Friday, February 20, 2015

Corn and Black Pepper Crackers + The Quintessential Cheese Plate

Cheese Plate with Salami, Almonds, Fig Jam, and Homemade Crackers

I never really think to make crackers. I had made them once long ago-- I must have been in high school. My mom had a Pampered Chef cookie press, and the only other recipe included in the box aside from sugar cookies, were cheddar spritzer crackers. They turned out similar to cheese straws, but for the amount of effort they took, I was largely underwhelmed.

Last week, though, I was gifted a goodie bag of cheese samples and other hors d'oeuvres fixings, by the good folks at Whole Foods P Street. That prompted my goal of creating THE QUINTESSENTIAL CHEESE PLATE, which I figured must surely include something homemade-- whether crackers, pickles, or preserves. I went the baked goods route (surprise, surprise), making Melissa Clark's Corn and Black Pepper Crackers. Essentially savory cookies--both soft and crispy, these could be easily adapted to include a variety of different nuts and seeds. I'd keep the black pepper, though-- it adds a great spice.

Various Cheeses, Salami, and Fig Jam

Along with including something homemade, here are my other suggestions for that perfect fromage spread. This is essentially the simplest of dishes-- you're basically setting the stage for others to create their own pairings. Of course cheese boards are ideal for party snacks and appetizers, but they're also great for a weekday meal that's super fast yet feels decadent.

• Cheese (obviously): I like a good variety-- soft and hard, mild and piquant. Some of my favorites pictured here: Sartori Balsamic Bellavitano (hard white), Neals Yard Dairy's Borough Stilton (soft blue), and Reserve UnieKaas Gouda.

• Charcuterie (if you're a meat eater): Now this isn't a charcuterie plate, so the fromage should be the star, but it's nice to add a little salami or prosciutto to the mix. I opted for Creminelli's uncured bacon salami, which paired well with, well, just about everything.

• Nuts: Marcona almonds are the standout choice in my opinion, but any nuts will do. Chili or maple-spiced pecans or cashews are also a favorite.

• Fruits & Preserves: Fresh apples or pears, dried figs or dates, and/or any kind of preserves add a sweet compliment. Here I kept the Mediterranean theme going with an Adriatic fig preserves; this Apple Rosemary Jelly is also a cheese plate star.

• Honey: Another option for a sweet touch. Use orange blossom, lavender, or your local favorite.

• Pickles/Olives: As the Gordy's Pickle Jar gals pointed out, this cheese plate is devoid of any pickled goods. How could I forget?! Any and all olives are great in this context, as well as cornichons, pickled okra, green tomato pickles.... you really can't go wrong.

• Crackers or Bread: Make your own (recipe below) or use store-bought. I became a fan of Raincoast's Fig and Olive Crisps and also wondered what a puff pastry-esque cracker might be like?? Stay tuned...

Arrange everything on a cutting board, slate, or plate, using ramekins or jars for preserves, nuts, and pickles if desired. Set out some knives and cheese spreaders et puis voilĂ ! Let the pairings begin.

Corn and Black Pepper Crackers with Cheese

Corn and Black Pepper Crackers
Adapted from New York Times Cooking

3 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted + more for greasing
1/2 cup cornmeal (I used Kentucky Heirloom Cornmeal)
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 teaspoon black pepper, coarsely ground
3/4 teaspoon herbs and/or seeds, if desired (rosemary, sesame seeds, etc.)
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3/4 cup milk
1 large egg

1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Line 2-3 baking sheets with parchment paper and butter parchment (or use a Silpat).

2. Sift cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, pepper, salt, and any additional herbs or seeds into a large bowl.

3. In a separate bowl, beat milk with egg. Add to dry ingredients all at once and mix with a wooden spoon until no lumps remain. Stir in melted butter. Batter will be quite wet.

4. Drop batter by the tablespoonful onto prepared baking sheets. Bake until edges are a dark golden brown and crackers are quite crispy, 13-18 minutes.

Crackers with Soft Cheese

Related recipes:
Apple Butter
Apple Rosemary Jelly
Grapefruit-Ginger Marmalade
Rosemary-Raisin Bread

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