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10/30/2014

~ Home for the Holidays: The Cheese Cracker Tray ~

IMG_6750No, there is not a typo in the title of this post.  It shouldn't read "cheese and crackers" because this isn't a post about serving cheese with crackers, it's a post about serving cheese crackers -- homemade cheese crackers.  Ready or not, like it or not, here it comes:  the holiday entertaining season.  If you're like me, you're always on the lookout for relatively simple, do-ahead appetizers and snacks to impress your guests.  I'm here to tell you, making homemade, savory cheese snacks (cookies, crackers, sticks and wafers) is always a part of my holiday agenda -- just like baking cookies, they can be made 1-2 weeks in advance, and, they too make great hostess gifts!

IMG_6757Generally speaking, making homemade cheese snacks is an easy process, and, it is a fine way to use up fine cheese before it takes a turn for the worse.  Recipes typically revolve around blending some grated cheese and a few ingredients together in a food processor, chilling the mixture, rolling or forming the snacks, then baking them.  Depending upon whether the recipe calls for a hard, grating cheese, a firm sliceable cheese, or, a soft spreadable cheese, as long as the cheese you've got falls into the category the recipe calls for, you are home-free in terms of making a substitution.  For instance:  If a recipe calls for Brie, of course Camembert will work! 

IMG_5895My pre-holiday cheese cracker baking and posting marathon got started with a question from a girlfriend from high school who lives in Wisconsin.  A couple weeks ago, Marilyn asked for my suggestions for properly wrapping, storing and slicing cheese.  Being the cheese addicted person that I am, I happily scampered off to my local Happy Valley cheesemonger, which, in the case of me, is like letting a kid roam free in a candy store.  So:  

In order to exercise restraint, I entered the store with a list in my hand and a strategy in my head -- I was to limit my selections to the cheeses on my list, and, I would subsequently use said cheeses to write blog posts sharing recipes for homemade cheese snacks, and share I did:

IMG_6198For white wine drinkers, ~ Savory and Peppery Triple-Creme Brie Shortbread ~ started the cheese ball rolling.  Like baking shortbread for dessert, these buttery, rich, savory treats are best kept pure, unadulterated and simple, meaning: this is not a recipe to get creative with.  Please don't be inclined to add herbs or spices to enhance their flavor, or, nuts or seeds for added texure.  It's all about Brie and just a hint of pepper!

IMG_6451For those who enjoy a stiff cocktail or a refreshing pilsner of beer, ~ Mel's Spicy Horseradish Cheddar Cheese Sticks ~ are just what the cheese doctor ordered.  But please, don't confuse these cheese sticks with cheese straws -- those twisted, super-crunchy puff pastry snacks (which are great too).  These cheese sticks are crunchy on the outside with a bit of chew in the center, a whole lot more cheddar flavor, plus, a pleasant spicy warmth that lingers in your mouth and takes over the back of your throat with each sddictive bite!

IMG_6701For red wine and port drinkers, ~ Crunchy 'n Tangy Gorgonzola & Walnut Wafers ~ are the "piece de resistance", a French term implying the very best part of something, a masterpiece indicative of superior quality.  It's thought of as the portion of a creation so unique that it "resists" common conventions and practices, thereby making it extremely special.  Feel free to substitute your favorite, high-quality blue cheese, but, for me, Italy's Gorgonzola makes these my favorite blue cheese heaven!

IMG_6662While most homemade cheese "snacks" (cookies, crackers, sticks and wafers) need nothing more than a favorite cocktail or a fine wine to enjoy them, every once in a while one comes along that deserves a great cheese spread. My Gorgonzola wafers are one such snack and my ~ Crunchy 'n Creamy Gorgonzola & Walnut Spread ~, is out of this world mounded on top of them.  You can find all of these recipes by clicking into Categories 1, 2, or 11.

'Tis the season, so, set the date and holiday cocktail party on!!!

IMG_6768Home for the Holidays:  The Cheese Cracker Tray:  Post yields recipes for putting together a first-class cheese cracker tray.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; food processor; rubber spatula; baking pans; parchment paper; metal spatula; cooling racks

IMG_3378Cook's Note:  For another one of my favorite cheesy appetizers, which also pairs well with homemade cheese crackers, you can find my recipe ~ Confessions From a Port Wine Cheese Ball Lover ~ in Categories 1, 11, 20 & 26!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014) 

10/28/2014

~ Crunchy 'n Tangy Gorgonzola and Walnut Spread ~

IMG_6662Cheese spread.  Everyone who entertains has one, two or a few recipes in their repertoire.  The base line for a basic one is:  a simple and balanced, smooth, creamy, spreadable blend of tangy, savory cheese plus a fresh or dried herb and a spice or two.  For added flavor and texture, a few fresh, dried or roasted chopped fruits, nuts and/or vegetables can be stirred into the mixture, and so can cooked, cured or smoked meats, poultry or fish/seafood.  For as easy and straightforward as cheese spreads are to make, they deliver big, bold complex flavor to the cocktail or snack table. Whether the get-together is casual or upscale, a well-made cheese spread sets the tone for the entire get-together.  When you hear your guests say to each other, "you've got to try that cheese spread", you know you're on your way to a successful evening!

A well-made cheese spread, when paired with the proper snack cracker is a party starter. 

IMG_6591A well-made cheese spread when paired carefully with a homemade cracker brings life to the party. Make that a homemade cheese cracker and it is the life of the party!

While most homemade cheese "snacks" (cookies, crackers, sticks and wafers) need nothing more than a favorite cocktail or a fine wine to enjoy them, every once in a while one comes along that deserves a great cheese spread. My ~ Crunchy 'n Tangy Gorgonzola Wafers~ is one.  You can get the recipe by clicking on the Related Article link below!

Gorgonzola & Walnut Wafers + Gorgonzola & Walnut Spread =

IMG_6701My Favorite Blue Cheese Heaven!

IMG_66144  ounces cream cheese, at room temperature

1/8  teaspoon sea salt

1/2  teaspoon freshly-  & coarsely-ground peppercorn blend

1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

4  ounces, crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, chilled

My ~ Crunchy 'n Tangy Gorgonzola & Walnut Wafers ~, or your favorite crackers or crostini

IMG_6635 IMG_6625~ Step 1. Bring the cream cheese to room temperature, about 1 hour.  

Chop the walnuts.  

Crumble the Gorgonzola (or your favorite blue cheese) and return it to the refrigerator to chill (and keep it chilled until the last minute).

~ Step 2.  Place the cream cheese in a bowl and add the peppercorn blend and sea salt.  In my pepper mill, 1/2 teaspoon of peppercorn blend = 30 grinds.  I measure pepper this way often!

IMG_6640 IMG_6642 IMG_6652 IMG_6658~Step 3.  Using a large spoon, vigorously stir the cream cheese until it is soft and creamy.  Stir in the walnuts.  Remove the Gorgonzola crumbles from the refrigerator and gently fold them in, doing your best not to squish, mash, mush, or crush the delicate crumbles!

Technically, the Gorgonzola and Walnut Spread is ready to serve, BUT:

Like many things, a bit of "giving the flavors time to marry" goes a long way.  I transfer mine to a pretty serving bowl (or 2-cup food storage container w/lid for 2-3-4 day in advance storage), cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate it for one to several hours or overnight.  I remove it from the refrigerator about 1 hour prior to serving it as close to room temperature as possible: 

IMG_6680This cheese-spread cheese-cracker combo is THE party starter:

IMG_6712Crunchy 'n Tangy Gorgonzola and Walnut Spread:  Recipe yields 2 cups of cheese spread.

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chefs knife; large spoon; 2-cup storage container w/lid

IMG_6198Cook's Note:  For another decadent homemade cheese snack, you can find my ~ Savory & Peppery Triple-Creme Brie Shortbread ~ recipe in Categories 1, 2, 20 & 21. They too are simply elegant, extraordinary and exquisite!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)

10/26/2014

~ Crunchy 'n Tangy Gorgonzola and Walnut Wafers ~

IMG_6701I learned something new yesterday.  Blue cheese is what provides the tangy flavor in Cheetos and all those other beloved puffed-cheese-type snacks.  I had no idea until I was ordering a container of cheddar cheese powder for my pantry (FYI:  cheddar cheese powder is a great addition to cheese sauces, macaroni and cheese, and, it's fantastic sprinkled on popcorn).  Just prior to "proceeding to checkout", Amazon suggested that I purchase some blue cheese powder too, because other customers frequently purchase cheddar and blue cheese powder together. Amazon is accommodating like that.  This lead me to ask why the two would be purchased together, like a set of bookends -- it just seemed odd.  A brief internet search revealed the answer:  lots of recipes for homemade Cheetos.  Yes, I bought the blue cheese powder.

IMG_6615A bit about blue cheese:  "Blue cheese" in general is used to describe dozens of cheeses made from cow's, goat's or sheep's milk that have had a culture of mold (penicillium) added to them, which in turn grows blue, blue-gray or blue-green veins throughout the cracks and crevices. The end result is blue-veined creamy-crumbly cheese with a distinctively sharp smell and a tangy, salty taste.  More often than not, it's an acquired taste that "grows on you".  

Most blue cheeses are named for their place of origin:  Danablu is from Denmark, Roquefort is from France, Gorgonzola from Italy, Stilton from England, and "our own" Maytag is made right here in the USA (Iowa).  Blue cheese varies in taste and texture from region to region and manufacturer to manufacturer, so, to determine which one suits your palate, purchase a few small pieces of several kinds and host a personal red wine and blue cheese tasting party!

IMG_64684  ounces salted butter, at room temperature (1 stick)

10  ounces Gorgonzola cheese, crumbled, or your favorite blue cheese, (Note:  Weight is important in this recipe, not approximate cups, so if you have a kitchen scale, now is the time to use it.)

1  cup + 2 tablespoons unbleached, all-purpose flour

1  cup evenly-diced walnuts, not coarsely chopped (pecans, pine nuts and pistachios work well too)

1/4  teaspoon sea salt

IMG_6471 IMG_6472 IMG_6476 IMG_6482~Steps 1 & 2.  Place Gorgonzola crumbles and softened butter in work bowl of food processor fitted with a steel blade.  Using a series of 10-15 rapid on-off pulses, roughly blend the mixture. Using a spatula, scrape down the sides of the work bowl, then, with motor running process until IMG_6484smooth, about 15 seconds.  

Add the flour and nuts to the work bowl (as pictured above).  Using a series of 10-15 rapid on-off pulses, roughly blend.  Using the spatula, scrape down the sides of the work bowl, then, with motor running, process again, until smooth (except for small pieces of nuts), about 15 seconds.  Transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate for 30 minutes .

Note:  At this point, do not chill dough any longer than 30 minutes or it will get too firm.

IMG_6507 IMG_6505~ Step 3. While dough is chilling, line 2, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans with parchment paper.  Remove dough from refrigerator and using a 1" ice-cream scoop as a measure,  place rounded scoopfuls, well-apart on prepared pans.  Place pans in refrigerator for 5-6 minutes, to allow balls to firm up "somewhat".

IMG_6517 IMG_6513~ Step 4. Remove pans from refrigerator. Using your fingertips, gently press down on each ball of dough, then pat and press it, until it forms a thin 2"-round disc.  Return pans of dough to refrigerator to chill until discs are very firm, 1-2 hours (or overnight works well too).

IMG_6530 IMG_6527~ Step 5. One at a time, remove pans from refrigerator and bake on center rack of 375 degree oven for 10-11 minutes, stopping after 9 minutes to rotate the pan back to front (to insure even browning on all sides). Wafers will be golden across their tops with pretty, deeper golden edges.  Do not overbake!

Golden on the top with pretty deep golden edges...

IMG_6539... immediately transfer wafers from pan to cooling rack.

IMG_6564Cool completely -- several hours to overnight!  

(Overnight is best.  Store in an airtight container for up to one week.)

IMG_6591Stay tuned for my next post:  Gorgonzola & Walnut Spread!

IMG_6712Crunchy 'n Tangy Gorgonzola and Walnut Wafers:  Recipe yields 4 dozen, 2"-round appetizers/snacks

Special Equipment List:  cutting board; chef's knife; food processor; rubber spatula; 2, 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pans; parchment paper; 1" ice-cream scoop; metal spatula; cooling rack

IMG_6451Cook's Note:  It's a well-documented fact that everybody loves cheddar, and,  ~ Mel's Spicy Horseradish Cheddar Cheese Sticks ~ are a really popular cheese snack amongst the wine and cheese lovers I keep company with.  You can find my recipe for these addictive treats by clicking on the Relate Article link below! 

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)

10/24/2014

~ Mel's Spicy Horseradish-Cheddar Cheese Sticks ~

IMG_6451If I were a mouse, my nose would always be snapped in the trap containing a fresh piece of fine cheese.  What is it about me and cheese?  You can find me snacking on it in some form almost every day.  My refrigerator always has a few really good, fresh-from-the-cheesemonger cheeses stored in the "deli-drawer".  I'm not talking about reduced calorie, low-moisture, part-skim, half-the-fat, gluten-free, soy, and/or vegan cheese -- although if one is medically challenged, they are all fine alternatives.  For me, I'd rather eat less of anything real-deal and delicious than more of something that wierd-science has compromised.  I know I am not alone in this mindset.

IMG_5895On occasion, I have cheese that is at that "use it or lose it" stage. Sometimes it's because I was entertaining and I bought more than I actually needed -- I'm a "better safe than sorry" person.  This week, it's because I posted ~ For the LOVE of Cheese:  PLEASE Cut it Correctly ~.  It's full of lots of tips for storing, wrapping, grating and slicing all different types of cheese. You can read it by clicking on the Related Article link below.

Homemade Cheese "Snacks" (cookies, crackers, sticks, wafers):

Generally speaking, making homemade cheese snacks is an easy process, and, it is a fine way to use up fine cheese before it takes a turn for the worse.  Recipes typically revolve around blending some grated cheese and a few ingredients together in a food processor, chilling the mixture, rolling or forming the snacks, then, baking them.  Depending upon whether the recipe calls for a hard grating cheese, a firm sliceable cheese, or, a soft spreadable cheese, as long as the cheese you've got falls into the category the recipe calls for, you are home-free in terms of making a substitution.  For instance:  If a recipe calls for Brie, of course Camembert will work!

IMG_5879 IMG_6236Today (leftover from the writing of the above mentioned blog post), I've got some great white horseradish cheddar.  Feel free to substitute your favorite cheddar, or, any other firm, moist, sliceable cheese:  Swiss or Gouda for example. I'm sure you get the point I'm trying to make.  

5102My cheddar is nowhere near the "use it or lose it" stage, but these cheese sticks are so good I'm making them anyway. Yancey's Fancy New York State artisan cheeses are some of my favorites -- especially their many cheddars (and other hand-crafted domestic cheeses too).  Imagine aged cheddar and spicy horseradish combined into one great cheese.  Yancey's has developed special curing techniques no longer commercially available in cheddars from larger cheese makers, and, they are the largest manufacturer of fresh cheese curd on the East Coast, utilizing the local milk supply, which offers some of the highest-quality milk in the USA!

Please pass the homemade horseradish-cheddar cheese sticks!

But please, don't confuse these cheese sticks with cheese straws -- those twisted, super-crunchy, airy puff pastry snacks (which are great too).  These cheese sticks are crunchy on the outside with a bit of chew in the center, a whole more cheddar flavor, plus, a pleasant, spicy warmth that lingers in your mouth and takes over the back of your throat with each addictive bite. For the most part, I serve these alone as a snack/appetizer with cocktails, but, they sure do pair up well with a bowl of tomato soup or a spinach salad with a lot of crispy fried bacon in it! 

IMG_62401 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1  tablespoon baking powder

1 1/2  teaspoons dry English mustard

1  teaspoon garlic powder

3/4  teaspoon sea salt

1/2  teaspoon cayenne pepper

6  tablespoons vegetable shortening, preferably butter-flavored, chilled, cut into chunks

IMG_62464  ounces Yancey's Fancy horseradish cheddar cheese, grated, about 1 1/4 cups (Note: Because grated cheese can be inaccurate to measure, weight is important, so, if you have a kitchen scale, now is the time to use it.)

1/2  cup buttermilk, plus up to 2 additional tablespoons, only if necessary

1  tablespoon Worcestershire

4-6  drops Tabasco

2  tablespoons melted butter, for brushing tops of cheese sticks

about 1/4 cup freshly and finely-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, for topping cheese sticks 

IMG_6256 IMG_6258 IMG_6263 IMG_6265~Steps 1, 2 & 3.  In the work bowl of a food processor fitted with a steel blade, using a series of 5-6 rapid on-off pulses, thoroughly combine the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, dry mustard, garlic powder, salt and cayenne.  Add the IMG_6280shortening.  

Using a series of 5-6 rapid on-off pulses, "cut" shortening into dry mixture until coarse crumbs have formed.  

Add the grated cheddar to the workbowl and using a series 3-5 rapid on-off pulses, give the mixture a rough stir.

IMG_6280 IMG_6271~ Step 4.  In a 1-cup measuring container, stir together the 1/2 cup buttermilk, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco, to taste.

~ Step 5.  With processor running, add the buttermilk mixture, in a slow stream, through the feed tube.  Stop adding liquid and stop  processor the second a soft, sicky mass/ball of dough forms.  Add additional buttermilk only if necessary.

IMG_6284~ Step 6.  Using a large rubber spatula, remove dough from processor and place in a medium bowl.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2-3 hours.

IMG_6302~ Step 7. Cut a sheet of parchment to fit the bottom of a 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan.  Place the parchment on a large pastry board (do not skip using the pastry board) then place the baking pan in the refrigerator to chill.  Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator.  Immediately:

IMG_6321 IMG_6308~ Step 8. Working as quickly as you can, form the dough into a rough rectangular shape and place it on the parchment.  Lightly dust the surface of the dough with flour.  Note:  This is probably all the flour you will need, but, if you need a bit more during the rolling process, add it.

IMG_6335 IMG_6326Using a small rolling pin,  roll the dough into a 12" x 8" rectangle.  Use the side of a 12" ruler to gently push the sides into an almost perfect rectangle. Use the ruler to measure, and, use the blade of the ruler to lightly score the top of the dough into 1" x 4" sticks.

IMG_6344Slide/glide the parchment of scored cheese sticks off the pastry board and  onto the chilled baking pan. Return pan of dough to refrigerator to chill for 30 more minutes.

~ Step 9.  While dough is chilling, melt and cool the butter, grate the Parmigiano-Reggiano and preheat oven to 450 degrees.

IMG_6358~ Step 10.  Remove dough from refrigerator.    Using the ruler again, gently "chop" down between the score lines, to separate the cheese sticks  without cutting through the parchment or spreading them out.

Return pan to refrigerator and chill another 15-30 minutes. 

~ Step 11.  Using a pastry brush, lightly brush tops with butter, then sprinkle the grated cheese over all:

IMG_6376Bake on center rack of preheated 450 degree oven until nicely golden, about 10 minutes:

IMG_6394Remove from oven and allow to cool in pan 1-1 1/2 minutes -- no longer.

IMG_6401~ Step 11.  Using a sharp spatula, carefully, but working as quickly as you can, begin separating the cheese sticks, placing them on a cooling rack as you work.  They will be delicate, but not so fragile that they will break apart.  

Allow to cool completely, uncovered, on rack, for several hours or overnight.  Overnight is best.  Cheese sticks will continue to harden/crisp up as they cool:

IMG_6415Cease, desist & resist the urge to taste these until they're cool!

IMG_6418The clock is ticking down to kickoff -- three, two, one:

IMG_6438Time's up!!!  The waiting is over!!!  Game on!!!

IMG_6459Hot Horseradish-Cheddar Cheese Sticks: Recipe yields 2 dozen appetizers/snacks.

41tRaT31NkL._SY355_Special Equipment List:  food processor; cheese grater; 1-cup measuring container; rubber spatula; 17 1/2" x 12 1/2" baking pan; parchment paper; small rolling pin; an impeccably clean 12" ruler (Note:  I have two architect's rulers that are only used for for culinary purposes.  They get washed in hot soapy water, just like the rest of my kitchen gadgets.); pastry brush; microplane grater; sharp spatula; cooling rack

IMG_6198Cook's Note:  Two days ago, using some leftover Brie from my "cut the cheese correctly" post, I made another one of my family's favorite homemade cheese snacks too. These are actually more like rich, buttery cookies, so I refer to them as shortbread, and they pair perfectly with paper-thin slices of cured meat and fresh fruit.  You can find my recipe for ~ Savory & Peppery Triple-Creme Brie Shortbread ~ in Categories 1, 2, 20 or 21!

"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti

(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2014)