Friday, January 29, 2010

Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company - The Blues are going Green!

I picked up some Pt. Reyes blue at the grocery store last summer, and it created a creamy, salty, pungent base for a delicious steak salad.  It was one of the first blues I sampled as an official cheese head, and it definitely created the impetus for me to go out and boldly try all kinds of blue cheese.  Since then, I've introduced y'all to many of the stars in a world where the moon is, in fact made of blue cheese.

With my new Friday series highlighting some of my favorite cheesemakers (and my incredibly dull Wednesday night class allowing me time to do the internet research that I need...), I've started cruising the state cheesemaker organization websites.  Since I'm a Cali girl (omigod!  fer sher!), I've started at the California Artisan Cheese Guild.  They have a great list of California dairies, and a map of where all of these good people live, work, and care for the beasties that provide the raw materials for our favorite food.  Sadly for me, almost all of these guys live in Northern California, while I alternately bake and drown in Los Angeles.

So anyway - Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company.  The Giacomini family has owned and operated this dairy, milking cows since 1959 and started making cheese in 2000.  The ranch is located on the hills overlooking Tomales Bay in Marin County.  These are the epitome of happy California cows!  They've got a beautiful view.  It never gets too hot.  Their tasty grass is nicely salted by the morning dew coming off the bay.  You can taste all this joy in every crumble.

The Giacomini's have always been focused on their all natural production, but according to the "fun facts" section of the Artisan Cheese Guild, they have taken it to a whole new level.  And I quote, "Original Blue Cheese is now Green!  (Oh no, I thought for a split second!)  The production facility is fuled entirely by the methane gas that rises from the farm's collected cow's manure - delivering on the Giacomini's commitment to sustainability."   I'm not sure if they are totally off the grid yet like the Lazy Lady, but what a great start.  

I'd love to see that facility!  I'm imagining a giant pile of poo in a storage room with some pipes in the ceiling and a bunch of fans directing the stinky air into a processing room where the lights shine bright, and the workers are always smiling (because of their awesome personal ventilators!).  Must do more research.  Especially with the concerns about greenhouse gasses and global warming, the fact that these guys are helping protect their little corner of paradise.

Here's to the happy cows at Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company and their very clever keepers!  Way to go Bessie!  Keep it up!

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Cheese for a Wednesday, pt. 20 - Pirate Edition

Yarg!  A basic of pirate vocabulary is also the name of a great cheese from Cornwall.  A really beautiful, special cheese, this cow's milk beauty is an updated version of a 13th century recipe.  A cross between Welsh Caerphilly and English Wensleydale, Yarg is actually named for Mr. Alan Gray, the cheesemaker responsible for developing the modern recipe in 1984.  (Get it?  Yarg/Gray...those Brits are soooo clever!)

When I went into Andrew's Cheese Shop last week to announce my desire to bring back Welsh Rabbit, Andrew offered up Cornish Yarg, made in Cornwall, just south of Wales.  While we ultimately decided it wouldn't necessarily be good melted with beer, even if it was practically Welsh,  it is a great English cheese. At first sniff, you really smell the milky freshness of this cheese.  Then you realize how sweet and "green" it smells.  The green comes from a unique ingredient in this cheese - the Stinging Nettles it is wrapped in!  The good news is that the leaves are frozen to get rid of the "stinging," but there is definitely a tangy flavor that can be attributed to this natural rind. I did  eat the nettle rind, and it really did add extra depth to the cheese.  And it's so pretty!  Whole wheels make an amazing bottom layer of a cheese "cake."

The texture is both crumbly and a bit sticky.  Oxymoronic, perhaps, but it's true.  The flavor is very smooth, with a bit of tart on the middle of your tongue.  The milk that you smell is the dominant flavor of this cheeseThere is a bit of moldiness, and a little (tiny bit of) mushroomy flavor, but that just adds to the old fashioned flavor of this cheese.  And when you realize the original recipe is 700+ years old, that makes sense!

Cornish Yarg is only made at one dairy in Cornwall, but it's made its way around the world.  It's also a great thing to put on the "bucket list" if getting to Cornwall is on your list.

Or if you want to be a pirate...Yarg!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different...

*Apologies for no photos, but please, please, please click the links. They are hilarious!

Saturday night, I found myself in a dark basement sitting on an uncomfortable chair, laughing my a@% off.  Darling Husband and I had gone out to meet some friends and enjoy an evening of twisted drag queen frivolity.  We knew it was going to be a great night when Dina Martina's first song was the most ridiculous version of Duran Duran's Rio that I had ever heard.  At one point, she sang something about Rio being one of the longest songs ever (which it is, really...), after which she proceeded to eat a plate of spaghetti with Ragu and some Kraft Parmesean cheese (the kind in the cardboard tube).  A girl after my own heart - while waiting for Simon LeBon to finish singing something about the dusty land, Ms. Dina dumped a good 1/4 cup of powdered cheese right in her mouth, not needing spaghetti or sauce to sully the flavor of, well, whatever it is that that "cheese" tastes like.

I wasn't expecting cheese references in my evening of surreal, gender bending humor, but was certainly delighted!  There were several others throughout the night.  I think I'll save her story of her grandmother surviving the depression by milking the family pug and making delicious pug's milk cheese for another time - I want to look into the feasibility of this in the real world (I doubt that dog's milk has quite the level of butterfat necessary to make quality cheese, but...hey - it was the Great Depression!  Never mind the fact that the idea of milking a dog just seems a bit odd to me.  You?)

No, neither the spaghetti interlude at nor the story of how Pugsley saved the family compare to what happened during gift time.  An unsuspecting audience member bravely stepped onstage.  "Do you like cheese?"  Ms. Dina asked.  Of course, the answer was "Yes."  "Do you have chapped lips?" was the odd follow-up question.  The answer there was also "Yes."  Can you guess what product contains cheese and is good for your lips?

My answer would be a nice, oily Manchego or Zamorano sheep's milk cheese.  But I would be wrong.

What Ms. Dina pulled out of the bag for this nice audience member was...



Friday, January 22, 2010

Welsh Rabbit - Friday update

It kept raining today.  Then it started to hail.  HAIL!  In Los Angeles.  Armageddon is right around the corner.  

Since yesterday's post about the legends of Welsh Rabbit, I got a hankering.  Plus, I felt guilty writing about something that I hadn't recently eaten or made.  So, off I headed to Andrew's Cheese Shop when the bell rang at the office for a high quality cheddar and a little inspiration.  He was a bit surprised that I was making Welsh Rabbit.  Why?  I said.  Turns out, in his opinion people don't make it any more.  I suggested that he re-introduce it during one of his Grilled Cheese nights, where he pairs all sorts of grilled cheese with all sorts of beers.  It's perfect - cheese and beer in one bite.  He said he'd think about it.  We'll see...

So, updates to the recipie posted last night...
#1 - Be careful when grating your cheese!  I cannot emphasize enough how much you do not want grated fingernail and thumb in your dinner!  I managed to avoid any thumb, but there might have been some fingernail.  Patience people!  It will all get done, and in less than 20 minutes start to finish.
#2 - I don't actually have anything bad to say about 2 Tablespoons of butter.  I just wanted to show you my cute cow butter holder.  It's one of the few things I've managed to hang onto since my early bachelorette days.  Moo.
#3 - Flavoring and texture.  You might be better off with just 2 Tablespoons of flour.  Three Tablespoons make for a really, really thick sauce (and probably precipitated the need for more beer.  See #4)  Also, I tasted a little more mustard than I would have liked in the final product.  Maybe reduce dried mustard to  1/4 teaspoon and increase the Worcestershire sauce to 2 1/2 tablespoons.  But, perhaps that's just me.
#4 - I found that there was no way that 1/2 cup of beer was going to be enough to give the cheese sauce enough fluidity to spread over our extra thick sliced toast.  I added another 1/4 cup, and then another 1/4 cup.  So, in the end, about one cup  of beer seemed to do the trick.  We used a great British dark ale, courtesy of Andrew's newly instated liquor sales license.  Yay Andrew!  Even with the cup in the sauce, there was enough left over for us to each enjoy a small glass of this rich, hoppy, brew with just a hint of sweetness.  I wish I had a better taste vocabulary for beer.  In any case, it was really good.
#5 - Try to find a nice loaf of bread, and slice it yourself.  Darling Husband was in charge of slicing, and he went with one inch slices.  Toasted to crispy but not too dark it served as the perfect platform.

At the end of the day, Darling Husband and I enjoyed a great dinner of cheese, bread and beer.  A perfect food.  And - to add to the success, DH remembered the smell and taste of our concoction from his childhood when his dad (the Scot) would whip up a batch of this easy, cheap (well, not so cheap with fancy imported beer and cheese, but you get the idea) snack.  When you can tap into someone's olfactory memory, I'd say that's a job well done.  Look at that gooey goodness!  What's weird is that the flavors of Worcestershire, beer and mustard blend so well with the cheese that what you have at the end is an all new flavor.   I'm still working on what the profile is, but it is rich.  The mustard is crucial to keeping it from tasting flabby, and the Worcestershire adds it's magical blend of herbs and spices to make this cheese sauce so much more.  Who needs rabbit (or filet mignon for that matter) when you have cheese and bread?

I had bought some broccoli, but somehow it never made the steamer...

Welsh Rabbit - all the cheese, none of the bunny fur!

The rain is still coming down in Los Angeles, and my poor dog is terrified of thunder and wind - both of which we seem to have an endless supply of at the moment.  Did you hear we've had tornados?  Time for comfort food.

To mix things up a little, how about Welsh Rabbit?  Also known as Welsh Rarebit, it's basically cheese sauce on toast, but it's so much more!  There are many legends associated with this simple fare.  1) When my mom used to make it when I was a kid, I just thought that we were eating the vegetarian version, and that the glamorous Welsh used to have chunks of rabbit in their cheese sauce.  2) According to Mick, the British proprietor of our favorite local cafe, the name is a total slur on the Welsh, who the English perceive as inferior due to their coal mines and propensity for words with too many w's, and y's (see Aberystwyth).  His version contends that the Welsh were so poor, that they couldn't even afford rabbit - which used to be one of the cheapest proteins available.  They were so poor, they could only afford cheese and bread.  3) Another version says that Welsh rabbit hunters, after a successful rabbit hunt, would eat this fortified cheese toast upon returning home - thereby negating Mick's version of the legend.  4) Of course, there is another version where unsuccessful Welsh rabbit hunters have to eat cheese toast because they aren't very good hunters.  5) A really twisted version claims that a Welsh chef tried to pass off cheese toast as rabbit to unsophisticated Welsh diners.  While I have actually never eaten rabbit, I might argue that melty cheese toast is easier to prepare and perhaps tastier than rabbit.  Also, since Darling Husband is 50% Welsh, I'm not allowed to be to antagonistic toward  this noble people.

Legend aside, it is a perfect meal for a cold winter night.  Here's a recipe for Welsh Rabbit from Laura Werlin's fantastic book The New American Cheese:

Melt 2 Tbsp butter over medium heat in a medium size saucepan.
Add 3 Tbsp flour and stir for 1 minute
Add 1/2 cup beer and stir until the bubbles start to cook out, about 30 seconds
     (I would suggest a more flavorful, darker beer.  Alternately, my mom used milk.  Less body, but better for kids...)
Add 6-7 ounces of grated cheddar cheese, 2 tsp Worcestershire, 1/2 tsp dry mustard and a dash of cayenne.

Stir constantly until the cheese melts.

Toast up 4 thick slices of substantial bread (Wonderbread will not work!)

Toast on plate, cheese sauce on toast.  If you're trying to eat veggies with all your meals, add a tomato.

*You can always try other cheeses - whatever you have.  Try Gouda or Emmenthaler for some happy melting.  A little fortified Sherry could be tasty too.  If you use white cheese, a little Paprika would add color. a tablespoon of Dijon mustard could be a nice alternate if you don't have any dry mustard in the house.

That's it!  Easy enough for a Welshman to do it.

Sweet dreams!  May your dreams be full of cheese and sweet bouncing bunnies!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

National Cheese Lover's Day!

Apologies for the late notice, but I was just informed of this most joyous of occassions!  I can't believe we don't get the day off for is officially National Cheese Lover's Day!

Not sure why, not sure how, not sure if in fact it has been ratified by congress or just a marketing ploy, but I don't care!  Here's to you cheese lovers!

Cheese for a Wednesday, pt. 19 - A new sheep in the 'hood

Last week at Andrew's Cheese Shop, I spotted this ancient looking cheese sitting in the case.  "What is this," I wondered out loud.  Samples were proffered, and as per usual, stories were told and comparisons - both ridiculous and relevant were made.

While this cheese, Brebis du Lavort, may look like it's shape was designed by druids back in the 2nd century BC  it was actually created in the 1990s by cheese maker Patrick Beaumont in the Auvergne region of France.  I thought it was pretty clever of Mr. Beaumont to design a cheese that looked like it had been dug out of the ground, or stored in an ancient log  but was created during the Clinton adminstration, about the time that Shabby Chic was really hitting it's stride.  Andrew wasn't so sure that the good folk of the Auvergne are capable of that kind of marketing ploy.  It seems that this area of France is less modern than other areas.   Anyway...far be it from me to judge.  Especially when the cheese is good!

The design is modern, but the mold is borrowed  from a Spanish cheese called Tronchon (which Andrew also has - must get that one for a comparison.).  This mold is caked on thick.  The bark-like texture keeps the cheese nice and moist during the aging process, but I didn't even give it a taste.  Did I mention it's bark-like texture?  This cheese is aged in a in an old water tower, which is unique, I think.  Unfortunately, I learned about this before I tasted the cheese and so, in the back of my mind I was thinking "moldy water tower."  It was interesting how the shape of the cheese seemed to make a difference in each bite.  A bite taken from the top of the "volcano" reminded me of a nice sharp cheddar, while a bite taken from the bulge just made me think of a (tasty) old water pipe.  Very odd.  Andrew claims a definite flavor of hazelnuts.  Maybe I need to eat more hazlenuts.

I think this is one of those cheeses that tasted better in a sample at the store than in chunks.  The complexity of this cheese requires more than chunks and crackers.  Now that I'm full, and all the cheese is gone, I'm thinking that it would have been perfect on a baked potato.  The old water pipe flavor might have mellowed to an "earthy" flavor that would have rocked with some parsley and butter.  Next time.

Sweet dreams!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Lazy Cheesemakers? Perish the Thought!

Today is the first in a semi-regular series showcasing cheesemakers across America and beyond.  I'll share them as I learn about them, so no promises on a regular Friday series, though I may tend to share these stories on Fridays...

This Friday, we celebrate laziness!  Not that there is one cheese maker alive that could even remotely be considered lazy.  What with the waking up at 4:00 am; herding goats, sheep or cows to the tastiest foraging; milking all these beasties twice a day when they're full; not to mention the processing of the milk, turning it into curds, shaping the curds, and watching over the infant cheeses as they age into politically correct cheese ready to take their place in society - there is absolutely no time to be lazy!

Enter, Lazy Lady Farm in Vermont where Laini Fondiller makes cheese with her herd of 40 darling goats, working 14+ hour days to bring the world cheeses like Tomme Delay and Barik Obama.  Hee hee!  Apparently, she listens to National Public Radio while she milks the herd, makes and tends to her cheeses, and generally goes about her day.  Why does she call her farm the Lazy Lady given that in addition to her goat and the many, many, MANY tasks involved in exquisite cheesemaking, she and her husband (along with a cheese apprentice) are responsible for cows, pigs, chickens and a vegetable garden?  And did I mention that they are totally off the grid - their milking machine is solar powered?!  (For more info on how to run an "off the grid" goat farm and cheesery, check out this fun little paper from University of Vermont)Well, it turns out that goats have a definite "season," and they just don't produce cheese-quality milk when it's been too long since they've given birth.  As the availability of goat milk declilnes, she begins to add cow's milk to the mix.  Totally lazy, right?  That's it.  That is how lazy Ms. Fondiller is.  But keeping with her political cheesiness, she calls this cheese "Bipartisan."  I love this totally un-lazy lady!  She works her butt off and still has time for a sense of humor!

Ms. Fondiller started her cheese making career in Corsica, and has been creating high quality cheeses for 22 years.  Her advice to people wanting to leave it all behind for the romantic notion of living off the land with a herd of friendly goats?  "Don't.  It's a lot of work."  I think I'll stick to eating it, and keep that cheese dream for another day!

For more info, there is this great New York Times article about the Lazy Lady Farm from last weekend.  I think it is a testament to the "cheese revolution" that I am convinced is sweeping the nation!  This slide show is fun too!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Cheese for a Wednesday, pt. 18 - Hilarious name edition

From the Basque region of France comes a cheese with the best name ever.  Etorki.  From what I've been able to determine, it is, in fact, pronounced the way it is spelled.  Ee-tork-ee.  Ha!  I love it because it sooo doesn't sound like a French word.  When I was at Andrew's Cheese Store on Tuesday night, another cheese caught my eye (You'll be hearing about that one later.  I promise.).  That one was all wrapped up, and I was almost out the door when I noticed the tag for Etorki.  Again.  I've been bypassing this cheese for six months!  Shame on me.

Anyway, this sheep's milk cheese was described by Andrew as "the Sarah Lee of cheese."  As in, "nobody doesn't like" Etorki.  I have to say, it's probably true.  This is definitely a sheep's milk cheese.  There is a certain salty, oiliness to sheep's milk cheese that is present in Etorki.  What is missing is a kind mealiness - like dry mashed potato (not sure of that analogy, but it will do for now) - that I've had in other sheep's milk cheese.  This cheese is almost unctuous.  Creamy, melt in your mouth goodness that does leave your lips with that sticky, "I just ate something really rich" feeling.  This cheese is mild, and you have to really pay attention to find the nuance, but it's there.  I tasted some mellow black olive, a little bit of grass on a sunny hillside, and a some sweet caramel.  In fact, I was just inspired to make some buttery salted caramels.  Yea.  That's it.

So, besides being a real crowd pleaser, this cheese is special because it is made exclusively from milk created by cute little black-faced Manech sheep.  After the curds are shaped, the cheeses are soaked in brine for 3-6 months, making a for a rind that is capable of protecting the cheese during the rest of the aging process.  We tasted the rind, and while the texture wasn't great, it wasn't shoe leather, and it had that extra bite of salt that I was missing (I'm only starting to appreciate mild tasting cheeses) in the rest of the cheese.

I don't think Etorki is going to be something that I dream about every night, but if I'm taking cheese for a party where I don't really know people's palates, this might be the sheep's milk cheese on my cheese tray.  It is unusual enough to be a conversation starter (not to mention the fun name as a conversation of it's own), but the complexity of these cheese is subtle enough to please the fussiest taste buds.

Even if you never get to try this cheese, you've got a new alternate cuss word.  Someone cut you off in traffic?  Etorki!  Someone use up all the hot water?  Etorki!  Need some cheese for sandwiches?  Oh yea, etorki!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Ricotta - a kitchen's secret agent!

There is a secret ingredient in your grocery store.  Liquid smoke, you ask?  Nope, though I've always been fascinated and repelled by that magical concoction.  I am referring to ricotta cheese.  It provides body and richness to lasagne.  Blended with a little vanilla, cinnamon, lemon zest, and maple syrup, it makes a sweet, creamy fruit topping.  And, when blended with some sauteed veggies, a little milk and a little pasta water, you have a great pasta sauce that even kids (maybe) will like.  Like a cream sauce, but without the heart stopping after effects.  A perfect meal - protein, carbs, veggies, low-fat (which is necessary when most of the rest of your meals include lots of bread, butter and triple creme cheese)

Tonight, as the pasta water was coming to a boil, I sauteed some bacon (if you're not into bacon, a sliced onion will do at this point).  When cooked through, I added about two cups of sliced brussels sprouts, tossed with some salt and pepper and a splash of white wine(which you can switch for some chicken or veggie broth if you're cooking for kids).  I then covered the pan for a few minutes to cook the sprouts through.  If, at this point you haven't added bacon, might I suggest about a tablespoon of anchovy paste?  It adds some great saltiness, and rather than tasting fishy, I promise that it just creates a sort of smoky richness.  I promise.

By this time, the pasta was bubbling away.  With just four minutes left on the penne, I added about a cup of low fat ricotta to the pan, along with about a quarter cup of milk and a quarter cup of pasta water to help thin out the sauce.  Taste check.  I added some red pepper flakes for fun.  When the pasta is done, drain and toss with the creamy veggie goodness.  Add some additional parmesean, and voila!  

BTW - if you have a gallon of milk, some citric acid or lemon juice, some cheese cloth and a strainer you can make your own ricotta!  Here's the recipe cut and pasted from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company.  If you don't have citric acid lying around, you can use lemon juice as suggested here.  

Ricotta from Whole Milk
  1. Use whole milk .. The fresher the better
  2. Add 2 tsp of citric acid per gallon of liquid (dissolved in 1 cup cool water). Add 1/2 of this Citric Acid solution to the milk (save the rest of the citric acid). Stir briskly for 5-10 seconds.
  3. Add 1 tsp salt
  4. Heat the milk slowly on low to med stirring well to prevent scorching
  5. At 165-170F watch for small flakes forming in the milk and the separation of small curds.
    If after a few minutes you do not see the flakes forming, add more of the Citric acid until they form (do this in small 1 Tbsp increments to avoid over acid milk).
  6. Continue heating to 190-195F then turn the heat off
  7. As the curds rise, use a perforated ladle to gently move them from the sides to the center of the pot. These clumps of curd will begin to consolidate floating on top of the liquid.
    Let the curds rest for 10-15 min.
    *** This is very important because this is the point where the final Ricotta quality is assured
  8. Ladle the curds gently into draining forms (No cheese cloth should be needed if you were patient in the previous step). Let the curds drain for 15 min up to several hours.
    For a fresh light ricotta, drain it for a short while (until the free whey drainage slows) and chill to below 50F. For a rich, dense and buttery texture allow it to drain for an extended period of time (several hours). before chilling overnight
    Move to a refrigerator or cold room. Consume within 10 days
Let me know how it works if you give it a try!  

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Cheese for a Wednesday, pt. 17 - Pyreneese Cheese

Imagine - you are walking along through the Pyrenees mountains on a beautiful late summer day.  It is cool enough to wear a light sweater.  The sky is bluer than you have ever seen, the air is crisp and smells of fresh grass and wild flowers.  The hills are alive with the sound of music....You stumble upon a darling little cave that seems to welcome you in.  There is even grass growing into the front of the cave.  A shaft of sunlight beckons you in.  A butterfly flits past.

Got it?  If you aren't completely nauseated by the pastoral vision I've created for you, keep reading because this is how Tome de Couserans smells.  And it is how I imagine the Ariege region of France smells.  Well, perhaps with a slight whiff of cow poop.

Tonight being the first Wednesday in 2010, I thought we should celebrate with a little something special.  Cheesemonger Andrew didn't disappoint!  Couserans is a very special cheese.  It is quite rare, coming from a very small region in France, where I'm sure the livestock out number the people three to one.  It is also a cow's milk cheese in a very sheepy region.  Beyond that, it is just an incredible cheese that melts onto the tongue, leaving it's musty sweetness behind to savor (as I did with a glass of red and a bowl of brussels sprouts).

The natural rind looks like a perfectly baked whole-wheat dinner roll, textured but not wrinkly.  I did try eating this.  Not a great idea.  Better for smelling in this case.  The paste inside is an almost buttermilk cream color, with delicate little holes throughout which add to the tender tooth.  And the taste!  Summer butter, fresh green grass (from that cute butterfly ridden cave), just enough tang in the middle and end to hold your attention, and get you reaching for the cheese knife for another bite!  If I could find that cave, and eat this cheese in that cave, perhaps life would be complete.

Or maybe it's just another Wednesday night cheese dream!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Cheese Straws!

Right before Christmas, I discovered a cookbook,  The New Best Recipe Book from the editors of Cooks Illustrated, that had been sitting on my shelf forever with no attention being given to the amazing recipes inside.  Lesson learned.  I made the best gingerbread cookies over the holiday, and thought to myself, "What else is in there?".  So, being the cheese head I am, I looked in the index under "cheese" and found "cheese straws."  "Hooray!"  I thought.  I'd just made some pretty decent collard greens for New Years, and was pretty sure I was successfully channeling my inner southern belle.  Cheese straws being a very traditional southern food would be a perfect next project, right y'all?  Well, being from Michigan with New England parents and living in California, you could safely assume that southern belle is a bit of a stretch for me.  Good thing the recipe was a super easy, non-Southern version, or I would have had to de-camp to Savannah (a bit of a fantasy of mine, but that's for another time...).

Anyway, the version I made was super easy - anyone can do it, even people who don't know where the Mason Dixon Line is.  Ready?
-One sheet of puff pastry, partially thawed.  Place it, unfolded, on a sheet of parchment paper.
-1/2 cup of shredded cheese (the recipe calls for Parmigiano Reggiano, but you could absolutely use Aged Gouda, Sharp Cheddar, or any drier/more aged cheese) sprinkled on top of the sheet of puff pastry with a little salt and pepper. Place another sheet of parchment paper on top and use a rolling pin to press the cheese into the pastry.
-Flip the whole thing over and repeat with another 1/2 cup of cheese and roll to press in.
-Slice into even strips with a pizza cutter or whatever
-Make into twists and bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, rotating halfway through for beautiful, puffed "straws."

So, as I was researching this post, I found this amazing web site.  Hoppin' John has spent A LOT of time researching the history of cheese straws.  Turns out, the recipe I just shared with you is not officially a cheese "straw," but more of a cheese "finger."  And Hoppin' John, while complimentary about the fingers, refuses to admit them to the lexicon of Southern cheese straws.  I will not even begin to share with you the knowledge on his site, but I will tell you that real cheese straws are basically flour, fat, cheese, and a bit of spice - cayannne, etc.  More like a savory shortbread cookie than a cracker.  Think about it - it is HOT in the South, and until recently, cheese wasn't really something that was made there.  A great way to preserve cheese there was to bake it!  Puff pastry just won't hold up in humid, hot weather.  The first Southern cheese straw recipe seems to have surfaced in 1861, and they haven't gone away since.  And did I mention that they're delicious?  Crunchy and flaky, with a rich cheese flavor that comes from a cup+ of cheese, and the intensifying magic of the oven.  The addition of spice, either plenty of black pepper or cayanne, adds great depth of flavor.  Tastes great with Cabernet.  Give it a try!

Friday, January 1, 2010

I Fondue, Can You?

Fondue, born in the kitchens of 18th Century Swiss villagers trying to use stale bread and cheese while conveniently huddled together around a flame to keep warm with the family, has come a long way.  It has now effectively moved past the fondue of the 70s (complete with kitchy fondue bibs and key partys - (the link isn't really worthy of the age restrictions, it's just that The Ice Storm was an R-rated movie)).  The lowly fondue has now helped ring in 2010!  I hereby declare this year the year of melted cheese!

Our New Year's fondue party rocked!  And it was so easy!
Step 1 - grate a combination of cheeses (Cuisinart makes it easy, and saves your knuckles).  We used a combination of Emmentaler, Gruyere and Comte, which is basically a French Gruyere.  These cheeses make for a nice, nutty flavor in the fondue, and melt really well.  Emmentaler is your traditional Swiss cheese, complete with holes.  Gruyere and Comte are a little smoother, with fewer, smaller holes.  They all melt well, and taste great together.  While Emmentaler and Gruyere is the "traditional" combination, this is your chance to be creative.  Add some cheddar for some sharpness, some muenster for earthiness or some blue cheese - hey, why not?
Step 1a - toss the grated cheese with a bit of flour or Arrowroot powder if you have it.  Just enough to coat the cheese.  This helps with the thickening.  This is really easy to do if you have a big Ziploc bag.
Step 2 - rub fondue pot with garlic.  DO NOT SKIP!!
Step 3 - add white wine to the pot; one cup for each pound of cheese you'll be adding.  Heat pot over medium.  Note - if you want to make an alcohol free fondue, you can use milk here instead.  Add a few teaspoons of lemon juice for acidity, and make sure to use nice fatty cheeses - like Gruyere - to make sure the melting process doesn't lead to a burning cheese process.  A little paprika could add a little flavor.
Step 4 - add the cheese a few handfuls at a time, stirring constantly.  As it melts, add more.
Step 5 - at some point in the melting process, add a few tablespoons of Kirsch, a Swiss cherry liqueur.  Danger - this stuff is potent!  Note - if you're really going for broke, give your guests each a little bowl of kirsch to dip their bread into before they put it in the cheese.  Yowza!
Step 6 - when it's all melted, gather round the pot!  The first person to loose their bread cube in the pot

We had lots of day old bread cubes on hand (they hold better on your fork, and love to soak up cheese sauce.  We also had some steamed brussels sprouts, cauliflower and broccoli for dipping to make it "healthy."  OMG.  What a treat.  I had a bit of a cheese hangover this morning - between the wine and kirsch in the sauce and the wine and champagne in my glass it was quite an evening.  But so much fun!

They sell fondue sets pretty much everywhere at this point, so what's stopping you?

BTW - if you ever get tired of cheese (the horror!) don't forget about chocolate fondue!

Check out this website for all sorts of great fondue tips.  Brie with Mushrooms fondue anyone?  Yum!