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KUALA LUMPUR, Dec 13 — Cooking can be lots of fun. Not cooking can be fun too. (Certainly more relaxing.)
Some of my favourite Weekend Kitchen recipes involve no cooking at all. Fewer items used means no toiling over a hot stove or waiting impatiently for ingredients to come to a boil, to thaw or to freeze, to proof or to combine, and so on.
Yet even with assembly, there needs to be an eye for detail.
That’s the case when conjuring up a fabulous charcuterie board, deciding where to drape the fragile strips of prosciutto and how to spread the discs of coarse soppressata. Do you use green olives or black ones?
Perhaps more headache than heavenly. Perhaps more excess than is polite, given the travails of the year.
Yet it is precisely in acknowledgement of the rough months that have passed, that we have survived together, that we must celebrate some degree of triumph. It’s the end of the year, after all.
‘Tis the season for gaiety and gluttony. (Perhaps some excess can be forgiven, maybe even encouraged, the better to stiffen our resolve for the year to come.)
So. Sometimes fabulous yet not too finicky is in order.
There is no better demonstration of the aforementioned principles of order and opulence (yet not quite overdoing it) than a simple platter of cheese and crackers.
Yes, you say it is just cheese and crackers. Oh but it could be so much more.
Traditionally this is what I imagine a cheese course to be, sampled after the mains have come and gone. Some of my most memorable dining experiences involve a cheese cart carefully being pushed out by the maître d’ after what remains of the beef or lamb has been whisked away.
The graceful turning of a girolle, scraping the surface of an unpasteurized Alpine cheese. The resulting rosettes blossoming like a ballerina’s tutu. The slow pouring of runny honey, undulating and unctuous, over some blue cheese. The sweetness of the honey mellowing out the strong cheese.
Yes, there’s a reason the cheese course comes afterwards, perhaps for the pomp and the performance. It’s also a great deal more troublesome.
Why not do things differently this year?
There’s a lot to be said for appetisers you can make ahead of time to appease even the most famished of dinner guests (who, in this day and age, are likely to be your immediate family or your housemates).
Let them snack on this and make conversation as you busy yourself with the dishes you actually have to cook. Malaysians are more likely to favour something sweet at the end of their meals rather than coagulated casein anyway.
Who knows? Your humble offering of cheese and crackers — served on a large wooden board or in individual dishes — might be more than well received; they might well be a new tradition every time the festive season approaches.
A celebration of cheese & crackers
Be it for a festive occasion as hors d’oeuvres (rather than a cheese course to follow the meal) or as a teatime snack, there’s nothing easier — this is almost entirely assembly.
Choosing the right cheeses matter, of course. Selecting one each from different types of cheeses would ensure you don’t get the same flavours or textures. Makes it more interesting for your guests.
One way would be to have cheeses made from different animal milks, be it from cows, goats or sheep. Camembert is a soft, creamy cow’s milk cheese, for instance, whereas feta is traditionally made from goat’s milk.
Another way would be to distinguish the cheeses by their firmness: soft, semi-soft, semi-hard and hard. Say a soft cheese such as a mild Brie, a semi-hard Gouda and a hard aged Cheddar.
Allow the softer cheeses to come up to room temperature if you’re removing them from the fridge. If they are too cold, their flavours will fail to show as much. However, don’t let them stay out in our tropical heat for too long either; all dairy products will surely spoil that way.
As for crackers, go for ones with a good snap yet can hold their shape when topped with cheese and some honey or jam. Be it plain or made from oats or organic, it’s all good.
The sweetness comes from fresh and dried fruits and all manner of jams and preserves. Runny honey, too. Fig jam, I find, goes particularly well with a crumbly hard cheese.
At the end of the day, do remember that this isn’t a full-blown cheeseboard so you don’t have to be too fussy about it. Again, individual dishes are fine and likely preferable for small dinners when the number of guests are small.
It’s time to celebrate — and the crisp shatter of a fresh cracker, the jammy sweetness of the fruit preserve and the multitude of flavours from the cheeses are a celebration in itself.
50 gm Brie, sliced
50 gm Monterey Jack, sliced
50 gm aged Cheddar, sliced
50 gm Gouda, sliced
2 packages of crackers
1 punnet of fresh blueberries
Runny honey (optional)
Note: This is a sample list but select whatever cheeses, crackers and jams/honey you like the best.
Allow the softer Brie and Monterey Jack cheeses to come up to room temperature after removing them from the fridge. Cut all cheeses into thin slices. Set aside on a wooden board.
Open the packages of crackers and place them on individual dishes, dividing the portions equally. Either leave the cheeses on the wooden board for guests to choose from or divide them accordingly on the dishes, next to the crackers.
Add the fresh blueberries to the dishes. Serve with the jar of fig jam and runny honey (if desired), and sufficient spoons for everyone so there’s no double dipping.
For more Weekend Kitchen and other slice-of-life stories, visit lifeforbeginners.com.