p1: Baked Camembert

The Dish

enhanced-buzz-18653-1387650694-0When it comes to the dishes in this French list, my decision for when and why I make particular ones are usually just happenstance with how they fit that week/situation. But a few of them actually have plans built around them, fun ideas I got excited about soon after I began studying this collection of classic recipes. Some of it’s based on occasion/time of year, while others are purely on how I’d make it, or something else.

In particular I’ve been looking forward to a good period to go through with an idea I had for the highly simplistic, royally rustic meal that was ‘Baked Camembert.’ Grab a really good wheel that I’ve wanted to have for a while, put together a baking dish of it, then bring it to a wineI know which would bake it for me and enjoy with family, the people at the bar, all accompanied by their personal garnishments and some wine we’d order. So I finally found a good time to do that this weekend… and of course the place was unexpectedly closed with no warning or reason given. Well that’s my luck. But I still had the cheese, so might as well just put it together at home!

The cheese itself is a Normandy or Pays d’Auge creation, supposedly developed by farmer Marie Harel in the town of Camembert during 1791 after following advice from a priest from Brie who she had given refuge, it being the French Revolution and all. Though most of its origins, at least towards what we know of it today, came through the industrialization process of the 1800’s, like the creation of the signature round wooden box in 1890, the container ‘sponsored’ by Napolean III, used to help it ship and travel to different countries and continents like America, where popularity boomed. Though it really centered itself into French culture during WW1, when issued to troops as part of daily rations.

Proper camembert, traditionally and legally speaking, is always made with UNpasteurized milk, which is remarkedly seen to always taste better than the convenient and ‘safer’ (damn US laws, literally making it illegal to obtain any proper, delicious form of fresh milk unless you’re squeezing the cow yourself) pasteurized versions.

Ok, done with the textbook description, let’s get to baking the stuff!

A W20151004_160142ord On…

The Cheese: Well, I’ve already talked about the cheese itself, and finding it shouldn’t be too difficult for any proper artisan cheese section/shop; I’m sure you have a favorite to get the good stuff from. I’ve actually been dreaming about doing this dish for a while though, because there’s a local farm that makes a camembert-style cheese that I’ve had on my mind ever since I saw this on my list of must-makes. So I had to finally get a whole wheel to bake into melted hot cheesy goodness.

Accompaniments: baked rind cheeses are always good with some garlic and onions, that’s how we do our brie, but I want to stick to something more countryside, so garlic and rosemary on top like one of the recipes I glanced at. As for what to eat it WITH, besides bread of course, I’m not sure what all is traditional, if anything. Usually freshly minced shallots, some capers, cornichon pickles, and other similar items are seen on the side for a variety of simple French dishes like tartar, fondue, and that dish of Raclette I made a while ago. I personally had this ripe tomato from my own pot that begged to be used soon, so I just had to use it, cut through the funky-creamy fat of the cheese with some natural umami-assisted acidity. Plus it’s classic; melted cheese, crunchy bread, and tomatoes, sound familiar? But you can always use whatever you fancy and have lying around, if not just eat it plain with bread! That IS the wonder of meals like this.

Recipe
1 Wheel Camembert
1 Garlic Clove, thinly sliced
1-2 tsp Fresh Rosemary, very briefly chopped
1-2 Tb Olive Oil
Tsp Sea Salt
French Bread, for service
Ripe Tomato, for service (optional)

Directions

  1. Turn oven to 375F
  2. Lightly score top of the Camembert and place in ovenproof ramekin/casserole/bowl20151004_160916
  3. Cover with Garlic and Rosemary, lightly rubbing in20151004_163134
  4. Pour over Olive Oil, making sure to evenly spread along the top and sides, followed by sprinkles of Sea Salt
  5. Place in oven, cooking until top is crusty and inside is warmed through, 15-25 minutes at most20151005_135730
  6. Move loaf of French bread in oven about 5-8 minutes before service to toast and crisp up20151005_141241
  7. Remove from oven, let cool on counter about 5 minutes while you slice bread and any other additional accompaniments20151005_141357
  8. Place in center of table, and enjoy! Best eaten spooned over warm, crusty bread

20151005_141200The Verdict

Okay, so I just looked at the Buzzfeed recipe to double-check procedures, I’m quite used to simply baking brie ya know so there’s nothing in-depth I should need, and that’s when I saw the directions for scoring the cheese. They also have you remove the top lid for service. Well you know what? That recipe creator can go screw himself, cuz you can see the result. And yes I probably overdid it a little bit, but that was well after it turned into a cheese pool; if my guess is correct and their ‘ideal’ is to bake until just warmed throughout, then that’s just plain stupid. If you’re going to bake cheese, then you need to BAKE it; that means a hot, gooey center, rind that has gotten that crispy golden look to it, something really sinful, and that needs time. It should thus be scored very LIGHTLY on top, probably just in the center (did some research, apparently it is important so as to let the air/steam out while cooking), but that should be it.

20151005_141543Now I simply know that I need to leave the cheese completely untouched so as to ensure it stays in one piece during this process. Not that it really changed the experience in the slightest. Because it was just soooo good… like brie but with more of that fatty cream flavor, and surprisingly enough a little more subtle on the funk and knutty-herb-farmhouse flavors, a ‘fresher’ cheese flavor that had yet to get to that really ‘aged’ feel. It took me and my mom quite some effort to make sure we left even a bit for dad, because once that cheese got on bread, especially with a piece of just-ripened tomato from my pot, that just ended up an almost perfect afternoon treat. Everything I love about baked brie dinners but a little more concentrated.

Primary Pairing – Mead

Camembert and honey are certainly a match made in heaven, though so is honey and most cheeses if you get down to it. The distinctively cloying fat and somewhat salty properties of cheese get balanced beautifully with anything sweet, thus its often inclusion in or close to the last course of a proper French meal. So why not take advantage of this affinity to highlight a nice bottle of classic Honey Wine, letting its usually rather simple flavor, aroma, and body contrast the camembert’s properties while letting its own complexities shine through. But one needs to ensure they get one of the lighter, slightly sweet and refreshing meads; avoid ones 20151005_140917like that which I used for Raclette, which was rather thick and heavy and would be too heavy for any but the rich and more pungent cheese.

My Bottle: Winehaven Stinger Honey Wine

So far, probably my favorite Minnesota winery, Winehaven celebrates the colder Northern US history of fruit wine, made long before we found ways to grow decent wine grapes or developed hybrids for the right areas, with a small selection of bottles like raspberry, rhubarb, and of course Honey Wine. They’ve got a lot of reds and whites made from California and Minnesota-exclusive varietals too, and not done too badly either, but that’s a discussion for another day.

I got this bottle as a Christmas gift from the Sis, not too exciting as I’ve had it before, but have been saving it for the right occasion nonetheless. And here I was, being forced to bake the camembert at home instead of these other plans I had, with no bottle pre-picked out at my disposal… and yet one of the almost perfect combos are right at my feet! Chilled, it was a little lighter, still sort of medium-bodied with the thickness, which was just within the edge of acceptable when eaten alongside a big, hot glob of cheese on bread. And I love the expression it has with that musky, spicy-floral side of honey that comes through, a sign of decent honey and clean, quality attention to the winemaking. Was it the greatest thing ever? No, probably not, but for Mead it was rather good and refreshing, and didn’t clash with the cheese when the two combined on the palate.

Secondary Pairing – Bordeaux Blancbb

What I was HOPING to have this evening by sharing the dish with family at a friend’s restaurant, but alas had to rely on what was in house! But something young, clean, without any particularly ‘distinguishing’ features like chardonnay and Riesling can carry, a pure white wine with enough body to match the cheese and a refreshing nature to cleanse the palate. For me I think a decent Bordeaux Blanc would fill those qualities, along with some little green, white fruit notes from the sauvignon used that would cut nicely through the subtle funk of the rinded cheese to compliment its grassy qualities, without being too strong and overpowering. It may not be a proper regional pairing, but right now it peaks my cravings; though on that note, a nice snifter of Normandy Calvados wouldn’t be too bad either…

p1: Raclette

(my apologies on the delay in posting, have had quite the busy and interested last couple weeks, hopefully should get a couple of these backed up posts out a little quicker than usual)

The Dish

23I remember the one time I went to France as a High School Student, part of our trip led us down somewhere to the Southern Coast (can’t remember where, I sadly wasn’t as travel-and-culinary-focused back then as I am now). When preparing for this travel, one of the biggest memories that still sticks in my mind is a heavy suggestion from my teacher to try a local specialty, “Raclette.” It looked and sounded so good… but despite my hopes I never had the chance to actually experience it, either in the group or with the family I stayed with for a week.

Though in hindsight, as I’ve learned in recent years, that was a pretty stupid thing to expect from a dish that’s inherently from the ALPINE regions of the country, near the Swiss border… not that close to the South of the country.

Its humble origins lie on the other side of that border, the original cheese being of Swiss invention instead of French, though the French do make their own Raclette near the border. 700 years ago, the cheese was the main sustenance of choice for the area farmers. After a long day of work, local shepherds, or Valais vineyard workers (some say one started it, some the other, maybe it’s just both), would sit around a fire, jamming a big block of cheese on a wood stick and sticking next to the heat to melt and soften.

This becomes the origins of the dish based solely around grilling the cheese over an open flame until it gets gooey and crisp, before letting it melt over the choice potatoes and other sides. Originally, this preparation was actually referred to as Bratchäss, Swiss for “roasted.” At some point, though, the name of both the cheese and dish changed to “Raclette,” a variation of racler, meaning “to scrape” in French, indicative of the long scrapings of melted surface cheese from the big block before returning it to the fire.

A Word On…

20140411_173032The Cheese:As with many alpine-cheese-based French dishes on here, one has the choice of both a French and Swiss version of the Cheese in question. Thus there are raclettes from two different countries, if you can get the good ones from a local cheese shop. From what I was told, the Swiss version should be slightly firmer, with a simpler and singular flavor, wheras the French version contains a bit more of that funky personality. For the sake of keeping to the same goal as others, I of course went with a big, big wedge of French raclette. I wish I could have gotten a whole half-wheel like is traditional for better scraping, but that’s a lot of money!

On another note, in case one can’t find a “wheel” of the cheese to cut from, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some stores have it plastic-wrapped and sold in smaller blocks (like that one greek “grilling cheese”). Though it’s not as fresh and ideal, it’ll work.

If looking for a substitute, the flavor sorta reminds me of Taleggio; just make sure you get one that’s REALLY young, while it’s still firm enough to slice and/or skewer.

The Accompaniments:Often in France, this melted cheese will be scraped over a plate with Gherkin or Cornichon pickles, pickled or raw onions, sausage, some kind of cured meat, and/or potatoes. But, other than the potatoes, I wouldn’t put any of these as stringent requirements unless one is REALLY trying to stay traditional. Just use whatever you want or have lying around the house; I roasted a pan of cherry tomatoes, bacon, and a whole onion (which I then seared to caramelized goodness) for my little plate of goodies. You can put in bell peppers, anchovies, olives, compotes, etc… or just drizzle hot cheese into your mouth.20140411_180018

The Melting:There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and the same goes for melting cheese… you know, just not as hairy. Of course, if one wants to make it like they did back in the day, then they’ll stick with just the one; holding it over a fire. Obviously, the bigger the chunk the better; stays on the skewer and can control the melting. Though I’ve found it can be a bit tricky to get the melting and scraping right, need a bit of time to get used to it (had quite a few messy random hodgepodges of cheese scrapings on my first attempts). But once you do it’s sorta fun.

enhanced-buzz-21238-1385761799-9Other somewhat more reliable methods exist though. Such as the very one-minded appliance made exclusively for melting raclette cheese… with these tiny little skillet pans that one sticks on what looks to be a cross between a portable broiler, toaster oven, and Panini press. Cool as it is, please, for the love of god, do not be the kind of person that stoops low enough to buy it. Just use a nonstick cast iron pan in an oven or something.

One of my favorite alternatives is just laying slices of the cheese over the desired accompaniments and broiling. It melts wonderfully, looks great, and you’re actually able to get that awesomely crispy golden crust, which I found was quite difficult to do over a fire unless one is willing to risk a higher percentage of meltage loss.

Raclette20140411_185242

One Big Hunk of Cheese (preferably Raclette)

Cooked Potatoes (optional)

Onions, raw or cooked (optional)

Tomatoes and other Veggies (optional)

Gherkins and/or Olives (optional)

Bacon (optional)

Air-dried meats like Prosciutto (optional)

Directions

  • Skewer Cheese (or just hold if large enough), holding directly over the fire until a large enough proportion has softened and melted, getting the edges crispy if possible.20140411_185750
  • Carefully scrape onto potatoes and other accompanying edibles as preferred. Repeat process.20140411_190309
  • Alternatively, arrange potatoes and accompanying in an oven-proof sauté pan.20140413_111248
  • Slice and layer cheese over top, sticking pan under a broiler set on High. Let melt until golden and crispy around part of it.20140413_111818
  • Remove and scoop onto serving plate.

The Verdict

20140413_111953I will say, using the fire to cook it is fun, but it’s a bit tricky and takes some time to get right (let alone a proper hot open-air fire, as opposed to something made in a grill box). Tedious too, gotta do one plate at a time when serving people. Though it’s cheap, I’ll admit the broiler method ended up yielding the more desired result. I actually got golden and crispy edges too, which is what I really wanted. So take that as it is and decide for yourself how you might treat it (or do like me, get a big wedge and try both!).

As for the actual tastings and result…. Omnomnomnomnom. God I loooovvveee a good cheese and potato dish. The raclette really gets that nice fond-like crispiness around its surface when hot enough, and it has a deliciously mellow yet moldy/funky undertone to it, like a milder Tallegio (think I said that before though…). When you get a bite of everything all at once; cheese, potato, tomato, meat, olives or capers, onion, etc; it all ends up that perfectly harmonized blend of flavors and senses. Maybe not all that “heavenly,” but very comforting and satisfying when done right.

Oh, and it tastes pretty good without cooking too. I suggest getting the cheese for yourself at some point!

Primary Pairing – Mead20140411_184451

There are a couple classic pairings for this rustic mountain dish, and loads of other pairings that are suggested across the alcohol board online, but I find the most interesting is in the form of “Hot Drinks.” Being a hot, crusty dish to be eaten in the cold of winter, raclette is often drunk with similarly warmed beverages, usually some sort of tea or maybe mulled wine.

I thought it’d be fun to try the use of Mead instead of others; I like the idea of honey and cheese. Not to mention who doesn’t love a good cup of mulled mead whenever they head to the Renaissance Fair on a chilly day?

20140411_173704My Bottle:Chaucer’s Mead

Mead and honeywine can be a tricky thing to pick out, I’ve found. Unless you’ve actually tasted it, you have no idea what a particular bottle will be like in the glass… which I guess is true for every wine and beer, but at least they have indications (region, grape, style and ageing denominations, etc). Mead only ever says mead… and I’ve tasted ones that are thick and musky like an oversweet Riesling and others that are dry and practically flavorless, without knowing either way. Gotta pick carefully.

So at the very least, this mead’s hanging label proclamation of “semi-sweet,” addition of spice packets for mulling, and Middle-age connotations was able to help me get an idea that it would be, indeed, much like the warm meads I’ve had at the local Renaissance Fair. And it was, and very tasty at that.

Tried it both chilled and mulled just for the heck of it, hard to say which one I liked better… notably different. Mulled lost the muskiness and gained a lighter, almost fresher consistency, sliding down easily to cut through the rustic funk with its warmth, while the chilled acted like a tender nectar to fill the mouth, accentuating the rustic and moldy flavors. It’s very lacking in the acid department, but the sweetness and filling mouthfeel easily make up for it, not to mention it’s comforting.

Either way it was good. And it’s from Cali, so should be a mead one can get in most if not every state.20140411_184541

Secondary Pairing – Savoie White

A French Alpine dish, with its own strong ties to Switzerland, one just can’t plan a meal of it without considering the iconic regions hidden in that little mountain border, Jura and Savoie. Jura’s usually quite oxidative, so I’d rather stick with the simpler, continentally acidic and fresh wines of Savoie. The good quality, chasselas based whites are said to have quite the personality, great for matching up to the unique flavor. Most of what we can find in stores, though, are of the more affordable variety, less distinct but very youthful. Again, fresh and acidic, with a simple citrusy palette to cut right through the fatty and cheese profile. As one would expect and hope to drink on a cold night, tired from a day of skiing and sitting by the fire with a hot, comforting dish of melted cheese and potatoes.

Though heck, if you can find a Swiss white wine from Valais (one of their best regions for the typical Chasselas-based drink, and origin of Raclette itself), take the opportunity to marry this fated reunion post-haste.