It was not until I tasted my first sheep's milk ricotta cake in Florence that I realized cheese's true dessert potential. Accustomed to the sugary cheesecakes with graham cracker crusts in the states, I assumed that cheese reached its dessert height when spread with raspberry preserves or rippled with coffee liquor.
The Italian cake's lemony, savory, nutty flavors proved me wrong. Unlike the monotone sweet, mildly tangy taste of many American cheesecakes that bores the tongue after three or four bites, this new dessert had more flavor layers than a multicolored jawbreaker.
Back home, I tasted my first local goat cheese version of the dessert and realized there was something blaringly delicious about the artisan cheese and dessert combination. I was put over the edge by tasting a salty, meaty blue cheese work its magic on a piece of warm, earthy, cherry-and-cocoa toned dark chocolate. I was convinced that cheese and dessert belong together.
Fortunately, it is a great time to explore the possibilities. Artisan cheese in the United States has never been more abundant and delicious. Domestic creameries are winning hearts at home and surprising enough European tourists in blind tastings that American artisan cheese has made a name for itself abroad, too. It is time, then, for a new twist.
Cheese works well as a dessert for a couple of reasons: A nearly perfect food by itself, cheese can hold its own in a world of sugar and cream, and cheese -- sweet and salty and sometimes even lemony all at once -- gives dessert some unexpected tastes.
Because today's artisan cheese is so multifaceted, it provides a tasting experience that many dishes that rely on a lot of butter and sugar for flavor often do not.
The more delicate cheeses, such as small-production fresh ricottas or fromage blancs, have clean, milky, sweet tastes that can elevate a simple dessert. Imagine tasting a spoonful of local, pure, thick, almost floral fresh cream from a glass bottle and multiply its impact by five. Cheese this fresh should be simple, maybe doused with a little sugar and accompanied by fresh fruit or nuts. A great light, local fromage blanc does not need much attention.
A strong cheese can do simple, too. Serving an intense blue cheese, for example, with as many add-ons as you might with a New York-style cheesecake would result in the cheese's larger-than-life flavors overshadowing and clashing with everything else. The same goes for that aged Alpine-inspired cheese with brown butter, spice and pineapple scents. It would knock the subtle socks off a genoise cake. Unless it is a tangy, fresh chevre that pops regardless of what dessert it is in, most cheeses demand simplicity. This makes your job easier.
Besides keeping the last course of the meal straightforward, cheese keeps dessert lively. Part of cheese's draw is its complete nature. It is salty, sweet and packed with tertiary flavors. Sweet upon sweet in a dessert can get dull. Sometimes you want a little salty, crunchy peanut butter with your sweet chocolate, or a squeeze of lemon on your sugary, rich crepe.
A piece of aged, salty, caramel-scented cheese melted over a puff pastry can serve as the peanut butter to the fresh jammy strawberries scattered atop. Likewise, you may eat just one flaky alfajores cookie with dulce de leche, but when buttery pecan cookies are spread with the same caramel mixed with lemony, tangy fresh chevre, the salty-sweet-bright acidity factor won't let you stop before eating five. Salty and sweet and savory and earthy and lush all at once, cheese can be a dessert's everything.
Of course, great artisan American cheese, which is often perfection in itself, can act as its own dessert, served with hazelnuts and a little honey. Then where would the pre-dessert cheese plate fit?
Balanced, complex and layered with flavors, cheese is ready to move beyond the appetizer plate. But you don't need to go to Florence to experience dessert and cheese's pairing magic.
American cheese-makers are in their prime, and the fruits of their labor are more abundant and delicious than ever before. Next time you want a dessert that is going to impress, look beyond that silver rectangle of cream cheese sitting on your grocery store shelf. Introduce a little sugar to your artisan cheese's life, and you'll wonder how you ever did without chevre in your dulce de leche cookie before.
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