Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Hazelnut-Crusted Goat Cheese
I wanted another crack at the warm crusted goat cheese I mentioned in the previous post, the one that sort of dissolved on me when I made it out at Bide-A-Wee. While we often have ample time to cook at the cabin, by the time evening rolls around we don't have...light, or space, or equipment beyond the very primitive. I frequently find myself attempting preparations way too complicated for the surroundings. It builds character, is what I tell myself; Mary might describe it differently.
But back in Saint Paul this week I found I had some goat cheese left, as well as some of the cranberry maple chutney I detailed in the previous post. My second go, executed in the plain light of a chilly winter afternoon, taking lessons from the previous attempt, turned out pretty well, and made a delightful snack for tea.
This can be a little tricky, but it's worth the trouble, I think, at least a couple of times a year. The difficulties come from either the cheese melting too fast, or separating from the crust (another symptom of the same problem). The cheese I used was Donnay chevre, an excellent fresh goat cheese from Kimball, Minnesota.
This is a beautifully rich and tangy chevre; but for this preparation, it's a little soft, I must say. I try to get around that by freezing the cheese pre-frying, as described below. If you have a choice, I would go for the firmest fresh chevre that is still easily moldable--I mean, I wouldn't give up flavor for firmness, but all other things being equal, go for the firmer cheese.
It’s fun and local to make this with foraged wild hazelnuts. Look for the fascinating, frilly green husks on hazel shrubs in late summer. It’s best to pick them when they’re still a bit green; if you wait until they’re fully ripe, the squirrels will likely beat you to them. I’ve found that you can harvest them just after some of the husks start to open up. As they dry, the husks will open up around any nuts of a decent size. When you come to cracking them open, sort out the larger ones, and discard any that show little pinholes in the bottom—these have been eaten inside-out by some kind of insect, apparently one with a formidable proboscis (unless the hole is the result of some larva that grew up inside the nut, and burrowed its way out).
Wild hazelnuts are smaller than the cultivated kind; perhaps to compensate for this, their shells are much tougher to crack. You need a stout nutcracker that can handle small nuts. It takes a lot to get a little, but fortunately, for this dish we just need a tablespoon of nuts per person. Of course, you can save a lot of time and effort by just using store-bought nuts. But you’ll miss the fun, and sense of accomplishment!
Warm goat cheese is one of my favorite first course dishes. It really perks up the appetite, while at the same time taking the edge off if you’re ravenous. Walnuts or pecans could be used in place of the hazelnuts.
Hazelnut Crusted Goat Cheese, Maple Cranberry Chutney
1 1/2 to 2 ounces fresh goat cheese, “chevre”
1 Tbsp hazelnuts, chopped fairly small
1 Tbsp bread crumbs
Freshly ground black pepper
Canola or peanut oil
Wet your clean hands, and form the goat cheese into little discs, or pucks, about 1 inch thick and 2 ½ inches across. Mix the chopped nuts and bread crumbs together. Grind a bit of coarse pepper on one side of the cheese. Pat half the nut-crumb mixture on that side, turn the cheese puck over and press the rest into the other side. Place the coated cheese pucks in the freezer for 20 to 30 minutes.
Heat a small skillet over medium heat—a non-stick one will work well. Add a thin film of oil, about a teaspoon, and let it heat for 20 seconds. Fry the cheese pucks on one side for 20 seconds, flip it over, cook for another 20 seconds; flip again, 20 seconds, flip again, 20 seconds, remove the cheese very carefully to the plate you’ll serve it on. If the cheese is starting to melt too quickly, turn the heat down, or remove it from the pan.
These are great with a chutney or relish, or atop a salad of tender lettuces or frisée tossed with your favorite vinaigrette. Then a slice of toast or baguette is all you really need, and the classic wine accompaniment for this Loire-inspired dish would be a white sancerre or saumur.
An alternate method: Frying a disc of soft goat cheese can be a bit of a daredevil operation. You can get a similar effect by placing the chilled, uncoated—“naked”—cheese discs on a lightly oiled piece of foil on a baking sheet, and heating them for 5 minutes in a 400 degree oven. While they heat, toast the nut-crumb mixture in a bit of butter or olive oil. Place the warmed cheese rounds on plates and top with the toasted topping.
Yet another thought, simpler still: Pack the cheese into a ramekin, sprinkle the raw nuts and crumbs over the top, and bake until the top is brown. For a crowd, holiday buffet, say, you could do a larger portion in a gratin dish, then either make canapés--toast point or cracker, schear of nutty cheese, dab o' chutney--or let the guests self-serve. Making holiday entertaining a tasty breeze! That's the Trout Caviar way!
And, of course--last thought on the topic--fresh chevre is often the vehicle for a number of mix-in flavorings--fresh herbs, cracked pepper, lemon zest, minced garlic or shallots. It can be a canvas upon which to daub your toothsome imaginings. Me, I like it plain, and a little crusty.
Speaking of crusty: The toast pictured here is kind of interesting: It's actually a batch of my standard yeasted pizza dough, "poolish" method, that I'd made up thinking to test a couple pizza variations at home, then didn't have time, so stuck it in a plastic bag and took it out to the cabin. Out there, without an oven, I had to improvise: I put a cast-iron skillet atop the Haggis woodstove, set a dutch oven in that, and let it heat while the dough warmed and proofed. Then I slid the dough into the dutch oven, clapped on the lid (sprinkled a bit of water on the dough), and covered it with a dish towel and a couple of hot pads. About an hour later I removed a loaf that, while rather pale and doughy, was nonetheless recognizably bread, rather than dumpling, biscuit, or bird food. Toasted up, it was A-OK.
Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw