend something different such as Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam, Delice de Bourgogne or La Tur or Cypress Grove Truffle Tremor (actually a bit crumbly and dry)
  • Hard Cheese: Most common is the classic Parmigiano Reggiano. Others include dry jack, Mizithra (semi-hard), and my favorite Pecorino Romano.
  • Semi Hard: Fiscalini Farms Purple Moon is a wine soaked cheddar, Bravo Farms Silver Mountain Cheddar or a grass-fed New Zealand cheddar are all delicious
  • Blue cheese can vary from semi hard to soft and creamy to dry and crumbly. What gives it the blue striations and kicky flavor is penicillum that is injected into what would be a perfectly normal cheese if left alone. Pick one that contrasts the other cheese textures. Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog is a soft ripened goat’s cheese. Some crumbly favorites are Maytag blue and Rogue River Blue. There are also blue cheddars that many people really like.
  • Fresh cheeses undergo a short process are not aged and usually very high in moisture, but consumed right away. I love Cypress Grove’s chevre with herbs, fresh Buffalo Mozzarella and high even homemade Ricotta with honey or maple syrup.

Choose 5 accompaniments:

Fresh honey, high quality balsamic vinegar, apple or pear butter or a wine jelly

Dried fruits: apricots, dates, figs, cherries, high quality raisins, prunes

Fresh berries (raspberries top my choices), new crop pink lady or gala apples, any fresh stone fruit (peaches, etc), muscat grapes

Toasted walnuts, almonds, and pistachios

Fresh basil, dill, mint, chives

A really good baguette or crackers if you prefer. A good baguette has a non-competing flavor a more pleasant texture than crackers.

Plating your cheese:

I like to use my favorite big cutting board. You can use a legitimate cheese serving board or you can use a pretty plate that is relatively flat.

Bring cheeses to room temperature at least 1 hour before serving. Arrange cheeses on your plate while they are cold and firm. At room temperature, the oils that carry flavor are more easily read by your taste buds. Texture is also better because they are softer.

Fill sushi dipping bowls, ramekins or custard cups with any nuts, jams and honey. Just do a little bit. Fruits and herbs make gorgeous garnishes to your plate so wait to add those until you serve.

Simple Cheese Plate

For this combination I chose varieties that are easily found in our foothill area stores. They are also favorite “comfort” cheeses for me.

Serves 4-6

  • 3-4 oz chunk Parmigiano Reggiano, broken into craggy rustic chunks. Mix with 1/3 cup toasted walnuts.
  • 3-4 oz wedge Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, (a semi-soft blue cheese made from goats milk) left whole
  • 2-4 oz Chunk Purple Moon Cabernet Soaked Cheddar, sliced very thinly (it will break when you cut it. That’s okay)
  • Good balsamic vinegar or balsamic syrup. Once you have had truly good Balsamic vinegar, you wonder how the other stuff got such a great reputation!
  • Good quality, fresh (if possible) orange blossom honey
  • 1/3 cup toasted walnuts
  • Dates (pitted and halved) or fresh figs if they are available
  • Organic Gala or Pink lady apple slices. These types are very uniquely flavored and this will make a real difference!
  • Handful of fresh mint leaves
  • A good baguette, 1/3 inch thick slices
  • Blowtorch (yes!) any blowtorch from your hardware store will do

Once your cheese has been out at room temp for at least an hour, place your fruits in small piles between the cheeses. Stick a few bouquets of mint leaves in between crevices in the fruit piles.

On a second platter (or even better a small cutting board) arrange small bowlful of the honey with a drizzler if you have one and ½ of the bread slices. This board can be used as a platform for everyone to assemble their cheese combinations.

Drizzle about 1tsp balsamic vinegar/ syrup over the Parmigiano Reggiano walnut combo. And try not to eat all of it before your friends even make it over.

Some good combos and the blow torch:

-Date halve, mint leaf, smear of Humbodlt Fog, drizzle of honey, walnut

-Parm-Reg chunk, apple slice, balsamic vinegar drizzle

-Baguette slice, Purple Moon slice- now get your torch out! Set the torch to medium flamage, carefully and slowly bring the flame to about 4 inches above the cheese and move it back and forth until cheese melts, then begins to bubble. This is a good party trick. Brenda and I have sold many a catering job just because of this one.

Cheese is adventurous. If you are inclined to try a combination that seems strange, do it anyway! I for instance absolutely love chevre with lemon zest on top of wafers of dark chocolate. Think it sounds crazy? Find out for yourself. Happy cheesing!


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