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Say Cheese

By Rob Benes

A cheese board with honey, preserves, apples, roasted nuts and other accompaniments is a nice change from a sweet at the end of a meal. But many chefs understand that a fine cheese is the perfect ingredient in a plated dessert, adding extra layers of flavor best described as
a bit of good funkiness. 

Fresh soft cheese, such as goat cheese or fromage blanc, works best as a primary ingredient in a dessert when baking or some other cooking method is involved. Hard cheese, such as cheddar or Parmesan, can be an accent component of a dessert, or can be mixed into pie crust to add a crispy element.

cheese matters

This spring, Sarah Osborn, pastry chef at Niche, Clayton, Missouri, made a crunchy, tart, creamy dessert with early green strawberries, cake and goat cheese panna cotta. She used far less gelatin than for a traditional panna cotta, but enough so that it held its shape. Goat’s milk
was added to further enhance the goat cheese flavor. Camembert and Reblochon-style cheeses, made in-house, could be substituted for the goat cheese. 

Green strawberries are somewhat inedible on their own, but Osborn sliced and pressed them with simple syrup to add sweetness, and she also added sliced green strawberries to a sorbet that provided a subtle green and underlying strawberry flavor. The dessert was presented in a bowl, with panna cotta piped in as dots, followed by torn pieces of cake, sweetened green strawberries, candied nuts and a quenelle of green strawberry sorbet.

“Cheese is a familiar food, so including it as a primary or complementary ingredient doesn’t scare people away from ordering a dessert, but, rather, draws them to it,” Osborn says. 

Matthew Dolan, executive chef/partner at Twenty Five Lusk, San Francisco, uses fromage
blanc in a cheesecake paired with seasonal ingredients. In colder months, he relies on tropical fruits and citrus, and in warmer months, on fresh local berries. The idea to use fromage blanc came from his time working in Helsinki, where chefs cook with lighter ingredients. Fromage blanc, like cream cheese, lacks living cultures. It has a similar texture to cream cheese, but is much lighter and has less fat. Because the reduced fat interferes with the cake setting up, an additional egg is added. 

Dolan, who is from the New York area, has a soft spot for New York-style cheesecake. “The fromage blanc is a perfect substitute for cream cheese, giving guests the same dining experience minus the traditional slab of dense cheesecake,” he says. “It’s a dessert that people can identify with, too. But, at the same time, it doesn’t weigh heavily on the digestion.”

Catherine Nault, pastry chef at Labriola Ristorante & Café, Chicago, says cheese helps lighten the sweetness of a dessert while still making it decadent. She demonstrates this in a tiramisu budino—a chocolate hazelnut pudding with espresso ice, espresso biscotti and mascarpone mousse.

The mascarpone is softened gently by hand. Then, whipped egg yolks are folded in, followed by whipped egg whites. A touch of heavy cream and stabilizer are added last. The budino is poured into a glass at an angle and allowed to set up overnight. The mascarpone mousse is piped on at pickup, and the dessert is garnished with granita, biscotti and lemon zest.

Nault uses fresh buffalo’s milk ricotta in her “sacripatina” semifreddo with vanilla/ricotta pound cake, and in a chocolate cake with six layers of alternating ricotta cannoli cream and hazelnut mousseline filling. She favors the buffalo’s milk ricotta because it is smoother and creamier than cottage cheese or cow’s milk ricotta cheese. There are no grainy characteristics, it is bright-white in color, moist, and has a strong, sweet flavor when compared with cow’s milk whey-based ricotta. It also helps reduce the amount of butter needed in a cake.

Another alternative is ricotta impastata, or pastry ricotta, which is whipped to create an ethereal texture. It is sometimes sweetened,
and is used to make fluffy fillings for cannoli and sfogliatelle. 

Carla Burns, pastry chef at Red Star Tavern, Portland, Oregon,
makes honey/lemon sponge cake with goat cheese mousse, roasted rhubarb compote and limoncello sorbet. It’s a sweet dessert with
four alternating layers of mousse and compote, and sorbet on the side. She says the dessert needs a mellowing component, which the
goat cheese mousse provides along with tart and tangy elements. The mousse follows a gelatin-based recipe, so with the addition of
the goat cheese, the gelatin is reduced. 

Adam Timney, executive chef/co-owner at Starbelly, San Francisco, likes cheese to shine on its own merits. He simply prepares a date cake with a dollop of mascarpone on the side. “It doesn’t need anything. It’s perfect in its unadulterated form,” he says. “Don’t overcomplicate or manipulate cheese. Let it stand on its own legs.” 

He has also served Dynamo Donut + Coffee’s chocolate spice doughnut with Humphry Slocombe’s cream cheese ice cream—two San Francisco products. “Sometimes the work is already done for you. When the restaurant opened, we wanted to showcase local products, so I combined the doughnut and ice cream on one plate. I liked the slight acidity of the cream cheese ice cream, which paired well with the doughnut.”

Sneaking in the cheese course

Cooking with cheese in a dessert involves a lot of trial and error. “If you know how to compose a cheese board, half the battle is over,” says Danny Trace, executive chef at Brennan’s of Houston, Houston. “Use that foundation as the beginning thought process on how to use and combine cheese with other ingredients in making a dessert.” 

He likes to sneak cheese into the dessert course of a five-course dinner; that way, he’s not devoting an entire course to cheese. Desserts have included Texas fig and blue cheese tart; NOLA rum-glazed apple pie with cheddar cheese in the filling and the pie crust; crispy strawberry/rhubarb pie with goat cheese ice cream; and caramelized apple and foie gras galette with cheddar cheese in the filling.

The new cheese board

Edward Kim, executive chef at Ruxbin, Chicago, prepares a New Age cheese board that combines two after-dinner staples—the cheese plate and a pastry. The board was named one of the seven best cheese plates in Chicago by Zagat in fall 2014. 

The main component of the dish is a pear tarte tatin. The flaky pastry is served with Carr Valley Cheese Co.’s Glacier Penta Creme (a creamy blue cheese) ice cream, seasonal fruit, candied walnuts and fried arugula. 

Americans tend to favor desserts that are overly sweet, Kim says. “Although it may not deliver that sweet craving, cheese provides the richness and fattiness that signals to the brain and palate that the meal has come to an end.” 

Kim’s tarte tatin recipe can change depending on which fruit is in season, and the cake could be a Japanese sponge cake. The ice cream might be a panna cotta using cream cheese or goat cheese. 

“Using cheese as an ingredient is not challenging, it’s fun, given the available variety,” he says.

A Cheese Calendar

Cheese seasonality comes into play for multiple reasons, most of them tied to animal husbandry. The breeding cycle, especially with sheep and goats, determines the cheesemaker’s schedule. Both animals have reproductive cycles that are aligned with the amount of daylight available, and go into heat when days get shorter. A cow dairy can have a milk supply year-round by staggering the breeding, yet some
produce cheese only seasonally when they believe the milk is best.

The composition of the milk—the amount of fat and casein (milk protein) and the ratio of these key cheese components—can vary
dramatically throughout the season, especially if the animals all give birth around the same time. A dairy animal’s milk is richest in the weeks after it gives birth, with richness climbing again at the end of the lactation cycle. In between, the milk solids—the cheesemaker’s word for the fat and casein—may dip, which impacts cheese yield and quality.

Industrial dairies standardize the fat/casein ratio throughout the year to get consistent results; artisan cheesemakers adjust their recipes.
Weather also affects cheese quality, not only in the cellar, but also in the distribution system. Seasonal peaks differ for many cheeses based on geography, breed or style, but here are some general guidelines for cheeses produced in the Northern Hemisphere.
• Spring—ricotta; fresh unripened goat cheese; young mold-ripened cheeses
• Summer—mozzarella and Burrata; year-old mountain cheeses such as Comté, made with summer milk; crottins, Banon and other moderately aged goat cheeses
• Autumn—washed-rind cheeses such as Brescianella; cheddars
• Winter—6-month-old Appenzeller, Abondance and other alpine cheeses; Gouda; 4- to 6-month-old pecorino, manchego or Ossau-Iraty; blue cheese such as Stilton, Gorgonzola and Roquefort 

Source: foodspring.com, Specialty Food Association