Despite its humble past life as family-reunion food, The Cheese Ball seems to be making a meteoric comeback. And the person who is making yesterday’s party food today’s adorable centerpiece is Michelle Buffardi, author of Great Balls of Cheese. If you never envisioned yourself making an owl out of cream cheese and Ritz Bits or rolling pimento cheese in shredded cheddar to create a “cheese chick,” crawl under the couch now or reinvent yourself.
Great Balls of Cheese is the sort of book that is just kitschy and creative enough to make a person like me — someone who usually glides past the processed cheese on her way to the Winnimere — buy a 16 ounce tub of Philadelphia Cream Cheese last weekend. The occasion? My annual cherry blossom festival with the neighbors. Here in Fishtown (Philadelphia), we have one tree on our block and when it blooms (for all of 4 days), you better believe we clamor to our stoops to clink glasses.
Because I had, oh, exactly five hours to pull this year’s cherry blossom party together, glomping a few ingredients together for a cheese ball seemed like a quick way to lowbrow my way into a highly effective one-dish affair, a dish that could be eaten while juggling cocktail glasses, small children, and wild dogs. Yes, serving a cheese ball from your stoop on a busy street is much easier than presenting a multi-hunk cheese board with pairings.
The Inside-Out Carrot Cake Ball appealed to my perverse love of carrots and pineapple together. Graham crackers? Hellz, yeah! When do you get to serve graham crackers at grown-up affairs, unless you’re s’moring it up? The combination of creamy cheese, crunchy nuts, and chewy raisins hit all my sweet spots. The only thing I added to this kooky recipe was a little cinammon and nutmeg. If I made this again, I’d serve it with celery sticks for dipping. And I’d make a half batch. This makes a gargantuan orb.
Inside-Out Carrot Cake Cheese Ball
Adapted from Great Balls of Cheese, by Michelle Buffardi
2 cups shredded carrots, squeezed of juice (use paper towels to squeeze)
1/4 cup crushed pineapple, drained well
16 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon orange juice
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Dash of cinnamon and nutmeg (optional)
1 cup walnuts, toasted
Before you place the carrots and pineapple in a mixing bowl, make sure the are really are drained. I mean it. Otherwise, your cheese ball will be a little soupy (she says, from experience). Combine the carrots and pineapple with cream cheese, sugar, orange juice, and vanilla in a mixing bowl, along with spices, if desired. Use a spatula to stir.
One the mixture is combined, wudge it into a ball and wrap it in plastic wrap. Refrigerate for two hours or overnight. Before serving, roll your cheese ball in toasted walnuts. Serve with graham crackers, celery, and/or carrot sticks. The author also recommends vanilla wafers, too.
Hard to believe: this month I am celebrating a big blog anniversary! And it’s made me a little nostalgic. I’ve spent the last few days sifting through old photos and trying to decide just what to post. My last half decade has been so memorable, full of so many friends and fromages that, well, even I feel a little speechless.
Five Years Ago…
I put up my first blog post on April 22, 2009 — the photo is so awful, I cringe. At the time, I thought it was just shy of magnificent. I had never taken a cheese photo before, and I borrowed my boyfriend’s camera for my first snap. It was my first time using a digital camera. I didn’t own an iphone. I thought blogging was for sillies, but I wanted a place to organize my cheese notes.
It was 2009 — the year of swine flu, the month Bea Arthur died — and I had just discovered La Tartine Gourmande, a blog so beautiful I gasped, then tossed all my old issues of Gourmet in recycling (sorry, Ruth Reichl). I spent an evening jotting down blog names and settled on “The Cheese Log,” then switched it at the last minute.
As I was putting out some cheese on a cutting board that night, I had a revelation: creating a cheese board was like setting a stage, and I loved the theatrical effects of adding pairings. In fact, cheese was milk in drag, I decided. And so Madame Fromage was born…
Four Years Ago…
The obsession was a tilt-a-whirl. I made all of my friends submit to blind tastings, and I read books about cheese every night in bed. Monsieur Fromage and I saw nothing but rinds in our dreams. At least once a week, I wore a trench coat and sunglasses into Di Bruno Bros. and lurked, taking notes.
Three Years Ago…
I made friends with some fabulous dames in my neighborhood who ran a little cheese shop, called Quince. Once a month, we began hosting tastings, exploring cheeses together, and inviting local cheesemakers to pop in. I began to discover wild cheeses in my own backyard — not something this Wisconsin grrrl expected to find in Pennsylvania.
Quince closed this year, but I still have fond memories of working with owners Joan and Nicole. They gave me an excuse to print business cards and taught me the importance of trading knowledge.
Two Years Ago…
I hit my stride. A friend helped me redesign Madame Fromage, and I bought my first DSLR (and sort of figured out how to use it.) By this point, I was no longer hiding my eyes in Di Bruno Bros. In fact, I was blogging for their site. I’d pick a quiet morning each week to stop in sample a new cheese.
One Year Ago…
A high point: hanging out at Anthropologie for a book signing with Emilio Mignucci. We signed 150 copies of The Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese that night.
The project brought together everything I love: words and dairy. From the beginning, I’ve always wanted this site to promote dairy literacy. I started off teaching myself a cheese lexicon, and I wanted to be able to turn around and share it.
I serve words. I serve cheese. These are the things I adore. To bring them together in this space makes me wildly happy. Occasionally, I wonder: what if I shut out the light? What if I stopped paying my web host? Would I still be me? What if I became Frau Tofu? Would I find a lively audience among the lactose free?
The truth is, I don’t think so. Cheese people are the nicest folks in the world. I really mean that. I have hung with wine people and beer people, with coffee people (oy, the angst!), and the charcuterie crowd. Cheese people are simply the nicest, humblest, dorkiest, most intelligent, kindest, hunkiest, most huggable, silliest, most wonderful, honest, generous, down-to-earth people on earth.
Once, I had a broken shower that leaked through my floor, and a cheese person offered to come to my house and fix it! Find me another busy workaday soul who would offer to do that.
It All Brings Me To This…
I feel very lucky to have you. Thanks for coming to this place. Thanks for reading. Thanks for nibbling and being curious. I don’t know how long you’ve been coming here or how many times you visited. Or what search words brought you. Never mind all that. Blogging has never been about numbers for me. Or trying to win awards or raise my Google rankings. It’s been about verbs. About writing, creating, noshing, honoring, sharing.
Thanks for giving me room to do this. Like a cheese, I need to breathe. And this is how I do it.
P.S. If there’s anything you’d like to see on this site — anything that would help you, serve you better, or bring you closer to what you want to be doing, please drop me a line.
This week, I’ve been surveying the blogosphere through the eyes of my 20-something Food Writing students. For a bit of recent homework, I asked each one to review two food blogs of their choice (paying special attention to voice, photo-to-text ratio, and site design), then I spent an afternoon clicking around after them.
What a pleasure to follow their footsteps! It had been a while since I wandered amok online. Here’s what I found:
This Rawsome Vegan Life made me swoon over Raw Lasagna with Cashew Cheese. I’ve experimented with a few raw recipes over the years, including some surprisingly great raw Cheez-its. Cashew cheese and raw lasagna? Yes, please.
Desserts for Breakfast had me at Carrot Za’tar Muffins with Lavender Kumquat Compote. I can just imagine shmearing a little mascarpone on those muffins, yes indeedy! I love the idea of a “just barely sweet” muffin, and I really love a blog devoted entirely to morning people. (Not that I am one, but I strive.)
My New Roots taught me something about my favorite toast topper, ghee. I love ghee (clarified butter) almost as much as I love cheese — I keep it on the counter next to the stove and use it to stir-fry veggies and scramble eggs. Sarah Britton’s post on Ghee Whiz explains how ghee can be high in antioxidants, and there’s a good recipe for making delicious ghee from grass-fed butter.
Island Menu took me to Tasmania, where I peered thinly into the misty waters of the “Tassie” highlands via beautiful black-and-white photos by Samuel Shelley, then popped my eyes open when I scrolled down to this bright-o recipe for Scrambled Eggs with Gravlax. I hope this new site keeps growing — it’s so lovely and smart.
Oh yes, that gorgeous cheese up top? It’s Rag Thyme from Andante Dairy. I mentioned it in my last post but didn’t give much detail about this stunning California cheese that reminds me of rain and fresh herbs. A few weeks ago, Rag Thyme’s cheesemaker, Soyoung Scanlan, stopped in Philadelphia and I was thrilled to meet her. Wait ’til I show you the picture I snapped of her itsy bitsy hands.
If I didn’t write a cheese blog, I would probably start a honey blog. Next to dairy, honey fascinates me. Bees. Rooftop hives. The growing interest in city honey. I’m sniffin’ it. I’m lovin’ it. I want my rhinestone fingers in some of that amber!
But until then, I’m a dabbler, a queen of pairing honeys with cheese. Cranberry honey paired with Parmigiano is a personal fave, next to buckwheat honey and tangy chèvre.
But now…a new fairytale. Behold: raw Greek forest honey.
This sampler came to me by way of Dianne Hinaris of The Olive Table in Vermont. She stalked me, then I stalked her. “Forest honey is lower in total sugar content and therefore either never crystallizes or is very resistant to crystallization,” she wrote.
A not-too-sweet honey that won’t crystallize? Send me some, toute suite.
Hinaris sources her honey through a family connection in Greece, drawing from a single set of father-son beekeepers that have been harvesting honey for generations. Forest honey, from pine and fir trees, reportedly contains more antioxidants and antibacterial properties than other honeys.
Greek Honey Redux
These honeys are sourced from the Peloponnese region in southern Greece. Although I’m not a honey expert, I found these to be some of the most complex honeys I’d ever tasted. Each one has distinct characteristics, and when I compared them with a few honeys from my cupboard, I was struck by how very sweet they were compared to these honeys, which have rich flavors but absolutely no cloying aftertaste.
Wild and woodsy! There’s a slight taste of pine, but mostly I detected lingering notes of molasses and roasted nuts – think “liquid nut brittle.” The finish is pleasant, not at all cloying. Pine honey represents 60% of the honey harvest in Greece. It never crystallizes.
Pairing: Parmigiano-Reggiano or any sweetly nutty cheese. Dianne also recommends herbed cheeses; I imagine a rosemary-encrusted Manchego would be glorious.
Fir of Vytina Honey
Imagine caramel infused with needles from a fir tree – wintery, earthy, with a surprising mentholated quality. From the mountains of Vytina, this honey is used by locals to soothe digestive issues and anemia. It will never crystallize. It’s also low in fructose and glucose, making it a good choice for diabetics.
Pairing: Tuscan Pecorino or any sheep/goat cheese with caramel notes.
Reiki (Mediterranean Heather) Honey
Dark and fragrant, this honey made me think of caramelized fennel. The finish is endless – malty and floral. Dianne says this is her best-seller, perhaps because it’s thought to have medicinal qualities. It does crystalize in one to three months.
Pairing: An herbaceous goat cheese, like Andante Dairy’s Rag Thyme or perhaps a round of Kunik.
Note: These honeys were sent to me as free samples. To read more about them, visit TheOliveTable.com. You can also check out the list of retailers who carry them in Pennsylvania, Maine, Florida, and other states.
If there’s one thing I love to do in April, it’s host a dairy party with lovely belles from local cheese cases. Last week, I sampled a slew of new cheeses for a Philadelphia Inquirer story (out today!) and was so star-struck by the beauty of some Pennyslvania honeys that I nearly wept. As long as I’ve been covering my local cheese scene, I’ve never seen cheeses quite like these.
“The Philadelphia cheese scene has arrived,” I told my painter friend Mike Geno. “You have to see Ring of Fire and Frosty Morning. These cheeses are not to be believed.”
And so I hosted a very tiny deb ball to show off these delicate beauties to a few men in my life, my neighbors Mike and Larry. What can I say? It was a school night.
Out came the notebooks and the tasting glasses. Larry brought two bottles of wine, a refined white Beaujolais and a juicy Barbera d’Asti that tasted like fat raspberries. He also brought his French cheese guide. Brilliant Fellow.
Mike added several glorious bottles of Saison du Pont, and Monseiur Fromage – who arrived rather late in his sweater vest – surprised us all with an eminently quaffable bottle of Southern Tier’s Goat Boy, an Imperial Weizenbock that went with every damn cheese on the board.
Here were a few of our revelations, plus a few tips for hosting your own spring cheese fling:
Frosty Morning from Keswick Creamery was the cheese that made us all go zshhh! Pastured goat and Jersey cow’s milk combine in an inimitable pyramid that looks like Valencay but that tastes like melting ice cream in a thin rind. Mellow and supple, it needs a springy cocktail or Prosecco, something with loads of crystal fizz.
Ring of Fire, a collaboration between King’s Kreamery and Kristian Holbrook, was the paprika donut I was dying to try. Gooey within, spicy outside. Curious. The flavors didn’t harmonize quite as much as I might have liked (the spice is fun but didn’t quite work with the high grass flavor in the milk), but the maltiness in Southern Tier’s Goat Boy functioned as an amazing equalizer. Goat Boy and Ring of Fire forever!
Cloud Nine, from Yellow Springs, is little goat geode with wonderful pepperiness. It liked every drink we put forth. The clove-banana taste in Saison Dupont was a terrific contrast. White Beaujolais and berries made it dance, too. Goat Boy was deemed “absolutely perfect” by every taster. Oh, hallelujah!
Tips For A Spring Cheese Fling
- Grab a bottle of Southern Tier Goat Boy to try with your friends
- Pick out several goat cheeses from your local markets or a reputable cheesemonger
- Set a table with berries, honey, crackers, and bread
- Ask your friends to bring saisons, ciders, light whites and light reds
- Pair like crazy and take notes
Coming up! I’m headed to the following events this month: Drexel Bistro’s Birchrun Hills Farm benefit dinner AND Greensgrow Farm’s After Hours Cheese Tasting. Click the links for tickets. Hope to see you there!