Hors d’Oeuvres au Fromage

Hors d’Oeuvres au Fromage

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During the holiday season many of us have a procession of people trooping in and out of our houses. Some are guests we’ve invited for a drink or a meal, and some are friends and family just stopping by without much, if any, warning. I find it very useful to have a couple of festive nibbles that I can prepare well in advance and have ready and waiting to put out, along with a bottle of wine, for visitors. There is no recipe simpler than the cheese wafer recipe below; it’s rather deceptive, insofar as what you get is not discs of melted cheese but rather something that is close in texture to a very crisp cracker. The shortbreads (my all-time favorite hors d’oeuvre) are just like shortbread cookies, but savory and cheddary and piquant, not sweet at all. The smoked trout pâté recipe is very flexible; it can easily be adjusted to suit the ingredients you have on hand and your own particular tastes. Finally, I give you a recipe for gougère, a traditional French cheese pastry that is crisp on the outside and moist on the inside. This can’t really be made ahead of time—theoretically you can do so and reheat it in a warm oven, but it definitely loses quality. It is, however, so foolproof to make, so delicious, and so French that I urge you to give it a try. It goes into the oven well before your guests arrive and emerges looking terribly impressive—maximum yield for minimum effort. And oh, is it good.


Cheese Wafers

3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese (freshly grated, right? and imported!)
3/4 cup grated aged sharp cheddar cheese
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Optional: 1 tablespoon sesame or poppy seeds, or 2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves or chopped fresh rosemary leaves

Combine all the ingredients. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper and drop the cheese by tablespoonfuls to make 12 piles on each sheet, spacing them well apart. Spread out each pile to make a 2-inch circle. Bake in a preheated 400-degree oven until the wafers turn a rich golden brown, about 10-12 minutes. Cool the wafers on the baking sheets, then carefully dislodge them with a thin spatula. Store them in an airtight container, where they’ll keep nicely for two or three weeks. Smoked Trout Pâté This pâté can be made with any smoked fish, not just trout—mackerel, bluefish, salmon, eel—or a combination thereof. The exact amount of the other ingredients is not critical—you can use a little more cream cheese, a little less butter, and so on, so feel free to experiment. This can be made in advance and refrigerated for a couple of weeks, or frozen for a couple of months (thaw in the refrigerator). Serve it in a crock with crackers, sliced baguettes (or melba toast made from leftover baguettes), or even rounds of cucumber. The recipe is based on one for a smoked bluefish pâté that appeared in The Legal Sea Foods Cookbook.

1 pound smoked trout fillets
1/4 pound cream cheese
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons Cognac
2 tablespoons minced shallots, scallions, or onions
1 teaspoon grated horseradish (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice (or more, to taste)
Freshly ground pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients in a food processor fitted with the steel blade and process until you have a smooth purée. Taste for seasoning; you may want to add more lemon juice and/or pepper. Pack into a crock, cover, and chill well before serving. Makes a generous 3 cups. Rosemary-Cheddar Shortbreads If you make these tasty morsels in advance, store them in an airtight container, where they’ll keep for at least two weeks, and reheat them in a low oven before serving, since they taste best warm. Or even better, after you shape the dough into balls, place the cookie sheet in the freezer; when the balls are frozen, transfer them to a plastic freezer bag. That way you can bake the shortbreads fresh when you want to serve them. There’s no need to thaw them first, and they’ll keep in the freezer for 3 months. This recipe is based on one given me by Pat Reppert, of Shale Hill Farm, in Saugerties, NY.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into chunks
8 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon cayenne (or more if you like very spicy things)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary leaves

In a food processor fitted with the steel blade, process the butter and cheddar until they’re creamy and well blended. Combine the remaining ingredients in a bowl and whisk together to blend, then add to the butter-cheese mixture and pulse till just blended. Scrape the dough into a bowl, cover, and refrigerate for about an hour or until firm. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and, using a teaspoon to scoop out small amounts, roll into balls about 3/4 to 1 inch in diameter. Place them on a couple of baking sheets, spacing them out a bit, since they’ll spread and flatten as they bake. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 10-12 minutes, or until golden brown (frozen dough will take about 3 minutes longer). Serve warm. This recipe makes lots and lots of shortbreads (I’ve never counted); the exact number will depend on their size, of course. Gougère Gougère is basically a cheesy creampuff without the cream (hmmm . . . why would I think that was an appealing description?). It is made from pâte à choux–cream-puff pastry, the easiest of all pastries to make, although you wouldn’t think so to look at the finished product. Nonetheless, it is the first dough an aspiring French patissier learns to make. Note that although gougère itself tastes moistest and best baked in a ring shape, as it is here, you can make individual puffs using exactly this recipe, let them cool, and then slice off the tops and fill them with chicken salad or creamed mushrooms or something along those lines.

1 cup water
6 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pinch of freshly ground pepper
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons grated cheese: Gruyère, Swiss, or Parmesan

Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, or butter and flour the sheet. Set aside. Combine the water, butter, salt, and pepper in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat, stirring until the butter is melted. Dump in the flour all at once and cook, stirring vigorously and constantly with a wooden spoon, until the dough forms a ball (the pan will be filmed with dough; ignore it). Remove the pan from the heat and beat in the eggs one at a time, making sure each one is completely incorporated before you add the next one—as you beat in the eggs, what starts out looking like a stringy mess will become smooth and glossy. Then beat in 1 cup of the cheese. Drop the dough by spoonfuls onto the prepared baking sheet to form a ring about 8 inches in diameter. Make the ring nice and high, leaving an approximately 2-inch hole in the center, but don’t try to smooth it out—rough is good. Sprinkle with the reserved 2 tablespoons of cheese. Bake for 40 to 50 minutes or until the ring is nicely browned and puffed high. Serve immediately, cut into wedges. Serves about 8.