It was not until I tasted my first sheep's milk ricotta cake in Florence that I realized cheese's true dessert potential. Accustomed to the sugary cheesecakes with graham cracker crusts in the states, I assumed that cheese reached its dessert height when spread with raspberry preserves or rippled with coffee liquor.
The Italian cake's lemony, savory, nutty flavors proved me wrong. Unlike the monotone sweet, mildly tangy taste of many American cheesecakes that bores the tongue after three or four bites, this new dessert had more flavor layers than a multicolored jawbreaker.
Back home, I tasted my first local goat cheese version of the dessert and realized there was something blaringly delicious about the artisan cheese and dessert combination. I was put over the edge by tasting a salty, meaty blue cheese work its magic on a piece of warm, earthy, cherry-and-cocoa toned dark chocolate. I was convinced that cheese and dessert belong together.
Fortunately, it is a great time to explore the possibilities. Artisan cheese in the United States has never been more abundant and delicious. Domestic creameries are winning hearts at home and surprising enough European tourists in blind tastings that American artisan cheese has made a name for itself abroad, too. It is time, then, for a new twist.
Cheese works well as a dessert for a couple of reasons: A nearly perfect food by itself, cheese can hold its own in a world of sugar and cream, and cheese — sweet and salty and sometimes even lemony all at once — gives dessert some unexpected tastes.
Because today's artisan cheese is so multifaceted, it provides a tasting experience that many dishes that rely on a lot of butter and sugar for flavor often do not.
About The Author
Focusing mainly on cheese, Kirstin Jackson is an Oakland, Calif.-based food writer, professional cook, and food and wine consultant. When not teaching classes at the San Francisco Cheese School or Solano Cellars, her fromage musings can be found on her blog It's Not You, It's Brie (a book by the same name is in the works) and on Twitter.
The more delicate cheeses, such as small-production fresh ricottas or fromage blancs, have clean, milky, sweet tastes that can elevate a simple dessert. Imagine tasting a spoonful of local, pure, thick, almost floral fresh cream from a glass bottle and multiply its impact by five. Cheese this fresh should be simple, maybe doused with a little sugar and accompanied by fresh fruit or nuts. A great light, local fromage blanc does not need much attention.
A strong cheese can do simple, too. Serving an intense blue cheese, for example, with as many add-ons as you might with a New York-style cheesecake would result in the cheese's larger-than-life flavors overshadowing and clashing with everything else. The same goes for that aged Alpine-inspired cheese with brown butter, spice and pineapple scents. It would knock the subtle socks off a genoise cake. Unless it is a tangy, fresh chevre that pops regardless of what dessert it is in, most cheeses demand simplicity. This makes your job easier.
Besides keeping the last course of the meal straightforward, cheese keeps dessert lively. Part of cheese's draw is its complete nature. It is salty, sweet and packed with tertiary flavors. Sweet upon sweet in a dessert can get dull. Sometimes you want a little salty, crunchy peanut butter with your sweet chocolate, or a squeeze of lemon on your sugary, rich crepe.
A piece of aged, salty, caramel-scented cheese melted over a puff pastry can serve as the peanut butter to the fresh jammy strawberries scattered atop. Likewise, you may eat just one flaky alfajores cookie with dulce de leche, but when buttery pecan cookies are spread with the same caramel mixed with lemony, tangy fresh chevre, the salty-sweet-bright acidity factor won't let you stop before eating five. Salty and sweet and savory and earthy and lush all at once, cheese can be a dessert's everything.
Of course, great artisan American cheese, which is often perfection in itself, can act as its own dessert, served with hazelnuts and a little honey. Then where would the pre-dessert cheese plate fit?
Balanced, complex and layered with flavors, cheese is ready to move beyond the appetizer plate. But you don't need to go to Florence to experience dessert and cheese's pairing magic.
American cheese-makers are in their prime, and the fruits of their labor are more abundant and delicious than ever before. Next time you want a dessert that is going to impress, look beyond that silver rectangle of cream cheese sitting on your grocery store shelf. Introduce a little sugar to your artisan cheese's life, and you'll wonder how you ever did without chevre in your dulce de leche cookie before.
The toffee and spice notes in this buttery cow's milk cheese complement the fresh strawberry and zesty lemon flavors topping the flaky puff pastry. If Tarentaise is not available where you live, try an Alpine-inspired, aged cow's milk cheese from a creamery near you. As for fruit, I like strawberries or blueberries in spring and summer, but the dessert can transition through fall and winter by substituting figs or persimmons. Add good-quality puff pastry dough, and you'll have a surprisingly light dessert that is very quick to make.
4 ounces Tarentaise or other aged cow’s milk cheese, thinly sliced
10 to 12 ounces strawberries, hulled and sliced 1/4-inch thick, lengthwise (or about 2 cups, sliced)
1 tablespoon sugar
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
Defrost one sheet of pastry according to the package's instructions. Keep the other sheet frozen for future desserts.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Once the dough is defrosted, cut out four 4 1/2-inch diameter circles. Prick the center of the dough 4 or 5 times with a fork. Mix the egg yolk with a teaspoon of water. Brush the tops of the pastry with the yolk mix. Place the dough on a sheet pan that has been covered with parchment or a silicon baking sheet, and bake for 20 minutes.
While the pastry is cooking, mix the sliced strawberries, sugar and lemon zest together in a small bowl and set aside.
After the pastry has cooked for 20 minutes, or is evenly golden brown, remove the puff pastry rounds from the oven. Lightly tap the tops of the pastry with the back of a spatula to discourage uneven rising. Another option is to weigh down the cooked pastry by placing a silicon sheet on top of the rounds. Set aside. This may be done in advance.
When ready to eat, pre-heat oven to 350 degrees again. Place the puff pastry circles on a sheet pan and divide the cheese among the pastry. Bake for 5 minutes or until cheese is melted. Place the pastry on individual serving plates and spoon the strawberry mixture and its juice over the pastries.
The Latin American afajores cookie is the inspiration for this recipe. Adding goat cheese to the dulce de leche puts a fun twist on a classic and offers something savory to an otherwise very sweet cookie. To ensure that the base was not too delicate for the goat cheese and caramelized-milk filling, I adapted Dorie Greenspan's sturdy sable cookie recipe. I also used dulce de leche from the Latin American aisle of the supermarket. Goat cheese is perishable, so keep the filling cold and only sandwich cookies that will be consumed within a day.
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk the butter and sugars together until light and creamy, about 2 to 3 minutes. Add the yolks one at a time and whisk well. Fold the flour into the bowl with a rubber spatula, mixing until the dough is all the same texture. It will be moist and clump together, but will not be as smooth as chocolate-chip cookie dough. It will be a little crumbly. Lightly stir in the pecans.
Divide the dough into 2 balls. One at a time, place each ball on a sheet of plastic wrap. Use the wrap to roll the dough balls into 8-inch logs. Twist the ends of the plastic wrap tight and refrigerate the dough from 2 hours to overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Take the dough out of the refrigerator and unwrap. Starting from the center and working out, score (or mark) the log beforehand to identify where to cut the 24 cookie pieces. Mark the center first, then in quarters, then 6 on each quarter. Then, slice the log into 24 pieces.
Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or silicon mats and space the cookies so they are an inch apart. Rotating the sheets after 10 minutes, bake for 20 minutes or until golden brown. Let cool.
While the cookies are cooling, warm the dulce de leche over low heat in a small saucepan, stirring and being careful not to let the caramel bubble. When just warm, take off heat. Add from 3 to 5 ounces goat cheese to your taste, and stir until well mixed. Cool.
Sandwich about a teaspoon of the dulce de leche mixture between 2 cookies and continue with the rest of the cookies until finished. Dust with powdered sugar.
Angelina's, a tearoom in Paris across from the Jardin des Tuileries, makes the most famous Mont Blanc in the world. Theirs is a meringue cookie topped with whipped cream and thick chestnut cream. For some, the dessert is a little too sweet. An ode to mont blanc, this version uses fromage blanc because a good, fresh style of this cheese zests up dessert. Store-bought ladyfingers pay tribute to the Mont Blanc's meringue cookie, but I like amaretto cookies with this dessert, too. Packaged, already-steamed chestnuts are available at specialty stores.
Kirstin Jackson for NPR
Makes 6 servings
8 ounces steamed chestnuts
1 1/2 cup water
1 1/4 cup plus 4 tablespoons cream, divided
2 teaspoons sugar
1 vanilla bean, sliced lengthwise
15 to 16 ounces fromage blanc
1 tablespoon, plus 1 teaspoon powdered sugar, divided
6 ladyfinger cookies
Bring the chestnuts, water, 1 cup of the cream, sugar and vanilla bean to a boil in a medium-sized saucepan. Reduce heat and simmer on low for 25 minutes, until the chestnuts smash easily against the side of a pan with the back of a wooden spoon and the liquid has reduced to a thick, creamy consistency. Take pan off heat and cool until only slightly warm. Remove the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds with the back of a paring knife from inside the pod into the pan. Discard the pod.
Add the chestnut mixture to a food processor. Puree for 2 minutes on low. Scrape down the sides of the food processor with a spatula, add the other 1/4 cup of the cream, and blend for 30 more seconds until smooth and creamy. Set aside.
Place the fromage blanc, remaining 4 tablespoons of cream and powdered sugar in a medium-sized mixing bowl or in the metal bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk for three minutes, or on medium speed for 2 minutes, until light and fluffy.
Divide the chestnut cream among 6 parfait or wine glasses. Top with the whipped fromage blanc. Add a ladyfinger to each glass, and if you like a little extra sweetness to boost the chestnut's earthy flavor, a drizzle of honey.
Goat cheese's lightly tart and grassy taste takes chocolate to another level. To make these truffles, I adapted several recipes until I had a balanced batch — not too sweet, not too "goaty." Select a fresh local chevre and pair with a high-quality dark chocolate. To make things even more interesting, add a teaspoon of absinthe, fernet or sambuca to half or all of the goat cheese mixture. The extra sweet, herbal element brings out similar characteristics in the chevre.
7 ounces fresh chevre, brought to room temperature
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon absinthe, fernet or sambuca (optional)
1/3 cup cocoa powder, for dusting
Melt the chocolate in a metal bowl resting over a small pot of simmering water, an inch or more away from the water. Alternatively, heat the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl on medium heat for about 5 to 7 minutes or until melted, taking the bowl out to stir every 30 seconds. Chocolate should be smooth when melted.
Mix the chevre and sugar in a medium-sized bowl. Stir in the melted chocolate and mix until completely smooth. If adding liqueur to half the mixture, separate into 2 batches and whisk the liqueur in one. If adding to all, double the amount to 2 teaspoons and mix into entire batch. Refrigerate for anywhere from an hour to overnight.
When ready to make the truffles, roll heaped teaspoons of the refrigerated mixture into small balls, then roll the balls in the cocoa powder. Either eat right away or let chill on a sheet pan until ready to serve. Truffles will keep for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator.