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OK, picture this: The year is 6000 BC and you’re a member of a nomadic tribe, probably in what is now modern day Iraq. For sustenance along the journey, your caravan carries milk in pouches made of sheep’s stomachs. You stop for lunch, nestle up against a walnut tree, and break open a pouch in eager anticipation of a refreshing drink of goat’s milk. But wait. Something’s wrong. What once was a creamy and uniform fluid is now a mixture of coagulated masses surrounded by this thin, almost watery liquid. Congratulations Omar, you just invented cheese! Now how did you do it?
Our early Mesopotamian wanderer inadvertently followed the same basic cheese making steps that we employ today. Milk is combined with rennet, a protein found in the stomachs of sheep and cattle. It contains enzymes that separate the milk into the liquid whey and the solid curds. The whey is drained off and the curds are then processed in multifarious ways depending on the type of cheese being produced.
Curds that are not aged or “ripened” produce what is known as a fresh cheese. Classic examples include cottage, feta, and mozzarella. If the cheese is aged, it is then classified based on its texture. There are soft cheeses such as Brie, semi-soft, e.g., Muenster and fontina, hard, e.g., cheddar and provolone, and very hard cheese known as grating, such as Parmigiano and Romano. Finally, there are blue cheeses, such as Gorgonzola and Stilton, so named because of the color of the mold that is injected into them. Oh and by the way, some cheeses are made just from the whey, such as ricotta, so yes, whey!
If you’ve ever treated yourself to a fine French restaurant, you’re well aware that it is customary to serve a cheese course at the end of a tasting menu. What decadence! Can you imagine an array of rich and exquisite cheeses, (with the accompanying wines of course), to top off your gourmet meal?
But you don’t need to visit a four star establishment to partake in such hedonism. A homemade cheese platter is perfect for many types of social gatherings. I find it especially useful for those impromptu and informal get-togethers. No need to cook. Just put out a variety of cheeses, add some bread, nuts, fruit, and of course some wine, and you’re good to go.
When choosing the cheeses for your platter, be mindful of the aforementioned categories. The general approach is to include at least one cheese from each of the textural classes, with the possible exception of fresh cheese which usually isn’t included in such a presentation. If you’re assembling a large platter with more than one cheese per category, select a mild and a strong cheese within each subdivision. For example, for the blue category, combine a Stilton, (which is milder), with a strong Danish blue. Now you can run the gamut of textures and flavor intensities.
As for wines, the pairings follow a similar principle as with food: lighter and fruitier wines with milder cheeses and more assertive wines with stronger cheeses. But of course there are always exceptions. Some classic combos include Brie with chardonnay or champagne, blue cheese with port or sauternes, provolone with Chianti, sharp cheddar with Cabernet, and one of my personal favorites, Romano and Bordeaux, (although most Italians would scoff in favor of a Chianti or Brunello di Montalcino). If you really wish to be pedantic, a progression from lighter to more robust cheeses and wines is typically served. So now that you know the “book” version you can throw the book out the window. Eat whatever cheese you like with whatever wine you like. Life’s too short for stodgy rules.
Turning now to cooking with cheese, here’s a recipe for a yummy spinach and cheese soufflé. This recipe comes from Lynne Kaplan, a chef who owns the Victoria House Bed & Breakfast in Spring Lake, NJ. For a gourmet B&B check them out at victoriahouse.net.
SPINACH AND CHEESE SOUFFLÉ
• Butter, as needed
• 1 package chopped frozen spinach thawed
• 1/2 cup cottage cheese
• 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese or Swiss cheese
• 8 eggs, separated
• 2 shallots, chopped
• 2 tablespoons flour
• 1 cup heavy cream
• 1 tsp. grated nutmeg
• Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Butter the bottom of a 2-qt round soufflé dish and place it on a cookie sheet. Squeeze the liquid out of the spinach. In a bowl mix the spinach and the cheeses. Beat the egg yolks until slightly thickened, about two minutes. Sweat the shallots in some butter in a skillet until soft. Stir in the flour and cook one minute. Add the cream and bring to a boil for one minute, stirring constantly. Remove the cream from the heat. Temper the egg yolks by stirring in a small amount of the cream mixture into them, (this will prevent them from scrambling). Then pour the egg yolks into the cream mixture stirring constantly until blended. Now stir in the spinach and cheese mixture, nutmeg, and salt and pepper to taste. Whip the egg whites until soft peaks form. Fold the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture. Pour the mixture into the soufflé dish and bake in the oven until set, puffed, and slightly browned. About 45-50 minutes.
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