Who doesn’t like cheese? That’s not a rhetorical question. Find me someone who doesn’t like cheese, and I’ll show you someone who’s missing out. Just ask my mother, whose cooking philosophy is that anything can be saved with cheese. Bland mashed potatoes? Melt on a little cheddar. Burnt quiche? Nothing a generous sprinkle of parmesan won’t fix. Too much whiskey in the kugel? (Yeah, it’s a long story.) Just cover it with ricotta and hope for the best.
But as any cheese freak knows, the only real way to appreciate cheese is not as a compliment or a cover up, but as full-on center stage: the cheese plate. It’s no secret that cheese adds that special something at the end of any meal — as French epicurean Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin put it, “A dinner without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.”
However, most people are afraid of assembling cheese plates — a phenomenon I never understood until this summer, when I gained access to the cheese manual at a high-end restaurant group. The cheese manual — the Holy Bible in any Michelin-starred establishment — explains the one and only way to assemble the perfect cheese plate. The perfect cheese plate, it will tell you, involves an exact balance of all cheese groups (fresh, washed-rind, bloomy, semi-hard, pressed and blue, in case you cared) and a system of plating that takes into account positive and negative space and a Zen theory of the four elements.
For the home cook, this is ridiculous. In reality, the best way to assemble a cheese plate is to assemble all the cheeses you feel like eating at any given time (while trying to avoid offering, say, three different types of brie). But if balance isn’t an issue, quality is. The trick to assembling a series of great cheeses is finding a store which only carries great cheese. In New Haven, Nica’s Market is the name of the game, with a cheese selection to die for. A glass case reveals truffled pecorino and four kinds of parmigiano reggiano (my mother would be proud). Ilchester beer cheese and wine-soaked formaggio ubriaco intensify the cheese gluttony: I am drunk off the selection at Nica’s.
For my cheese plate, I end up with pecorino di fossa, a hard sheep’s milk cheese with more of a bite than parmesan, Fromager d’Affinois, a brie-like cheese with double the flavor (and double the fat content) of normal brie and a spicy Spanish Manchego. Pairing cheeses with accompaniments takes a gourmet touch, which is simple in practice — just taste the cheese and think about what you want to eat with it. My pecorino needs a sweet touch to cut through the bitter bite — a clover honey will suit well — whereas my nutty Manchego practically screams for a salty bite. Olives, perhaps? The Fromager d’Affinois is more difficult. It needs something sweet, but full — a fig compote will really up the ante. Though compote is one of those scary cooking words, making your own requires less than five minutes of hands-on time. Assemble your ingredients and wait an hour or two. Trust me, your cheese will thank you.
Maybe not everyone has an hour or two to sit waiting for figs to melt. For you lazy majority, baked brie is the answer. Baked brie is basically a cheese plate in one neat pouch — you have your carbs, your accompaniment and your cheese, all wrapped up in a layer of puff pastry. Though baked brie will inspire awe at your next dinner party, it is, in reality, not much harder to make than the recipes on the back of the Pillsbury box. It’s an especially efficient dish when you consider the outcome: Your friends will swoon, your parents will finally be proud of you, you will immediately become attractive to members of the opposite sex. Just don’t tell anyone it only took you 20 minutes.
2 cups figs, coarsely chopped
1/4 cup white wine
1 tablespoon honey
1 stick cinnamon
2 whole cloves
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 tablespoon coarse lemon zest
Pinch of kosher salt
Put everything in a saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium-low heat. Reduce heat to low and simmer for an hour or so, until all the ingredients have combined to form a thick mushy paste. Remove the whole spices and chill your compote in the fridge until fully cooled. Serve with a strong goat cheese, a smoky brie or scooped over pretty much anything. (I won’t judge you if you eat it plain, with a spoon.)
Active Time: 10 minutes. Actual Time: 3 hours.
The Deceptive Cop-Out: Baked Brie
1 round of brie (any brand will do as long as it’s a full round and not a wedge)
1 package of instant puff pastry
Fillings as desired, to taste:
Prepackaged pesto and roasted garlic cloves
Sliced mushrooms sauteed with olive oil and a dash balsamic vinegar
Honey and toasted walnuts
…feel free to improvise!
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fix desired filling. Slice brie width-wise down the middle and stuff with a sweet or savory filling. Place filled brie in the center of the puff pastry and wrap completely with dough. Place on an ungreased baking sheet and bake in the oven until golden brown. Let sit for five minutes, then serve immediately.
Active Time: 15 minutes (depending on filling). Actual Time: 25 minutes.