Hors d’Oeuvres au Fromage

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 cheesePinch of cayenne pepperOptional: 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 fillets1/4 pound cream cheese4 tablespoons butter2 tablespoons Cognac2 tablespoons minced shallots, scallions, or onions1 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 chunks8 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese2 cups all-purpose flour1/4 teaspoon salt1/2 teaspoon dry mustard1/2 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…
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