Friday, December 23, 2011

Wonderful World of Cheese


It is said that Asians do not like cheese.  (Notice the intended unclear pronoun reference to avoid having to make unpleasant or otherwise ambiguous attribution...)  The supposed aversion was traditionally more widespread—to dairy of all kind—but somehow it was difficult to imagine anyone not liking ice cream.  Perhaps that’s why the guilty party has to be milk and cheese.  In any case, this rule does not apply to me.

I love cheese.  My refrigerator is given over to a veritable European Union of cheeses.  At any given time, I have about 10 different kinds of cheeses.  To prove this, I am going to raid the contents of my fridge right now, pledging that I have not purchased any new cheeses (in the past week) for this post.  In fact, the inspiration for this post came from the fact that, just minutes ago, I could not close the large bin I devote to cheeses.

Anyway, I have. . . (drumroll, please) . . . St. Andre Triple Cream Brie, Comte Gruyere, Tillamook Extra Sharp White Cheddar, Cotswolds Cheddar with Chives, Rembrandt Aged Dutch Gouda, Cropwell Bishop Creamery Blue Stilton.  Those are just the ones with recognizable brand (or farm) names associated with them.  I also have Grana Padano (as a change of pace from Parmigiano Reggiano this week), Bufala Mozzarella, Baked Bread Cheese, Queso Quesadilla, and Haloumi.  Ok, there are some low-fat string cheese sticks that Will got for snacking during hikes.  I’ll throw those in there too to round out an even dozen.


Drats!  It looks like I don’t have any goat cheese this week.  When I do, I usually have Chevre Goat Cheese for cooking, though my favorites for eating might be Humboldt Fog and Midnight Moon (very different from each other).  I also like Port Salut, Cambozola, Wensleydale, Saga Bleu, Pierre Robert, Dill Havarti, Hunstman, Truffle-dusted Brillat-Savarin, Morbier, Taleggio, Manchego.  I could go on and on, but I think you believe me perhaps that I do indeed like cheese.  (By the way, I’m always interested in hearing about cheeses I’ve not tried, so let me know if you come across one you think I might like.)

Discovering that I had enough special cheeses to operate a small European-style deli—and realizing also that perhaps we should cut down our sweet pastry and chocolate consumption—I’ve gone back to assembling cheese plates for our after-dinner dessert course.  Cheese plates are also nice, of course, for wine and cheese parties and with champagne to celebrate during the holiday season.

Here are my tips (entirely personal and unprofessional) for what you can do to put together your own delectable cheese plate:

1) Don’t do what I do in buying big hunks of cheese: 
I don’t exactly agree with gourmands out there that many cheeses are inedible only a few days after purchase—and that wouldn’t apply anyway to hard cheeses like aged Gouda.  But they are right that many cheeses are best consumed the first couple of days after you get them home.  So, do as I say and not as I do.  Buy smaller chunks of cheese that you can polish off in a few days, especially if you are going to present them on a cheese platter for guests!

Whole Foods is a very good supplier of high-end cheeses in small sizes.  Trader Joe’s has a smaller selection and are not as freshly-wrapped, but they are still a good back-up if you are looking for much more reasonable prices.  If you live around the Chicagoland area, places like Binny’s Beverage Depot are surprisingly good.  They have big wheels of specialty cheeses, and you can ask someone to cut small wedges for you (¼ lb  is always a safe amount to be able to go through quickly).  Slightly better prices than Whole Foods with not much loss in selection.

2) Aim for about 3 cheeses of different flavors and textures and colors:
I like this combination:
a) one that is soft (popular varieties like Brie and Camembert)
b) one that has a distinct, even pungent, flavor (like some sort of Blue/Roquefort/ Gorgonzola/Stilton variety) or one that has additions of herbs or fruits (like Cotswold Cheddar with Chives, Goat Gouda with Rosemary, Wensleydale with Cranberries)
c) one that is an easy crowd pleaser, a relatively mild cheese that would appeal to most.  Here you are not going for a too-ripe Taleggio—rather something more like Gouda or Manchego or even just plain old Extra Sharp Cheddar. 

Of course, you don’t want repetition or too much overlap between the categories.  For instance, if you already have Cambozola for your soft cheese, don’t also include Roquefort.  If Cotswold Cheddar with Chives is already sitting on your plate, don’t also provide Extra Sharp Cheddar. 

Admittedly, in the picture above, I have both a wonderful creamy Blue Stilton and Cotswold Cheddar with Chives.  (I know, mon dieu!)  I decided I could cheat with two distinct flavors because the chive cheddar is quite mild and popular with most.  The butteriness of the third cheese (St. Andre Triple Cream Brie) makes it also a crowd-pleaser.  These days, practically no one will admit to not liking Brie.  Going with something extra special like St. Andre, Delice de Bourgogne, Brillat-Savarin, or Pierre Robert will make the platter especially memorable.

Even if you have a huge wheel of cheese, only put out a smallish wedge to begin with.  The bigger a hunk of cheese, the less special it seems (and the quicker it becomes translucent at the edges and dried out).  Plan on replenishing, but make the selection special, like it’s a privilege to be presented with these cheeses.


3) Do remember proper accompaniments:
No, I don’t mean crackers—though you can certainly provide some Carr’s Table Water Crackers or a mild-flavored flatbread.  Or something unique like a dense raisin or nut bread (for instance, Evanston’s Bennison Bakery’s award winning raisin rye bread—a dense bread that slices nicely into thin cracker sizes) along with thin rounds of a French baguette.  But, in any case, I’m still not talking about crackers or bread.

Cheese wedges are lovely when accompanied by a combination of dried and/or fresh fruits, nuts, and drizzles of special honey.  I actually like to drizzle balsamic glaze (balsamic vinegar that you cook down to a thick syrupy consistency) over cut up dried figs and dates as well as dried apricots drizzled over with white orange balsamic vinegar, along with nuts and honey.  (When in season, I also go for fresh berries or other fresh sliced fruits.) That’s for a large platter for a party.  The more intimate the occasion, smaller the presentation.

Combination of creamy and hard, pungent and nutty, sweet and sour, chewy and crispy.  All washed down with wine, port, sauternes, or champagne with loved ones.  Happy Holidays!

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