Holiday Pinecone Cheeseball

Why is it that cheeseballs only really seem appropriate in the few weeks surrounding Christmas? Maybe it’s because I go to my aunt and uncle’s house every Christmas after an enormous dinner with my family and still somehow eat the better half of a pecan cheeseball with cracked pepper water crackers. Or perhaps it could be because a “cheeseball” is exactly the right word to describe what I feel like after several nights of eggnog and Christmas cookies and, uh, cheeseball. Yeah, that’s probably it.

But really, the other 50 weeks of the year could pass by and my mind would not once even consider a cheeseball. Then, Christmas rolls around and this is suddenly a thing. It doesn’t make sense because cheese in a constant in my life and I would gladly eat this all day, every day. But for future reference, at least there’s buzzfeed to remind me of plenty of other occasions where cheeseballs are suitable.

The holiday cheeseball I made this year was a mildly disturbing yet intriguing pinecone-shaped ball of all things delicious. I made it for a Christmas party my roommates and I held at our house last weekend. As expected, the cheeseball sat on the table for a good hour and a half before someone had the courage to attack it with the cheese spreader. And once that first move was made, the cheeseball lived a very short life thereafter, soon turning into a small pile of residual almonds.

It’s a simple, do-ahead appetizer with a shockingly small list of ingredients despite having a good deal of flavor. This Paula Deen special (shocker!) contains a triad of delicious fats – cream cheese, mayo, bacon – with just dill weed and scallion added in for flavor. After a night’s rest in the fridge, the whole mass just needs to be shaped into a pinecone-ish shape, and covered in almonds. I also sprayed it with edible metallic gold spray because, why not? And that’s it! My only regret was not having ritz crackers…next time.

Holiday Pinecone Cheeseball
Adapted slightly from Paula Deen via Amy Sedaris
Makes one awesome cheeseball

1¼ cup whole unsalted almonds
1 8oz package cream cheese
½ cup mayonnaise
4 crispy cooked bacon slices, crumbled
½ tsp. dill weed
3 scallions, chopped
salt and pepper, to taste
rosemary sprigs for garnish and crackers for serving

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Spread the almonds out on a cookie sheet and toast for 15 minutes. Once toasted, set aside to cool.

In a stand mixer, beat the cream cheese and mayo on medium speed until smooth, about 2 minutes. Add in the bacon, dill, scallions, salt, and pepper and mix to combine. Transfer to a container and chill overnight.

Before serving, use the cold cheeseball mixture to make a pinecone shape on a serving platter. Press the almonds into the cheeseball at a slight angle, beginning at the tapered end. Continue until the entire thing is covered.  Keep chilled until ready to serve. Garnish the top with sprigs of rosemary and serve with crackers.

Wicked Feta

Among those who live in the D.C/Metro area, the lucky ones are aware of the wonder that is Cava Grill. Haven’t heard of it? Let me enlighten you. Think of the concept of chipotle, replace the Mexican theme with Greek food, pile all of these delicious Greek dips and spreads, meats, and vegetable toppings into a bowl of saffron basmati rice instead of a tortilla and that’s the short version of the story. But it’s the small, amazing details that have made Cava my go-to lunch spot every single Saturday (and probably much more often that that if I were a person of lesser self-control). To start, they are very transparent about the ingredients that they use, something that let me see that they barely use any soy protein/oil in their food, a pretty big deal for me since I have a soy allergy. The food is also incredibly fresh. A sign by the entrance lists the local farms where the meat came from, the vegetables are bight and vibrant, and nothing ever tastes artificial or overly-seasoned. It’s the only “fast-food” spot that I leave feeling really good about what I just ate.

One of the defining features of Cava are their dips and spreads that they dollop onto their “bowls” and also sell in nearby grocery stores. They include things like hummus, harissa, tzatziki, and baba ghannoush but they’re most famous dip is a little something they call Crazy Feta. It’s a concoction of feta, jalapeno, onion, and olive oil all mashed up into a spicy, salty, and chunky dip. I did buy it at the grocery store once, forking over a little more that I really wanted to for a teeny little tub of the dip. It was delicious, as always, but I was thinking there had to be a way to make this on my own, hopefully saving a couple bucks in the process. So with a little research and a couple tweaks, I have created Wicked Feta, my silkier and smoother version of the crazy variety.

The one thing that I am not crazy about with the real Crazy Feta are the chunks of raw onion in the mix. That’s why I like roasted garlic instead for that pungent savoriness without the harsh tanginess of the onion. I also decided to whip the feta rather than mashing it to maximize its ability for easy spreading and dipping and just for the simple pleasure of the creamy texture that comes with it. The garlic is sweet and subtle, the cream cheese rounds out some of the tang of the feta, lemon juice brightens the whole thing up, and there is just enough roasted jalapeno to leave a lingering backdrop of heat in the mouth.

I like to think of this more as a condiment rather than just a veggie dip too, though it would of course be great alongside some hummus with a selection of fresh vegetables and pita chips. But there are so many other things to do with it. Imagine spreading a thick layer overtop a juicy lamb burger, or dolloping spoonfuls over some roasted cauliflower. You could make a tartine with some thick crusty spread, a layer of the spread, and wedges of marinated tomatoes or mix it with some cooked Italian sausage and onions, stuff the mixture into some cremini mushrooms and broil until bubbling. Sorry Cava, but I think that your craziest of feta cheeses just got a whole lot more wicked.

Wicked Feta
Adapted from this recipe

8 oz. feta cheese
3 oz. cream cheese
1 bulb of garlic
2 jalapeno peppers
Juice and zest of half a lemon
2 Tbs. olive oil
black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Cut the top off of the bulb of garlic and rub the top with olive oil. Wrap up in aluminum foil or parchment paper and place on a baking tray. Place in the oven to roast for 30 minutes. When you have 10 more minutes remaining, coat the jalapeno peppers in olive oil and place the on the baking sheet alongside the garlic. Turn them every few minutes so they char evenly. Remove and let cool for a few minutes.

While the garlic roasts, add the feta to a food processor and pulse a few times to break it up. Add the cream cheese and let the food processor run for a couple minutes until creamy and smooth. Scrape down the sides of the bowl occasionally so everything mixes evenly. Once smooth, add the olive oil and lemon juice/zest and let the machine run for another 15 seconds. Pop out four of the garlic cloves from the garlic bulb and add them to the feta mixture and mix until well incorporated. Save the rest of the garlic for another time. Cut the jalapenos in half lengthwise and remove the seeds and membrane. Depending on how hot you like things, add the jalapenos accordingly. I used about 1½ jalapenos for my dip and it has a mild-medium heat. Chop them coarsely and add to the food processor along with fresh cracked black pepper to taste. Pulse a few times until well mixed.

Transfer to a bowl and let chill for at least an hour before serving to firm up. If serving as a crudité dip, add a little drizzle of olive oil and pepper overtop.

Pome and Circumstance

As circumstance has it, I don’t really cook too much anymore. With a nighttime restaurant job, my college self’s pastime of making overly elaborate meals for nearly every meal is essentially gone. On the bright side, things are a good deal cheaper with a steady diet of yogurt and toast but unfortunately much less inventive.

However the current circumstance and the changes this has brought to my lifestyle has created a change in palate. I used to gravitate toward long lists of ingredients and the challenges that they offered. I’ve now had to make peace with the fact that I can’t quite take on those challenges every day anymore. But it’s been an easy transition. Perhaps my constant proximity to food, and very beautiful and luxurious at that, satiates the need for it. I now need, seek, and crave things that are simple, quick, and filling. Whether I’m eating lunch before work or scouring the fridge after a long night, all I want is a meal that is starchy, crunchy, juicy, and salty all that the same time. In short, bread, cheese, and pome fruits.

Something about the combination of salty fatty cheese (cheddar and goat are my current preference) with chewy and filling bread all offset by a palate cleansing and thirst-quenching bite of an apple or pear really seems to be all I need right now. Even when I’m having it for the fifth day in a row, I still drive home maybe a little too fast in my anticipation for my nightly cheese on toast.

Fortunately for me the fall season is fast approaching and my pome fruit addiction is about to become tastier with the soon-to-come abundance of these gems. A fresh picked apple or pear in incomparable in every aspect imaginable. Apples, in their weight, seem halved and their flesh denser and drier. The skin is thick and floral and they take twice as long to eat as a regular apple, though whether this is from their savored tastiness or substantiality, I do not know. Yet they still have just the right amount of juiciness that they spray a fine mist of sticky nectar with that first crisp bite. With fresh-picked pears, they are heavy in their syrupy juice so that it relentlessly drips down the chin. The texture is minimally gritty and rather thick and creamy like butter. Pure and simple, fresh and raw - that is the way I best like my pome fruits.

To change up the pace with the starch aspect of my new typical meal I made these cheesy savory scones. The recipe is by Nigel Slater from his book Ripe. He suggests them as a perfect accompaniment to a raw pear. He is quite correct with that note as he is on most things fruit and vegetable related. The book in its entirety is exquisite and a must have for anyone fascinated by nature’s sweetest produce and both the sweet and savory applications for them. The recipe, too, is quintessentially British as a savory take on the teatime classic and a base for some of the country’s finest cheeses. They are light and airy as a biscuit yet a little more moist and wet from the melting cheese dispersed throughout. The touch of spelt flour and hazelnuts adds a deep nuttiness and slight sweetness to counterbalance the salty cheese. Eaten warm with a smear of butter, a clean arugula salad, and, of course, a fresh juicy pear, it is a lunch I’d be glad to return to as my circumstances require.

Goat Cheese and Thyme Scones (with pears)
recipe adapted from Nigel Slater’s Ripe
makes 4 scones

1 cup all purpose flour
¾ cup spelt or whole wheat flour
1 Tbs baking powder
3 Tbs cold butter cut into small cubes
3½ oz shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 oz goat cheese
1 tsp. chopped thyme
¼ cup hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely ground
½ cup buttermilk
salt and pepper
pears, for serving

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a mixing bowl sift together the flours and the baking powder. Scatter the butter cubes over the flour and use your fingers to rub it into the flour until evenly distributed. Alternately, you could do this step in a food processor and transfer to a mixing bowl after. Add the goat and cheddar cheese, the thyme, the ground hazelnuts, and a pinch of salt and pepper to the flour and butter mixture and give a small stir to combine.

Pour the buttermilk over the flour mixture and use a fork to quickly bring the ingredients together into a firm ball of dough. If it looks a little too dry add a little more buttermilk. Dump onto a floured surface and shape into a round disk about 6 inches in diameter. Transfer to a lightly floured or parchment lined baking sheet. Using a knife, score a deep cross into the dough (making sure you don’t go all the way through to the baking sheet) so that you have 4 wedges. Sprinkle a little more cheese and thyme overtop.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until puffed and golden brown. Let cool for about 10 minutes before eating with a lovely autumn pear.

The Art of Simplicity

I find that I like to make things complex with my cooking. Maybe it’s for the sake of a little challenge, making me feel like I’m furthering my knowledge or something. Sure, why not make the elaborate curry that requires me to spend ridiculous amounts of money on spices from a specialty food market? Sound like fun! Or, macaroons? Sure. Who doesn’t love tediously piping little circles of egg whites onto parchment? Even the other day my mom told me, “Oh Katie, you’re such a Martha.” I took it as a compliment.

But whatever the reason for this extravagance, I always tend to stray from the straight path, opting for rocky, muddy, and treacherous road instead. The flair, unfortunately, doesn’t always work in my best interest. Like the time I tried to make my family a vegetarian molé chili; “you’ll love it, the secret ingredient is chocolate!” And when we sat down to bowls of a substance totally indistinguishable from garbage sludge, I had to admit defeat. Or the time I attempted making treacle tart to bring to a British themed dinner, only to end up sealing the teeth together of all who ate the cement-like toffee. Their pained but polite words of approval settled uncomfortably in my stomach.

As much I do enjoy culinary adventuresome, I still can’t deny comfort in simplicity. The food that I post here are my weekend experiments. What I eat on a normal basis is more along the line of cheese and crackers or yogurt and granola or, my new strange but favorite fixation, egg salad sandwiches. To me, taking very few ingredients and combining them in ways that result in powerfully flavored dishes is almost as much of a challenge as making those extravagant meals. I like this challenge too and through trial and error, I’ve discovered that there are keys to great simplicity in food.

First, successful simplicity requires good ingredients. Simple food does not have extra fluff to mask anything under par. There are only few components and those need to be top notch to provide heightened and optimal flavor.

Also, there needs to be contrast. This is what turns ordinary and bland into something that gets people excited. Simple does not have to be boring at all. When two or three ingredients that are different yet complementary, not only in flavor but texture, come together, it causes all senses to stimulate at once making for a memorable eating experience. And finally, it needs to be cooked with love and care, the ingredient that makes a difference in all cooking.

So one rainy and cold evening a few weeks ago I made grilled cheese, the ultimate comfort food, but with a twist. I cut up thick slices of ricotta bread from the farmers market. I crammed the inside with slabs of creamy Fontina cheese, crispy organic bacon, and slices of just-underripe local pears. I gave the bread a lovely swipe of butter and let it spend some time getting hot and melty in the pan.

Though unconventional it worked. The sweet pears were a perfect match to the salty bacon and the Fontina, though mild, enveloped all in a buttery blanket of richness. It was the bread that really made this sandwich. It crisped up beautifully because of the high butterfat content and its milky and slightly tangy notes rounded out the whole package. I enjoyed it alone, a sublime retreat, that lasted mere minutes but felt like hours in food divinity. Each bite was like music as my teeth moved through layers of resounding crunch. In secluded gluttony, I licked my buttery fingers unashamedly for I had finally truly felt like I discovered the art of simplicity. Four ingredients (five if you count butter) and one amazing sandwich.

Fall Grilled Cheese
serves 1

All I can say about this is go all out. No skimping on this recipe please and savor it for every fatty and cheesy bite its worth. You can always work out later.

Ricotta bread (brioche, challah, or white country bread works too)
Fontina cheese, as much as you feel meets your standards of cheesiness
3 slices of bacon
1 slightly underripe pear

Heat a frying pan to medium and lay down the slices of bacon. Cook until crisp and drain on paper towels. Wipe out the pan and set aside for later.

As the bacon cooks, prepare the other ingredients. Slice two thick pieces of the bread and then slice as much cheese as you like. Slice the pear into quarters and then cut thin pieces from each of these. You will only need about half so you can eat the remaining slices as a snack.

To assemble lay about ¾ of the cheese on one piece of bread. Place the pears on top and them the bacon. Dot the remaining cheese on top of the bacon so it melts to the other piece of bread and holds the sandwich together. Lay the remaining piece of bread on top. Generously butter the outside of the sandwich.

Get a pan on medium heat and also turn the oven to about 400 degrees. Cook the sandwich in the pan for about 2 minutes a side, pressing down occasionally and constantly checking to make sure you don’t burn anything. Once both sides are golden brown and crispy, transfer the pan to the oven for about 2 minutes to let the cheese melt. Remove, cut any way you like, and enjoy.