Tag Archives: cheese

Otis’s cheese

23 Nov

It took a while for me to fall in love with Otis. It was never my intention to include a dog in my life, and so welcoming an 8-week-old that had a long run ahead of him was quite the leap. Having never had a dog before, this particular one, a high-octane, smart as a whip Australian Shepherd, proved challenging. More than a year into our relationship I remained skeptical of its merits, and even its future.

Then we shared a piece of cheese together.

I was alone in the kitchen, working on a spaghetti alla carbonara. When I reached into the fridge to grab the Parmigiano-Reggiano, Otis, who had been wrecking his usual havoc elsewhere about the house, suddenly appeared at my side. He looked exceptionally curious, even for him. Busy with my cooking I patted the dog’s head absently and went to his stash of cookies, but when offered one he declined. Clearly the animal’s full attention was on the Reggiano and so I broke off a small piece, took a bite of it myself, an offered the rest to my handsome friend.

“You’ve got good taste, I’ll give you that,” I told Otis after we’d quietly shared our third of several small hunks of cheese, both of us on the kitchen floor by now. “Maybe there’s hope for you, after all.”

That was more than a dozen years — and certainly hundreds of pounds of Reggiano — ago. Otis has been at my side for all of them. I can honestly say that I have never loved another creature more.

I also cannot ever think of this cheese without thinking of him. Because no food, not one, ever pleased either of us more. Reggiano is way more than a staple around my house. It’s as important as water and air. For me and for Otis both.

And so on the way over to the vet’s office yesterday morning my wife and I made sure to bring along a nice big hunk of Otis’s cheese. When it’s my turn to go out, hopefully with loved ones helping me along, it’s what I’m gonna want too.

Addio mio caro amico.

Flight of the burrata

9 Aug

If you do not count the wine and the olive oil, dinner last night consisted of just two items: bread and cheese. The bread, an excellent olive loaf, was gotten from the Standard Baking Company here in Portland. For the cheese, there was a bit more travel involved.
See, I drove back from Queens yesterday morning, a trip designed to celebrate my brother Joe’s birthday in gluttonous fashion (a success, I might add; I’m still stuffed). Just behind the driver’s seat and next to the dog was a cooler. Inside the cooler was, among other things, a plastic container holding a ball of burrata wrapped in green leaf-like plastic and immersed in whey. I bought the cheese in Brooklyn on Saturday, but the day before that it was in the burrata-making capital of the world, the Puglia region of Italy.
I don’t know why but this cheese has attracted quite the following of late. In the past few months alone, and right here in Maine, I have sampled burrata from both a California cheesemaker and, more recently, one in Vermont. Why it has taken so long for the cheese to draw attention here in the U.S. I cannot say. A well-made burrata is one of the finest things that you will ever eat.
Basically, burrata is a ball made of thinly stretched mozzarella on the outside and a mixture of curd and fresh cream on the inside. Though it used to be made with milk from water buffalo, now it’s mostly cow’s milk that is used. (Traditionally burrata is wrapped in the leaves of the asphodelus plant, not the plastic you see above.) 
In Italy burrata is eaten within a day or two of its manufacture. Though the cheese I bought on Saturday would have been okay to eat for about a week, I wanted to have at it as soon as I got home, which would put it at just three days from the time it was made.
To make things interesting I decided to do a little cheese flight of my own. I stopped by my local Italian grocery and picked up a burrata made in Vermont, from Maplebrook Farm in Bennington, to taste side-by-side with the Italian version. Maplebrook takes some pride in its hiring of an Italian cheesemaker to make its burrata, and I have found the product to be pretty good since becoming available up here a few months ago. 
The cheese on the left is from Italy (via D. Coluccio & Sons in Brooklyn), the one on the right from Vermont. Other than the shape you’d be hard pressed to tell the two apart at this point. It’s when you cut into them that the differences become very apparent.
This is the cheese from Puglia. The outside layer of mozzarella is thin and delicate, the inside rich and voluptuously creamy. Look at how that rich, unctuous cream oozes from the ball when it’s cut open. Taste? It’s like eating thick cream-flavored velvet. There is just absolutely nothing like it. 
Here is the Vermont-made cheese. Different story entirely. The outer shell of mozzarella is much stiffer and more chewy than the Italian cheese. The center, though moist and creamy, is far more solid as well. The creaminess factor is entirely different. Not only does cream not ooze out; whatever moisture is released is much more whey-like. As for the taste, it is a little on the sour side (but in a good way), and not nearly as luscious.
This is how I eat burrata, topped with a good extra virgin olive oil and some sea salt and fresh ground pepper. The cheese shown here is the one from Puglia, and so I guess you now know which of the two I preferred.
Some things are worth going out of your way for.

The long way home

26 Feb
When a person goes out of their way to make for you a very fine Italian pastry the least you can do is go and fetch it. So what if they live 320 miles away. You’ve got something more important to do? Than eat pastry?
Really!
Okay, so I was a lot closer than that when my Aunt Anna called to tell me about the pasticiotti she’d just baked. But I was already in the car when the cell rang, heading up to Maine after a long weekend back home in Brooklyn.
“Where the heck are you?” I heard Anna say. “You didn’t go home yet, did you?”
(We do not subscribe to traditional forms of greeting in my family; we get right to what is on our minds.)
“Anna? That you?”
“No, it’s your uncle. Who do you think it is, you lousy kid?”
(Nor, I should add, do we always speak delicately to one another.)
“Better lay off those steroids, Dominic,” I barked back. “You’re starting to sound just like your sister.”
I could go on like this, but I’ll spare you. Turns out that Anna, whom I’d visited only two days earlier, and who had made me one very fine lasagne and her wonderfully delicate meatballs, decided the prior evening that it was imperative she whip up a batch of pasticiotti (basically a tart filled with custard or, as in this case, cheese). She also decided that it would be a terrible shame if a few of the pastries did not travel home to Maine with her “pain-in-the-ass nephew,” an endearment she has graced upon me since, oh, I’d say around the Reagan administration.
Hearing my aunt’s enthusiasm come bursting through the headset, I knew right away what I had to do: Lie like hell. I thanked her extravagantly, said that, no, I was still at my brother Joe’s place, and that, of course, I would drop by later on to pick up my pastry and to have another visit.
Except that I was in Connecticut already, on I-95 North. Still 270 miles from home, true, but 50 miles from where I’d started out an hour earlier.
What can I say, I love my aunt. I love her pastries too.
So I’d spend another night down there, so what, I told myself turning around. There are worse things than sitting around eating fresh pastries and sipping coffee with a family member you don’t get to see all that much.
Not only were Anna’s pasticiotti beautiful, they were right up there with the best I’ve ever had. The pastry was at once flakey and chewy, the ricotta filling just on the right side of sweetness. They were damn near perfect really. My aunt knew it. You can tell when a cook believes in what they feed you, and Anna definitely believed in these pastries.
“They came good, Annie,” I said reaching for pasticiotti due. “Call me anytime you feel like making more, you know. Don’t be shy.”
Just as I was leaving her apartment Anna said that I should try making the pastries myself one day — “Put it on The Meatball” were her exact words — and when I laughed at the suggestion she showed me the book in which her recipe resides. It’s a pamphlet really, put out by the Brooklyn-born Polly-O in 1977 as a way to inspire people to use more of the company’s cheese products.
This got me laughing even harder, because I have the same booklet. It was my mother’s. I had found it amongst her things after she passed and of course had to hold onto it. I look through it from time to time but can’t say that I’ve ever used one of the recipes.
Here it is.
And here’s the recipe that Anna uses for her pasticiotti. They don’t call it that in the Polly-O booklet; they call it Pasticcini di Napoli, or Neopolitan Pastry.
Call it whatever you want. But if you happen to be making a batch while we’re chatting on the phone one day, don’t mention it before first inquiring as to my exact whereabouts. You will be saving me from myself, I assure you. I put too many miles on my car as it is. I don’t need to be chasing down homemade pastries wherever they might be. No matter how good they are.
Pasticcini di Napoli
Recipe from the Polly-O “Cooking with Cheese Recipe Book”
Makes 8 to 10 pastries
For the pastry
2 cups sifted all-purpose flour
Pinch salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, cut into small pieces
2 egg yolks
Zest from one lemon
For the filling
3 cups ricotta
6 Tbs confectioners sugar
2 egg yolks
Pinch cinnamon
1 tsp lemon zest
Sift flour, salt and sugar into a bowl. Cut in butter, then add egg yolks, one at a time, while mixing with wooden spoon. Blend in lemon rind. Work dough with hands until it is soft and manageable and clears the bowl. If necessary add a little water. Turn onto a lightly floured board and knead quickly until smooth. Wrap in wax paper and refrigerate 1 to 2 hours.
Roll out to 1/4-inch thickness on lightly floured board. Cut pastry into rounds to fit muffin pans. Grease muffin pans and line with pastry.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Combine ricotta with remaining ingredients and blend well with wooden spoon. Fill prepared pastry sections. Cut leftover pastry into small strips and criss-cross over filling. Trim edges. Bake 40 to 50 minutes, then cool in oven.