party

Cheese

A Cheesemonger's Guide to Cheese Balls

Cheese Balls | www.hungryinlove.com
Comte + Blue Cheese | www.hungryinlove.com

A few years back my grandmother gifted me a cookbook, Fare with Flair. It was a collection of recipes submitted by members of her retirement community. It had flair indeed. But the fare was harder to discern. Perusing the retro recipes provided many hours of amusement. A few personal favorites include 'Avocado Salad' (avocado, lime jello, mayonnaise), 'Frozen Fruit Salad' (powdered sugar, mayonnaise, maraschino cherries, crushed pineapple, marshmallows), and 'Dried Beef Pie' (dried beef, cream cheese, milk, pecans). Hard to conjure the final results, isn't it?

It'd been a while since I opened Fare with Flair when the team from Better Homes and Gardens issued a call for recipes for a spread entitled 'Party Like It's 1965'. I knew immediately where to turn for inspiration. If I was going to find an idea anywhere it was within those pages. And I did. In the hor d'oeuvre section I found several recipes for cheese balls. Unlike dried beef pie, cheese balls have stood the test of time. They instantly signal an occasion and everyone loves them. 

I consulted my cheesemonger husband for his thoughts on how we might update the cheese balls of yesteryear. His guidance was simple. First choose salty, nutty, funk-forward cheeses whose flavors will shine through when paired with cream cheese, which is needed as a binder. Alpine style cheeses like Comte and Gruyere fit the bill as do bold blues. Second he recommended axing the spices, seasoning packets, and Worcestershire sauce common in many vintage recipes. When you're splurging on high-quality cheeses you don't want to mask their flavors. Lastly use your coatings to introduce a texture contrast. Nuts never go out of style but don't be hesitant to experiment with less traditional ingredients like seeds, fresh herbs, crumbled bacon, pomegranate, or as we did here, cocoa nibs. That's it. Just a few simple updates and you and your guests will not only be enjoying cheese balls for their nostalgic value, but also for being just plain delicious.

Cocoa Nibs + Pine Nuts | www.hungryinlove.com
Pine Nut Cheese Ball | www.hungryinlove.com
Cheese Balls | www.hungryinlove.com
You can download the recipe cards featured in this post  here !

You can download the recipe cards featured in this post here!

Ingredients

Blue Cheese + Cocoa Nibs Cheese Ball

  • 4 oz cream cheese (Half of one 8 oz package)
  • 1/3 lb blue cheese (We used Fourme d'Ambert, a French cow's milk cheese widely available in the states. It's creamy, salty, and not too funky - a highly approachable blue!) 
  • 1/3 cup cocoa nibs (Cocoa nibs are dried, roasted, and crushed cocoa beans. They have a deep chocolate taste but are not sweet.)
  • Honey for drizzling

Gruyere + Pine Nut Cheese Ball

  • 4 oz cream cheese (Half of one 8 oz package)
  • 1/3 lb Gruyere 
  • 1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted

For Serving

  • Crackers (For a retro-themed party Club crackers can't be beat.)
  • Green apple slices

Prep

  • Prepare your blue cheese - remove rind and roughly chop into small pieces
  • Prepare your Gruyere - remove rind and using a box grater, grate cheese on the medium fine surface
  • Place 4 oz of cream cheese in a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Beat cream cheese until smooth, about 20 seconds. Add blue cheese and beat until well incorporated, about 20 more seconds.
  • Line a small bowl with a sheet of plastic wrap.
  • Using a rubber spatula scrap cheese mixture onto the plastic wrap. Wrap plastic around cheese and use your hands to shape into a ball. Place wrapped cheese ball in refrigerator to chill.
  • Repeat process for your Gruyere cheese ball. Clean stand mixer bowl and attachments and then beat remaining 4 oz cream cheese for 20 seconds.
  • Add grated Gruyere and beat until well incorporated, about 20 seconds.
  • Line small bowl with plastic wrap again.
  • Scrap Gruyere cheese mixture onto plastic wrap, shape into a ball, then place in refrigerator.
  • Chill cheese balls for a minimum of two hours or overnight.
  • Place pine nuts and cocoa nibs each on their own plate.
  • Unwrap each cheese ball and roll in its respective coating. You may need to use your fingers to press nuts and cocoa nibs into spots where they don't stick.
  • Let sit for 30-60 minutes before serving to come to room temperate.
  • Serve with crackers and apple slice. Enjoy!

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Cheese

New England Summer Cheese Plate

New England Summer Cheese Plate | www.hungryinlove.com
New England Summer Cheese Plate | www.hungryinlove.com

Cheese and rules do not pair well together. Cheese is cheerful; rules are a drag. That's why the suggestions below are not meant to be misconstrued as rules. There are countless ways to build a bliss-inducing cheese plate. These are some of my favorite tactics of late. Take them or leave them but I do hope you're inspired to replace an upcoming meal with a cheese spread of your own creation.

1. Go Topless - Eating cheese sideways in little wedges is the practical and obvious route but it's not the only way! Find a soft-ripened cheese amenable to serving with a spoon. Simply wriggle a knife underneath the top rind to shave it off revealing an inviting bath of gooey goodness. Pictured here is one of my all-time favorites, Harbison from Jasper Hill Farm. Other cheeses well suited to this treatment are Winnimere, also from Jasper Hill, and Rush Creek Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin.

2. Crackers Get Too Much Play - Crackers are great and all but they need not tag along each and every time the cheese comes out. In fact sometimes I find them downright disruptive. These days I'm into letting firmer cheeses fly solo and enjoying softer cheeses (see above) with bread. Bonus: axe the crackers and you can tell your gluten-free friends you've designed a cheese plate just for them.

3. Pick A Theme - Beyond aiming for a mix of textures, it can be a fun challenge to self-impose some parameters. Go for only cheeses from a one country or region, cheeses of a certain age, a milk trio (cow, goat, sheep) or a milk sweep (cow, cow, cow). It'll make the cheese buying experience less daunting and give your cheese plate a little story to tell. Here I decided to highlight three cheeses from New England because they're pretty much crushing it right now

Pictured above, from left to right:

Harbison from Jasper Hill Farm (Greensboro, Vermont) - This is a pasteurized cow's milk cheese made in the style of Vacherin Mont d'Or (that is, bark-wrapped gooey spoon cheese).

Ascutney Mountain from Cobb Hill Cheese (Hartland, Vermont) - This is an alpine style, Jersey cow, raw milk cheese. Fun fact: this cheese is made on a real live commune!

Ellie's Cloudy Down from Ruggles Hill Creamery (Hardwick, Massachusetts) - Is 'Cloudy Down' not the prettiest name for a cheese you ever did hear? I sure think it is. This cheese comes from hand-milked, herb-munching, NPR-listening goats. Truth.

Shishito Peppers | www.hungryinlove.com
Cheese Plate Cherries + Figs | www.hungryinlove.com
New England Summer Cheese Plate | www.hungryinlove.com
New England Summer Cheese Plate | www.hungryinlove.com
New England Summer Cheese Plate | www.hungryinlove.com
New England Summer Cheese Plate | www.hungryinlove.com

Snacks

Roasted Green Grape Guacamole

Roasted Green Grape Guacamole | www.hungryinlove.com

This weekend Tripp and I mapped out our grand calendar of upcoming summer adventures (Carolina! Maine! France!). Besides making me totally giddy, the activity put a rumble in my belly for summery fare, picnics, and parties. With a few weeks left of New England spring, testing summer recipes inside on rainy days is a substitute for the real thing I won’t turn down. Hence, guacamole.

Ah yes, guacamole: friend-maker, woe-mender, harbinger of good times. If I were someone who believed in magic, these powers might seem reasonable. But I’m a notorious skipper of horoscope sections so an alternative explanation is in order. Perhaps it’s nothing beyond the singular alchemy that is avocado + lime + salt.

I’ve long been a fan of fruit-laced guacamole (hello, mango). But last summer was the first time I enjoyed a grape-studded rendition. Plump and bright, grapes are a splendid counter to creamy, rich avocado. Throw roasted grapes into the equation and whoa, you’ve just made a dish with an ingredient ‘two-ways’ at home. I have to admit I was pretty proud of that.

Roasted Green Grape Guacamole Mise En Place | www.hungryinlove.com
Roasted Green Grapes | www.hungryinlove.com
Roasted Green Grapes | www.hungryinlove.com
Grapes: two ways!

Grapes: two ways!

Avocados | www.hungryinlove.com
Guacamole Mise En Place | www.hungryinlove.com
Roasted Green Grape Guacamole | www.hungryinlove.com

Ingredients

Makes 3-4 cups

  • 2 cups whole grapes (visually I think green grapes are best here but red are a fine substitute)
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil + salt
  • 3 ripe Haas avocados, peeled, pitted and diced into small cubes
  • 1 cup quartered grapes
  • 1/3 cup red onion, finely diced
  • 2 serrano chiles, finely diced (if you don't like heat, use only one or omit altogether)
  • 1 cup cilantro leaves, roughly chopped (about 1 bunch)
  • Juice of three limes
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt

Prep

Roast Grapes

  • Preheat oven to 450 degrees
  • Toss 2 cups whole grapes with olive oil, season with salt, and spread on a baking sheet
  • Roast for 15 minutes; grapes will release juices and start to caramelize
  • Transfer grapes to a plate to cool
  • Roughly chop

Assemble Guacamole

  • Place avocado, roasted grapes, quartered fresh grapes, onion, chile, cilanto, lime and salt in a mixing bowl
  • Use a fork to combine until all ingredients are evenly dispersed but avocado chunks remain
  • Taste for seasoning; add more lime and salt as needed
  • Serve with tortilla chips or crudite
  • The flavors will be doubly awesome if you allow guac to sit inthe  fridge (covered) for a couple hours

Cheese

Fondue Party

Cheese Fondue | www.hungryinlove.com
The dipping spread.

The dipping spread.

Cheese Fondue Party | www.hungryinlove.com

Believe it or not last weekend was my first, true fondue experience. My friends were aghast. How could I possibly have  eschewed this dish for three full decades? I used the opportunity to reflect on the many excuses I've encountered for not bothering with it.

1) "Fondue was all the rage in the 70's." This one is hurled as an insult far too often. We celebrate all that is retro in other departments. See Fleetwood Mac, record players, and Connect Four. I know bars that have all three.

2) "You need all that fancy equipment." I'm not a fan of single-use kitchen equipment especially that which is cumbersome to store and comes with a heap of accoutrements. Therefore I have no fondue pot nor those slender, elegant, European fork-spears. No gear, no fondue. Or so I thought. This weekend we managed with a good old dutch oven and regular forks. Most importantly we avoided purchasing this. Win-win.

3) "If you throw a fondue party, too many friends will show up." This is a valid problem that I can't help you with. But ultimately it's one we can file in the 'good to have' category.

It's a good day for hot cheese.

It's a good day for hot cheese.

Despite the world conspiring to keep me and fondue apart, I married a cheesemonger so it was only a matter of time. As it would happen just a few weeks after we tied the knot last year Tripp set off to Switzerland on a cheese-sourcing mission. His goal? Return with new offerings for Formaggio Kitchen from producers not yet featured in the US. Among the cheeses he returned with were a Gruyere and a Vacherin Fribourgeois, two classic fondue cheeses.  So you see, this post was in the making before I even started this blog. 

Now that I've been initiated I have a few words of wisdom to impart. Splurge on the cheese, not the copper fondue set. The more friends  you can squeeze into a circle around your pot, the better the ceremonial quality. Wait for a snowy day and eating all that melted cheese will feel not only justified but necessary.

Wheels of Gruyere aging in Villeneuve, Switzerland.

Wheels of Gruyere aging in Villeneuve, Switzerland.

A Lake Geneva vista on the cheese trail.

A Lake Geneva vista on the cheese trail.

Tripp, hard at work.

Tripp, hard at work.

For Fondue

As a main course a good rule of thumb is a half pound of cheese per person. For each pound of cheese use one cup of wine. Note that this is a generous estimation. This recipe can easily serve more than four depending on appetites.

  • 1 lb Gruyere, grated
  • 1 lb Vacherin Fribourgeois, grated
  • Pinch of flour
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 2 cups dry white wine (plus chilled bottles for drinking; Fondant or Gruner Vetliner are traditional choices)
  • White or black pepper

Comte, Emmentaler, and Raclette are all good substitutes for Gruyere and Vacherin Fribourgeois. There's no magic to a two-cheese blend either. Use one alone or a mix of several.

For Dipping

  • Cubed bread
  • Cubed salami
  • Cornichons (tiny, cute pickles)
  • Boiled new potatoes

Other great options: Cured beef, Pickled Onions, Proscuitto, or whatever else you fancy.

Prep

  • Ready your platter of dippers; the fondue takes only a few minutes to come together and should be served immediately
  • Grate cheese (avoid buying pre-grated cheese as a general rule; the air exposure compromises flavor)
  • Toss grated cheese with a pinch of flour to avoid clumping
  • Rub a heavy bottomed dutch oven or fondue pot with a split clove of raw garlic
  • Toss garlic clove into pot and add wine
  • Bring wine just to a boil, remove garlic clove
  • Add cheese to the simmering wine and use a whisk to incorporate gradually, about 1 minute; you want to allow the cheese to melt on its own terms and avoid vigorous stirring; the fondue will be smooth and fall in ribbons when lifted with a spoon
  • Stir in pepper to taste
  • Move dutch oven to the table and serve immediately