As I’m formatting this post at 4:45 am and rubbing the mascara into my eyes that just opened two hours prior, I’m sitting in the Oakland airport wondering why everyone else arrives only 30 minutes before their domestic flight departs while I feel the need to get here at least an hour and a half early. Right about now I’m feeling very thankful that my friend Garrett McCord over at Vanilla Garlic agreed to write this week’s post. While I’m playing in Wisconsin dairyland this week doing research for my cheese book, you lucky readers get to experience cheese writing from one of my favorite bloggers in the food world. At Vanilla Garlic, Garret compels his readers with witty writing, beautiful photos, and sexy recipes. Here, Garrett goes beyond the call of describing the downfalls of uninspired cheese plates that he’s encountered in restaurants, he one ups the uninspired plates by using his pastry chef skills to create a honey lavender caramel sauce recipe that pairs with blues to address the problem. I’m honored to have him. I know you’ll enjoy his post as much as I do. Thank you Garrett!
Garrett on the dessert cheese plate.
The rising popularity of the cheese plate as a proper dessert has, in parallel fashion, also given rise to a recurring dilemma for myself. That dilemma being the age-old question: What do I want for dessert?
A cheese plate of Humboldt Fog, a bitter as hay Torta de Serena, and a brusque tobacco leaf wrapped Cusie di tobacco is simply too much to resist. Yet, right below it is listed a chocolate hazelnut torte with a Chantilly cream. Let me tell you, I do love hazelnuts. And, yes, written right under that is a rhubarb and huckleberry napoleon served with a rhubarb sorbet.
Ugh! The decisions! Such a trialed life I lead with my First World problems.
Now, yes, many of you might say that there is a simple solution: order all of them. Obviously, you readers have more alimentary fortitude than I, and, possibly, a tinier waistline. For me, this just isn’t such an option. Especially if dining alone.
I was trained in pastry so I have a proclivity to pick something unique from a dessert menu so I can analyze it, take it apart, taste it, and marvel at a fellow cook’s skill and training. My work draws me to composed desserts no matter how simple or grand. Yet, as a lover of all things dairy, a well-composed and eclectic cheese plate is always drawing. In my world, an unheard of artisanal cheese has as much pull as any crumble or cookie.
Order the cheese plate, however, and with your cheeses are likely various accoutrements of varying degrees of disappointment. A few Marcona almonds tossed in the corner. Maybe some house made olives that, more often than not, leave an alkaline taste in your mouth more bitter than the third Spider-Man film. Honey – always honey – to go with the blue cheese because no one in the kitchen is feeling creative enough to try something, anything, different. If you’re someplace swanky you might actually score some honeycomb.
It leaves me to wonder: If the cheese plate is being offered as a dessert then why are not more pastry chefs taking the initiative to make it their own?
An unadorned cheese plate is a lazy offering on behalf of the kitchen. It’s a dish that features the work of someone else and that only reflects the personal taste of the composing chef. The accouterments are where the cheesemaker and pastry chef can dance together and weave a dessert that plays to both their strengths. Scratch the nuts and offer a pistachio-cocoa nib brittle alongside a slice of Cocoa Cardona. Perhaps a strawberry-Merlot jam to accentuate the creamy flavors of that Garrotxa? Port syrup reduction with a wedge of Stilcheton? Yes. Please, God, yes.
Caramel, I’ve found, makes an excellent pairing for cheeses. The flavor of a brown sugar caramel echoes the butterscotch tones in aged Gouda. A square of chocolate and Earl Grey caramel candy goes beautifully with an artfully crafted chèvre.
For blue cheeses I rely on this honey-lavender caramel sauce. It does the same job that honey would with blue cheese: cut through the peppery, salty, fatty flavors while accentuating them. The lavender offers a floral quality that mingles well with the milk, and the concentrated sugars of the honey highlights the piquant qualities of the mold.
Any favorite honey will do. Personally, I suggest using dark honeys for the most pronounced flavors; buckwheat honey and molasses-black avocado honey are especially eloquent choices.
Give it a try next time you plan to serve your favorite blue cheese. It’s easy, reliable, and unique way to make your next cheese plate stand apart.
Lavender-Honey Caramel Sauce
1 teaspoon lavender
12 ounces cream
1/2 cup dark honey
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup butter
1. Place the lavender and cream in a sauce pan and warm over medium heat until hot to the touch. Cover and allow to steep for 5-10 minutes, depending on how strong you want the lavender flavor to be. Strain out the lavender and set aside.
2. Place the honey, sugar, brown sugar, and butter in a heavy-bottomed 2-3 quart sauce pot. Bring ingredients to a heavy boil, stirring all the while. Slowly pour in the cream. Boil for two minutes, stirring constantly. Boil for two minutes, stirring constantly. Take off the heat and pour into a jar. Cool completely and store in the fridge.
Makes 3 cups of caramel sauce. Also good on fruit, waffles, pastries, and ice cream.
Garrett McCord is a freelance food writer and pastry chef who has worked for Cheese Connoisseur, Gourmet Live, Simply Recipes, and Epi-Log. More of his work can be found at his blog, Vanilla Garlic.
Next week: Wisconsin dairy feedback.