Simple! Sensible! Sensational!®
April 2004
© 2004 by Bret S. Beall

SAY CHEESE!

Cheese is SO misunderstood. Let me be clear here: this column is NOT about American slices or Velveeta. It is not about that white powdery stuff in a green can that “some” people put on pasta. It is not about bags of grated “rubbery” stuff that is sold at a premium, yet usually has no flavor whatsoever.

Nope, this column is about using BIG flavored, preferably organic, artisanal cheeses. This month, I’m emphasizing two recipes involving baking with cheese, because soon the weather will be too warm for baking, and I hope you’ll enjoy these delights while you have time. Be aware that the flavor of these baked delicacies will change with the particular cheese you use, so be empowered to experiment with different varieties.

Cheese Straws/Crackers

Cheese straws are a southern US classic. Every holiday season while I was growing up, my parents would make their own version based on an original recipe that came with their Wear-Ever cookie press. They replaced some of the requisite cheddar with Maytag bleu, and I have followed that tradition below. Not everyone owns a cookie press, and most of the newer ones will not handle the stiff cheese dough, so my straws are rolled out and cut into narrow strips before baking. I think they are irresistible (and so do others!).

  • 4 T butter (1/2 stick), refrigerated or frozen, grated finely
  • 4 oz finely grated cheddar (sharp or extra sharp, the best that you can afford; the better the cheese, the better the final product!) (about 1.5 or 2 c, very loosely packed)
  • 1 oz finely chopped/grated bleu cheese (use your favorite bleu; the bleu cheese adds an extra “bite” to these crackers) (about ½ c, loosely packed) (optional; increase cheddar if not using, or add your favorite strongly-flavored cheese, such as parmesan or pecorino or feta)
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 t black pepper, chile powder, chipotle powder, smoked paprika (hot or sweet) or cayenne (optional; or increase to 1 T if you like things extra spicy)
  • 3/4 c flour
  • up to 2 T water, ice cold (only if needed)
  • up to 2 T additional flour for rolling out the dough
Place the finely grated butter, finely grated cheddar (and finely chopped/grated bleu, if using) in a mixing bowl. Add the remaining ingredients, except for the water. Using a fork (or two knives used to slice against each other in opposite directions), mix the ingredients until the cheese is well mixed with the flour, and the butter is incorporated evenly throughout the mixture. Use your hands to begin kneading, squeezing the ingredients between your fingers to fully blend. A ball of dough will form in the bowl; if it is loose, add the cold water 1 teaspoon at a time and knead until the ball comes together. Using your hands, compact the ball, and add any loose bits of ingredients left in the bowl. Keeping the dough ball in your hands, continue mixing the ingredients by continually flattening the dough into a slab and folding it onto itself, moving in opposite directions, about 4 or 5 minutes. Flatten the well-blended dough to a slab about 1” thick, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and from the plastic wrap, and divide in half. Shape the first half into a long tube approximately 12” to 15” long, and 1” in diameter; flatten the tube so that the width is about 2” and the thickness is about ½”. Shake about 1 tablespoon of flour onto the working surface, place the tube on the floured surface, and using a rolling pin or tall drinking glass, roll out the dough to about 18” long and 2-3” wide and 1/8” thick. Slice into strips ¼ to 3/8” wide and 2-3” long, and place the strips on an ungreased cookie sheet (not touching, but quite close). Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes (there is a fine balance between crispy straws and overly-browned straws … practice makes perfect) until the edges are slightly browned but the centers are pale. Remove to a towel or a paper towel to cool. Store in an airtight container. These straws can be frozen up to one year.

Variations:

Cheese Rounds/Squares: Follow recipe to the point of removing the dough from the refrigerator and dividing in half. Now your options are myriad. You can roll out the dough into a flat slab about 1/8” thick, and using a cookie cutter or drinking glass about 1” to 1.5” in diameter, cut rounds and place them on an ungreased cooking sheet. Roll the extra into another flat sheet and cut into rounds. You can also cut the dough into squares, rectangles or triangles. Alternatively, you can take rounded ½ teaspoonfuls of the dough and mold them into rounds or ovals about 1/8” thick and place them on an ungreased cookie sheet. Still another approach is to take a rounded ½ teaspoonful of the dough, form it into a round, place it on an ungreased cookie sheet, and either press it flat with the floured bottom of glass to a 1/8” thickness, or take a fork, and make two impressions with the tines at right angles. Bake these all for 18 to 20 minutes, until the bottom edges are slightly browned. Remove to a towel or a paper towel to cool.

Applications:

These cheese straws/crackers are great with chowders, or as an accompaniment to a green salad.

Gougeres

For years, I had heard about these cheesy delights, but never made the effort to make them. I sampled one made by one of the Midwest’s top chefs, and was unsure if I would ever really want to try them again, as it was soggy, insipid and quite unpleasant. When I finally decided to give them a try, I was surprised by the wide range of proportions in published recipes. Theoretically, the batter is a pate a choux flavored with cheese. I decided to synthesize several versions into one recipe that had basically the same proportions as my cheese straws. I also simplified the techniques, reducing both steps of preparation and equipment required. The result is a cheesy biteful (or two) that combines a crisp, tender exterior with a delicate, moist interior, with a hint of saltiness.

I’m also going to point out why you need to have the confidence to question published recipes: you’ll notice below that I write about adding butter (a fat) to water with various flavorings; my instructions are to bring the mixture TO a boil, ensure combination, and turn off the heat. Recently, Southern Living Magazine published a biscuit recipe that has caused people to be burned because it explodes during preparation. The problem is that fat (shortening) is added to boiling water, and the directions said to boil the mixture for 5 minutes; during that time, the fat can trap steam being released by the boiling water, and when the water pressure reaches a certain point, the steam explodes through the shortening, scalding anyone nearby. Of course, when someone reads a recipe mindfully, one realizes that there is NO REASON to let the water and fat boil for five minutes. Heat is needed to keep the subsequent mixture hot, but working quickly takes care of that, as this gougere recipe shows. And the boiling isn’t for mixing or altering the ingredients themselves. It’s just one more example of a cook doing something without having a reason for doing it! Don’t fall into that trap, PLEASE.

But DO make these Gougeres! Today!

  • 1 c water
  • 4 T (1/4 c) butter (1/2 stick), cut into pieces
  • 1 t salt
  • 1 t cayenne, smoked paprika, chipotle powder, black pepper or other favorite spice (such as cumin, coriander or cardamom) (optional, especially if using a highly flavored cheese)
  • 1 c flour
  • 4 eggs, at room temperature
  • 4 oz of your favorite cheese, finely grated
  • 1 oz bleu cheese, finely grated and crumbled (optional) coarse salt and/or cheese for sprinkling (optional)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Combine water, butter, salt and chile in a quart saucepan and bring to a boil. When all of the ingredients have combined, turn off the heat and remove the saucepan to a heat resistant work surface or a regular surface protected by a potholder. Immediately add all of the flour, beating it in quickly with a rubber spatula or large spoon. Add the eggs one at a time, beating in each until thoroughly incorporated, working very quickly to prevent the eggs from cooking in the hot batter; the batter will become slightly glossy. Quickly stir in the grated cheese(s), until the cheese is thoroughly incorporated. Line two baking sheets with aluminum foil or parchment. Drop the batter onto the covered baking sheets in rounded teaspoonfuls; optionally, sprinkle some coarse sea salt, kosher salt or additional cheese on top of the gougeres. Bake each sheet separately for about 25 minutes; do not open oven for the first 15 minutes. Serve immediately as hors d’oeuvres, or alongside a green salad, or with a soup or stew. NOTE: this recipe yields about 4 dozen gougeres. If you don’t need that many at one time, you have options. Bake only one sheet of the gougeres, while refrigerating or freezing the other (you must thaw and bring them to room temperature for baking). Or, bake the whole lot and freeze or refrigerate the extras (be aware that the slightly crisp exterior will soften, that the high moisture content of the interior will encourage mold if they are not refrigerated or frozen, and in general quality will be reduced, but they are still wonderful).

Variation:

Herbed Gougeres: Substitute 1 t to 1 T of your favorite herb (oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, mint, etc.) for the chile, pepper or other spice. Use in any of the applications below.

Applications:

Gougere Sandwiches: Slice the gougeres equatorially, lightly spread mustard and/or mayonnaise on each side, and add slices of ham, prosciutto, Serrano ham, or other smoked or cured meat for an interesting twist on a ham and cheese sandwich. Thinly sliced roast beef and horseradish are another great filling for the gougeres. Try any sort of thinly sliced charcuterie, especially if paired with some sliced tomatoes and a splash of vinaigrette for a new take on an Italian grinder (especially if using an oregano gougere described above). Some dilled mayonnaise and smoked salmon or other smoked or cured fish will be fantastic (especially with some chopped capers, dill pickle or sweet gherkin).

Caviar Canapés: If you want to create a holiday splurge, fill the center of each sliced gougere with your favorite caviar; the combination of textures and flavors is simply amazing, and is a good way to “stretch” caviar.

Gougeres au champignon: Sauté a pound of your favorite mushrooms (preferably wild), thinly sliced, in about ¼ c butter or olive oil. Add 1 t salt to encourage the removal of water and enhance flavor. If desired, add 1 t of finely minced garlic or 1 T of finely minced shallot, scallion or onion. Several grinds of black pepper are delicious. When most of the liquid has cooked off, either spoon the cooked mushrooms directly onto half of an equatorially-sliced gougere, topping with the other half, or allow the mushrooms to continue cooking to slightly brown and caramelize. Red or white wine (1/2 c) or balsamic or red wine vinegar (2 T to ¼ c) or the juice and zest of ½ lemon (about 2 T of juice and 1 t of zest) can be added to the caramelizing mushrooms; ¼ c chopped capers are also a delicious addition. Spoon the hot mushrooms and juice over the lower halves of the gougeres (three will make a nice first course), then top with the upper halves of the gougeres. Serve immediately.

Before closing, I have to relate an amusing anecdote. A beloved friend of over 25 years was visiting Casa Beall during the period when I was testing variations of the Cheese Straw recipe. I told her I wanted her to try some of them (calling them “cheese crackers”), and she said, “I’m not really a fan of Cheez-its.” One taste later, and she chastised herself for allowing herself to put a Simple! Sensible! Sensational!® recipe into the same category as fast food. Don’t allow yourself to make such an assumption, either! Try these treats as soon as possible, before it becomes too hot to use the oven! Let me know how much you love them by emailing me at bret@god-dess.com .


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