Say Cheese: Have a ball. Really.
You didn’t think I would let the holidays pass without a mention of the cheese ball, did you? Forever a staple of Christmas buffet tables and "gourmet" gift baskets, the cheese ball suffers from a dubious reputation, and rightly so. Most cheese balls I have encountered have been nothing short of heinous: highly processed Swiss or cheddar that tastes mostly of sodium and chemicals, mixed with pineapple or chipped beef then rolled in stale nuts and plopped onto a plate.
Still, I always have liked the idea of a cheese ball. If you think about it, why not? It’s a communal sort of dish, one where everyone gets to dig in. If plated well, it can make a pretty addition to the table. And, if you use good cheese, you can actually create a delicious specimen.
Makes sense, doesn’t it? I decided it was time to rehabilitate the cheese ball.
Fresh goat cheese, feta and blue cheese are all good candidates for base ingredients. They can be molded and mixed with a near-infinite number of other (good-quality ingredients: sun-dried tomatoes, olives, dried fruit, nuts, herbs and spices. I settled on blue as the primary cheese for a good winter ball. And, as luck would have it, my neighbor, Anne, had just purchased a large chunk of Stilton and kindly supplied me with some of it. (It was also Anne’s idea to add a splash of cognac to the mix, which elevated the cheese ball to greater gastronomic heights.)
I added a good-quality cream cheese, one without guar gum or other stabilizers (I used Ben’s Cream Cheese, purchased at Balducci’s) and some mascarpone I happened to have on hand.
I liked the idea of adding dried fruit for color, sweetness and seasonality. So I chopped up a mixture of dried blueberries, cherries, cranberries and sultanas (dried apricots would also be good). A spoonful or two of honey and that splash of cognac were all that was needed to complete my cheese ball recipe.
Because I had never made a cheese ball before, I assumed that shaping it would be a messy chore. That actually turned out to be simple. I mounded the mixture in a bowl, covered the bowl with wrap and let it chill in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. Then I used a spatula to shape the mound into a ball, rotating the bowl as I went. Once the ball was shaped, I covered the bowl again and returned it to the fridge. Shortly before serving time I transferred the ball from the bowl to a serving plate by carefully scooping it up from its underside and lifting it with a silicone spatula. I had planned to roll it in toasted pecans, but I liked the festive color produced by the chopped fruit. So I left it as is, and used a couple of dried cherries and some sliced almonds to garnish it.
I also had planned to use a few sprigs of rosemary to decorate the plate, but I couldn’t find my rosemary bush under all the snow. So I used a berry-laden branch from another shrub in my yard (hope it wasn't poisonous). And there it was, the cheesy cheese ball transformed.
Holiday Cheese Ball
Serve with plain water crackers.
MAKE AHEAD: The cheese mixture needs 2 hours’ refrigeration before it can be shaped into a ball. The cheese ball can be made and refrigerated 1 day in advance.
1 1/4 cups mixed dried fruit, such as dried cherries, cranberries, sultanas and blueberries, plus more for garnish
4 ounces cream cheese
4 ounces mascarpone
4 ounces crumbled Stilton cheese (rind removed)
1 to 2 tablespoons honey
1 to 2 teaspoons cognac
A few slivered or sliced blanched almonds, a couple of rosemary sprigs or other winter greens, for garnish
Place the dried fruit in the bowl of a food processor; pulse just until chopped coarsely. Scrape the chopped fruit into a mixing bowl.
Combine the cream cheese, mascarpone, Stilton and 1 tablespoon of the honey in the bowl of the food processor; process until creamy and well blended. Taste and add the remaining tablespoon of honey as needed; process to incorporate. The mixture should be on the sweet side, but not too much so.
Add the cognac to the mixture (to taste), along with the chopped dried fruit; process just until combined. Return the mixture to the mixing bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours, until fairly firm.
Use a spatula to shape the mixture (while it's in the bowl) to about the size of a softball, rotating the bowl as you shape. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until serving time.
When ready to serve, use a large spatula to transfer to the center of a serving platter.
Arrange a few berries or a large dried cherry on top of the cheese ball, then arrange the almonds around the cherry. Garnish the platter with the sprigs of rosemary or other winter greens.
Per serving: 189 calories, 5 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 12 g fat, 7 g saturated fat, 35 mg cholesterol, 216 mg sodium, 2 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar
The Food Section
December 22, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories: Recipes , Say Cheese | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, cheese ball, recipes
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