Some evenings I’m in the mood for a cheese-snack dinner. Something decadent, rich with creamy texture and complex flavors. A treat that balances the cheese’s bold personality with a bit of sweetness. On the side, a lightly dressed mixed-green salad augmented with raw vegetables. Perhaps some apple wedges. Easy.
My father would have dubbed this menu a cocktail nibble. He would have raised a ruckus. His annoyance with the absence of a traditional meat-and-veg evening meal would no doubt have led to a high- volume discussion of The Great Depression.
But as the pandemic drags on, a cheese-centric meal brings its share of cheeriness, providing a kind of menu liberation. I’ve chosen three of my favorites, each showcasing a cheese served with a complimentary twist.
Cambozola: A soft-ripened triple cream cheese dotted with pockets of Italian Gorgonzola. The downy-white edible rind surrounds a buttery interior that tastes nutty with a pleasant grassy note. Scattered throughout the mild creaminess are frisky bits of blue cheese, a Gorgonzola that tastes robust and pleasantly sharp.
A slab of this beautiful cheese is delicious served with Date Nut Bars that are cut into wedges rather than squares. The upfront sweetness and nutty crunch of the date-centric “bars” brings out the best in the cheese. The original recipe called for walnuts, but I often substitute Marcona almonds. Other cheese choices to team with these beauties include aged sharp white cheddar and/or Manchego (Spanish sheep’s milk cheese).
For convenience, when you bake the date treats, freeze half to use another time.
Whole-Milk Ricotta: Traditional Italian whole-milk ricotta is soft and tastes mildly sweet. I have several friends that make it from scratch and swear that it’s a cinch to prepare, but that’s a tale for another time. I often buy Bellwether Farms brand at Whole Foods Markets; it has a delicate texture and incredible flavor. It’s labeled “small batch,” as well as “basket ricotta” because it is sold in the plastic basket that was used to drain it. Whole-milk ricotta from the supermarket works fine in a pinch.
Several years ago, celebrity chef-restaurateur Michael Mina came to my home to shoot a video that showcased his signature ahi tartare. I pleaded with him to show me how he makes his ricotta-based spread and graciously he consented. At the time his Orange County restaurant, Stonehill Tavern (later it became Bourbon Steak), served the ricotta spread as an amuse-bouche. The concoction is addictive; honey, rosemary salt and extra-virgin olive oil team up with the cheese to make it sing.
Gorgonzola: Made from pasteurized cow’s milk, this Italian blue cheese is prized for its rich creaminess. Pale yellow streaked with greenish-blue veins, it can taste mild or strong depending on its maturity.
It’s delicious combined with mascarpone (an Italian cream cheese) or cream cheese, to make it lusciously spreadable. Smear it on toasted rustic bread and top with Port-roasted grapes. The counterpoint of sweet Port-infused roasted grapes and tangy cheese make these nibbles a delectable treat.
Mina’s Ricotta With Honey and Rosemary Salt
Yield: serves 8 to 10
1 1/2 teaspoons coarsely cracked black pepper
1/4 cup lavender honey or clover honey
2 cups whole-milk ricotta, see cook’s notes
1 teaspoon rosemary salt, see cook’s notes
3 tablespoons high-quality, fruity extra-virgin olive oil
For serving: 12 slices rustic artisanal bread, toasted
Cook’s notes: To crack the peppercorns, I put them in a zipper-style plastic bag and pound them with a mallet or the bottom of a saucepan until coarsely cracked. Mina used Tellicherry black peppercorns when he made this dish at my house. He used Bellwether Farms’ whole milk ricotta. To prepare rosemary salt, combine 1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves and 1 tablespoon gray Maldon sea salt or fleur de sel sea salt.
1. Place cracked pepper in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan on medium heat; shaking handle of pan, heat until warm and fragrant. Add honey and stir to combine. When honey is hot, remove from heat and allow to rest at room temperature 2 to 3 hours.
2. Place ricotta in food processor. Process 1 minute, scraping down sides of work-bowl halfway through. Place in bowl and pat down with rubber spatula. Use a large ice cream scoop to scoop up as much as possible; place in small shallow bowl (if your scoop is smaller, make two side-by-side mounds). Using a teaspoon, drizzle honey over top of cheese in a thin stream, using circular motion. Sprinkle on rosemary salt. Pour oil around edge of cheese. Provide a small knife to use for spreading. Serve with toasted bread.
Source: Chef-restaurateur Michael Mina
Date Bars Turned Cheese-Snack Partner
Yield: 36 bar cookies or 24 wedges to serve with cheese
Butter for greasing pan
1 1/4 cups fine graham cracker crumbs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 3/4 cups chopped dates, see cook’s notes
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or Marcona almonds
1 cup light brown sugar
Garnish: Powdered sugar
Cook’s notes: I used an eight-ounce bag of chopped dates (Sunsweet). If you like, substitute whole (salted) marcona almonds for the walnuts if using as an accompaniment to cheese.
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 9-inch square baking pan with butter or if using as a cheese accompaniment, grease a 9-inch round cake pan that is at least 1 3/4-inches deep. Line pan with two crisscrossed sheets of aluminum foil, allowing a 1- to 2-inch margin of foil to come over the top edge of the pan (this helps with unmolding); butter foil. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, place graham cracker crumbs, salt and baking powder; stir to combine. Add dates and walnuts; stir to combine.
3. In a separate bowl or large bowl of an electric mixer, beat eggs well (use the flat paddle attachment on mixer if using). Add brown sugar, 1/3 cup at a time, stirring or beating between additions to combine. Add graham cracker mixture to egg mixture and mix or beat to combine. Place in prepared pan. Bake in preheated oven for 25 to 35 minutes. Allow to rest 10 minutes in pan set on cooling rack. Using potholders if the pan and foil are still too hot to handle, pull foil from pan and set still in foil on cooling rack. Allow to cool 10 minutes. Invert on cutting board and peel away foil. For cookies: Make 36 squares by cutting 6 rows crosswise and lengthwise. If serving as a cookie, dust with powdered sugar; place powdered sugar in a sieve and shake over squares. For cheese accompaniment: Cut into thin wedges (do not dust with powdered sugar).
Source: Adapted from “The Gourmet Cookie Book: The Single Best Recipe from Each Year 1941-2009” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $18)
Port-Roasted Grapes on Blue Cheese Toasts
Yield: 4 servings, recipe can be doubled
1 cup seedless red grapes
2 tablespoons Port
1 teaspoon sugar
3 ounces Gorgonzola
3 tablespoons mascarpone cheese or cream cheese
Toast: 12 thin slices of French baguette or halved (or quartered) walnut bread or rustic whole-wheat bread, toasted
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In small pan, mix together grapes, port and sugar. Roast, shaking the pan occasionally, until grapes begin to soften, and skin starts to shrivel, but grapes are still holding their shape, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool.
2. In small bowl, mix together blue cheese and mascarpone.
3. Spread about 2 teaspoons cheese mixture on toasted bread. Top with grapes, adding a little of the syrup.
Source: Adapted from “The All-American Cheese and Wine Book” by Laura Werlin (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, out of print)
Have a cooking question? Contact Cathy Thomas at [email protected]