Everyone seems to like cheese! Me, too, but I have to admit this is the only time of year that I allow myself to indulge with extra cheese in my cooking. Something about chilly weather that inspires the comfort of cheese. But where to start?
I taste as much as I can. When shopping Metropolitan Market in Seattle or Whole Foods in any city, I linger as long as I can next to the cheese display. So many cheeses, and they are all available to taste! There in lies the root source of my education. As with wineâ€”if it tastes good to me, it is a good match. So I usually tell our customers to taste a new one each time you shop where there is a well versed cheese monger. Most of them will ask you a few questions about what you like before making their suggestions. Then taste and learn!
With a world of wonderful cheeses to pick from, how is it that the only cheese with â€œAmericanâ€ as a name is not a cheese at all but a cheese-food. American cheese is a blend or processed product that is only flavored with aged cheese. It may be closer to that ubiquitous cheese ball that surfaces this time of year. I am risking my reputation, but I admit to liking both! Of course, there are many American cheese varieties, Colby, Monterey Jack, and Humboldt Fog, to name a few. American cheeses are often judged inferior to French and other European cheeses. One factor that has changed in our favor is the recent allowance for unpasteurized milk in cheese production. As long as the producer ages the raw milk cheese for a minimum of 60 days, along with careful testing and maintenance, local artisan producers now have advantage to their European counterparts. The majority of these cheeses are â€œfarmstead,â€ that is, cows raised and milked on the farm and the subsequent cheese is also made on the farm. This has brought back a renewed interest in American cheese. In fact some of my professional magazines are encouraging restaurants to add a cheese course or cheese plate for a finale, a practice that is more Euro than American.
Here in Oregon there are some amazing artisan cheeses that for us stack up to the best. One example is from the Rogue Creamery in Central Point, Oregon. In 2003 at the London World Cheese Award they were voted best blue cheese. This was the first time an American cheese factory had won this high honor. We carry theirs and other fine Oregon produced cheeses in our own shop. These notables include Willamette Valley Farmstead cheeses, Fraga farms goat cheeses, and Rivers Edge Cheeses.
Our guests really appreciate being introduced to what is good local cheese on our cheese boards, where we highlight only the best on a marble slab presentation. Pick up a scrap of marble from anywhere that sells it for a reasonably priced decorative cheese platter. Reserve the cheese balls for a plate of their own.
And if cheese balls are too retro for you or you want to avoid risking a food snobâ€™s criticism, we suggest a sophisticated alternative, a stuffed fresh mozzarella. You can either stretch homemade mozzarella, or just soak purchased fresh mozzarella in hot salted water and reshape it into a log with a spiral filling or even a stuffed round shape. The fillings can be fresh herbs, vegetables, proscuitto, anchovies, pesto, nuts, etc. See our recipe for fresh rolled mozzarella logs.
And another twist on an old theme, we make a sweet version of a cheese ball. See our recipe that is good with a chilled sparkling wine or winter punch.
MASCARPONE WITH DATES AND TRUFFLE HONEY
3-5 dates, pitted
1 cup Mascarpone
Â½ cup Cream Cheese
2 TBS plus 1 cup Toasted Hazelnuts, finely chopped
Â½ tsp vanilla
1-2 tsp truffle flavored honey, or plain honey
In food processor, process dates into paste. Add cheeses, vanilla, first hazelnuts and 1 tsp honey. (Taste before adding second tsp honey. If you want it sweeter, add, but it should be plenty sweet from the dates.)
Chill for 30 minutes then shape into one ball or a few small balls. Roll into more toasted chopped hazelnuts before serving with apple/pear slices, Pistacio biscotti,Gingersnaps, Ritz crackers, or Carrâ€™s Wheat crackers. This makes a great filling for wine poached pears, with or without nuts, too.
FRESH MOZZARELLA WITH STUFFING
1 gallon water
8 TBS sea salt
1# fresh mozzarella curds (or substitute 1# fresh mozzarella balls – proceeding from second paragraph)
1 medium bowl filled with ice water
Â¼ cup sun dried tomato pesto
1 bunch basil leaves
3 TBS pine nuts or other
Method: bring water and salt to a simmer; meanwhile cut curds into small pieces, approx. Â½â€ and place into a medium bowl; pour simmering water over curds and stir to begin melting curds and forming long strands; lift curds up with spoon and allow gravity to pull them down. Dip your hands in the ice water so that you can handle the heated curds. With one hand on the spoon, use the other hand to assist in stretching; continue stretching until curds develop a shine to them; form them into a ball and plunge into ice water to set up.
Remove house made balls from ice water (or purchased balls if using), and place back into simmering salt water to re-stretch. Remove as soon as cheese appears to be malleable. Place on a cutting board and roll as thin as possible without tearing, into a square like shape. Spread a thin layer of sun dried tomato pesto over the cheese, followed by several leaves of fresh basil. Sprinkle with pine nuts. Roll the cheeses into a log; wrap the log tightly with plastic film. This will help the log set up firmly. Refrigerate for a minimum of 1 hour before slicing.
2 cups AP flour
2 tsp baking powder
6 oz sugar
3 oz white dry breadcrumbs
8 oz whole pistachio nuts
3 TBS toasted sesame seeds
Â½ tsp orange flower water (if you can find it)
Â½ tsp vanilla extract
Â½ tsp anise extract
2 TBS orange juice
2 large eggs
egg wash–(1 egg and small amount of water blended)
Method: sift flour with baking powder; add sugar and bread crumbs; add nuts. Combine wet ingredients and flavorings and gradually add into dry ingredients to form a firm dough. Roll into two 16â€ long logs; place onto baking sheet pan, brush with egg wash and dust with powdered sugar. Bake at 350ÂºF for about 25 minutes until golden brown; cool about 30 minutes. Slice log on angle into 1/2 inch cookies (or thinner if desired) and place cut side down on parchment lined pan. Second bake at 375ÂºF for approximately 15 minutes or until sides are golden brown.
Cool. Serve or store in air tight container.