Posts Tagged ‘cheese glorious cheese’

When I heard that this year’s Grilled Cheese Invitational was going to be held at the Rose Bowl, I kind of freaked out.  I mean, being a lifetime resident of Los Angeles, the Rose Bowl holds a certain aura:  it’s the arena where legends have been made, where epic concerts have been held.  Sure, the event was being held in the parking lot, but… it was still the frickin’ Rose Bowl!

Now, if you’ve been around me long enough, you know one of the things I live for is this competition.  My first one was four years ago, and I was hooked.  Sometime around January, my idle thoughts will turn to grilled cheese, long before they set the date for the event.  My friends are tortured by my constant ideas about what I could stick between two pieces of bread that would make a winning sandwich; I subject them to rounds of tastings, trying to pull out opinions of how to make my ideas better.  One of my best friends, Moris, supplies me with all manner of cheesy puns to use for naming my creations.

This year was going to be different.  The past three years of walking away empty-handed gave me the experience of how to make good use of my time during the competition.  I knew to print labels for my sample plates (no more “what’s in this?”) and I knew how to prep in such a way that my samples came out fast and hot.  I was ready for victory. 

We arrived bright and early, ready to do battle in the first two heats.  And when I say heats, I’m not joking.  It was hot you guys.

Talking to our neighbor for the first two heats, and we’ve got our game faces ON.

When the spatulas dropped, we got to work.  First up, we had our Love, American Style sandwich, Cheeses Crust, Superstar.  It’s your classic grilled cheese:  white bread, American or Cheddar cheese, and butter.  I made my own bread, of course, with the recipe taken from my grandmother’s old Better Homes & Gardens 1960’s red-checkered cookbook.

I’ll forgive my official photographer for not getting a picture–it was a good sandwich.

We never got a picture of our Honey Pot entry, Lady Lemon Licker.  And, if any of you fine folks out there who attended, if you got a picture, can you help a girl out?  I was so focused on getting out my samples I forgot to get Choo to take a picture!

So, after getting our sandwiches out, we had several hours to burn and several friends who traveled from all over the country to come see me compete.  And, not only that, these wonderful people made sure I was never without beer the rest of the afternoon.  The time came to hear the winners.  I waited near the stage; it was nothing new, we had done this before.

And then this happened:

Trophy Number One  (Sorry you guys, you’ll have to click the link for the video, THANKS, WordPress!)

I think this picture really captures it for us.  And I’d say it was the beer, but I was NOT letting go of that trophy!

But… we weren’t done yet:  Trophy Number Two

Look it that!  Trophies won!  At the frickin’ Rose Bowl!

And there we are with our friends, Jodi & Sparky, who also won (2nd place Honey Pot, Spaz, and Frontiers in Fromage), and, YES, I’m on the phone with my mom!  Who do you call when you win something like that?  Mom, of course!  I don’t think I made much sense, but she was happy for me.

After all the cheese and all the beer and all the trophies, it was time to celebrate.  We headed to 1886 in Pasadena, which has a gorgeous patio that was just the right size for our little party, and I took some time to bask in the glow of being a winner:

You know I’m coming back next year; I have more categories to win.  Team FigJam:  in it to win it for 2013!

And, since I don’t want to be rude, I’d like to thank my friends:

  • David Schneider, my official photographer.  You can see the rest of his pictures from this event here.
  • Chris, who took the video of my wins, and his sister, Katie, who came all the way out from Atlanta!
  • Margaret, my favorite co-worker, who showed up and screamed and cheered us on the entire way.
  • Moris, Cristhian, Jodi, Sparky, Mike, and especially Jason, who even after I set his oven afire earlier this year, still let me do a test run in his kitchen without batting an eye;  I’ve tortured you with enough grilled cheese to last you the rest of 2012.
  • Jeff and Ange and their friends, who all were down from San Francisco and cheered me on, too.

I have awesome friends.  I attribute my win to you guys; you helped make it happen.


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Remember just ten days ago, I took apart a duck, preparing its pieces for several things:  skin and fat to be rendered, legs to be made into confit, and breasts to pack in salt and hang to dry for prosciutto.   The ten days are over for the prosciutto: one full day packed in salt, nine to hang and dry.  The wait was a trial of patience, but rife with breast jokes:  taking pictures of my breasts to put up on Facebook, squeezing my breasts to check them daily and how tired I was of having my breasts just hang around like that.  But, this wait paid off:  today was the day to try my first bite of duck prosciutto, and it was such a wonderful surprise; the fat is buttery, the meat rich and full of that delightful duck flavor.   I mean, there is no pretending that this is anything other than duck:  it is duck intensified, and it is a good thing.

Other than making dirty jokes over the past ten days, I began to wonder what exactly I’d be doing with the prosciutto when it was finished.  Yes, yes, we’d be eating it–that’s a given–but man does not live by meat alone, no matter just how good it is.  My mind drifted to dates and how that particular luscious sweetness of a date would pair well with the salty richness that I was expecting (rightly so) from the finished product.  Throw in a creamy cheese filling and pistachios, a natural complement to duck;  a little citrus to add a bit of acidity to lighten the overall flavor profile, and I was sure to have a winner.

These scream to be eaten along with a glass of a bold Zinfandel or Merlot–in fact, if I was doing a wine tasting, these would definitely be one of the appetizers I’d serve.  They’re perfectly bite-size, but they pack a ton of flavor.

Note:  depending on the size of your dates, especially if you’re using high-quality Medjool dates, you may need to use two slices of the prosciutto to wrap them entirely.

Duck Prosciutto-Wrapped Stuffed Dates

  • 1 1/2 ounces Chevre
  • 1 1/2 ounces Mascarpone
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest
  • 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 12 dates, preferably Medjool
  • 1/4 cup shelled pistachios, finely chopped
  • 12 slices duck prosciutto (or more as needed)
  1. In a stand mixer, beat cheeses with orange zest and juice until smooth.  Set aside, or fill pastry bag for easy stuffing.
  2. Cut dates lengthwise to remove pit;  pipe or spoon in cheese filling.
  3. Place chopped pistachios on a small plate, press the exposed cheese filling towards the nuts to create a coating of pistachios.
  4. Wrap stuffed date with slices of duck prosciutto and secure with toothpick.

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Scene:  My kitchen, Sunday, 8:12 AM.  Germany kicking the snot out of England plays in the background.

I’m rummaging through the fridge, noting we’re down on just about anything worth eating on a Sunday morning… a few pieces of bacon, only two eggs, no potatoes…

“Choo, I have an idea for breakfast.”


“How about bacon waffles?”

Choo’s eyes light up like I just announced I discovered the secret to life itself as he nods, reverently.

Crispy bacon, sharp cheddar cheese, cornmeal, and just a bit of brown sugar to add a hint of sweetness:  this created one heck of a waffle.  You know how I know it was good?  Kiddo ate three of them.

A few notes:  I list melted butter as an ingredient, but, you know, if you wanted to use some of the bacon fat leftover from cooking, I promise I’m not going to say a word.  I’ll just say it was worth the substitution.  Also, if you’d prefer to use buttermilk rather than the yogurt/milk combination that I used (which only came about by my not having any buttermilk in the house and having yogurt that needed to be consumed), you would have my approval.  Not like you need it, but I’m sure you feel better by having it.

The Bacon, Cheddar & Cornmeal Waffle

  • 1 cup yellow cornmeal
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons brown sugar
  • 3 tablespoons melted butter (or bacon fat)
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 1/2 cups lowfat milk
  • 6 pieces cooked bacon, crispy and crumbled
  • 1/2 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  1. In a mixing bowl, whisk together cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and brown sugar.
  2. In a separate bowl, whisk together melted butter, eggs, yogurt and milk; add to dry ingredients and stir until ingredients are blended, with no dry streaks.
  3. Fold in bacon and cheese, and let batter rest for 15 minutes before cooking.
  4. Cook in waffle iron as per manufacturer’s instructions.

This made 13 4 x 4 waffles, and the great thing is that waffles freeze well, so don’t fret about leftovers–make your Monday morning a little brighter by having some of these for breakfast!

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This Saturday was The 1st 8th Annual Grilled Cheese Invitational, and Choo and I came ready to eat, grill, and hopefully win.  The morning was my kind of morning, with a nice overcast sky that would help keep the day somewhat cool once the marine layer burned off. We arrived at 9 AM to sign up with the other competitors:

This year, there were categories for professionals and amateurs;  even though it’s been about six years since I’ve cooked professionally, I decided to play fair when the application asked if I had ever worked as a chef or cook.   This did, however, allow for more awards, so more people had chances to win, which I consider a good thing.  Then again, it did put me in the pool with The Big Boys, which meant I needed to bring my A-game.

Since we arrived well before the Invitational was open to the public, Choo and I took a little time to explore the site.

The competitor’s area, just before the storm:

Some of L.A.’s popular food trucks arrived to sell their versions of grilled cheese and other fabulous snacks:

Even though I didn’t get a picture of their truck, I hit the Sweets Truck to get a caffeine fix for the two of us, along with a Red Velvet and a Carrot Cake Whoopie Pie (I sampled both, and chose the Carrot Cake, which was fantastic)–perfect for a mid-morning sugar rush while we settled in to a nice spot under a tree.  We camped out until our heat rolled around at 2:55, getting a chance to hit all the free samples supplied by the fantastic people of Tillamook and meeting some of our fellow competitors.


Some of my friends remember my run-in with The Chicken.  He was back. 

And he brought a friend.

Oh, great.  A double batch of nightmares!

Finally, it was grilling time.

Setting up my station:

Now, let’s talk about my sandwich.  I called it Peary’s Got The Blues, and entered it into the Honey Pot (the dessert category).   The PGTB had a homemade Vanilla Pound Cake, Mascarpone & Cambozola cheeses, homemade Pear-Port Butter, homemade Dulce de Leche, and Toasted Hazelnuts.  It took some work to create the perfect sandwich–in theory, I knew all the flavors would make a perfect mesh, but my problem was when I grilled the sandwich, by the time it was browned, the cheeses broke and when I sliced it, everything would squish out into a puddle.  I finally came by a solution (which I’m not going to share, but it’s what I spent 2 years and $32K for culinary school for) and it worked.   I mean, how could pound cake fried in butter not be awesome?

No, we didn’t win, sadly.  I gave it my best shot, and we had a good time, which is really what it’s about, right? 

I do have one thing I really need to get off my chest, because the action of one person really burned my britches.  See,  there was a group of people from the general public who signed up to become judges; they were responsible for getting samples and checking off on the ballots they received.  Most everyone we encountered was polite and curious about our sandwich, and we received a great amount of positive feedback.  Unfortunately, there was one guy who collected samples, ate his share, then dumped his stack of plates with the ballots untouched at the corner of my station.  This was so wrong on so many levels, since, first of all, dumping a stack of used plates right next to where I’m preparing food is disgusting.  Then, for not just myself, but speaking for the other competitors who lost a ballot due to this jerk’s actions lost a vote, when we compete, we’re putting our time, our energy and our money into being a part of this competition.  To not vote for our entries is theft, plain and simple. 

So, Mr. “Judge,” you’ve won this very special award:

Go on, hang it on your wall.  You earned it. 

Other than that hiccup, it was a great day, and I was thrilled to see Jodie & Sparky, who we hung out with before the competition, win first prize in the Amateur Kama Sutra category (a mini-ciabatta stuffed with a bbq-ish chicken, bacon, and some lovely super-melty cheese that really deserved the win). 

Now it’s time for me to start plotting for next year’s event.  I’m already thinking the keyword there just might be pralines.

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It’s something that’s intrigued me since just barely dipping my toes in it during culinary school–making my own cheese.  I have a vague memory of making mozzarella in Garde Manger classes, but after that, I just never got around to doing it again.  There’s a thousand recipes out there on how to make your own ricotta, but I chose David Lebovitz’s recipe

In my humble little opinion, if you want to give cheesemaking a try, this is definitely the way to go.  Milk, a bit of yogurt, some cream, a little vinegar (or lemon juice), and some salt will give you freshly made ricotta that will be perfect for lasagna or my favorite use–with fresh fruit and honey for a simple summertime dessert. 

Kiddo wanted to help, and I used this as a chance to try to tell him about the process that was happening in the pot while we stirred the milk as it warmed up–how the acids and the heat worked together in coagulating the proteins in the milk, creating curds… yeah, he’s four years old, so I think most of it went over his head.  He still thought it was fun to watch the process.

Look!  It’s SCIENCE!

I think my only beef with making cheese is the yield of cheese that comes out of the amount of milk used–I doubled the recipe, and came out with just over 3 cups.  Sure, it’s the nature of the beast with making cheese, but I had kind of hoped for a little more.  Still, it was delicious and I’ll definitely do it again in the summer when all my favorite fruits are in season. 

Homemade Ricotta, by David Lebovitz (from SimplyRecipes.com)


  • 2 quarts whole milk
  • 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
  • Optional: 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 teaspoons white vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon salt


In a large pot, bring the milk, yogurt, heavy cream (if using), vinegar, and salt to a boil. Very gently boil for one to two minutes, until the milk is curdled.

Meanwhile, line a strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth and set it over a deep bowl.

Pour the milk mixture into the strainer and let drain for 15 minutes. Gather the cheesecloth around the curds and squeeze gently to extract any excess liquid.

Storage: Homemade ricotta is best served slightly warm, although it can be refrigerated for up to three days, if desired.

Makes 2 cups.

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 It was a cold, drizzly day in L.A. yesterday, and we were expecting a few friends over to spend an evening of fun and frivolity.  But, what to make?  I needed a crowd pleaser that wasn’t too fussy, but hearty and relatively healthy after all the excesses of the holidays.  I thought of Chicken Cacciatore–full of vegetables, and I could lighten it a little by using skinless chicken thighs with the fat trimmed off.  Now, the Polenta–that’s what was decadent, loaded with Fontina cheese–was a great complement to the Cacciatore.   I also served this with red chard braised in chicken stock with onions and garlic, which is not pictured.

And props to my patient friends, who didn’t mind me setting up my studio immediately after I had finished my plate so I could take a picture. 

These recipes are made to serve 8, but can be easily halved.

Chicken Cacciatore

8 boneless skinless chicken thighs, with the fat trimmed off (can use chicken breasts, but shorten cooking time because breasts will dry out quickly in braising)

1 1/2 cups flour, seasoned with salt & pepper

3 Tablespoons olive oil

1 large white onion, diced

1 large red bell pepper, diced

1 1/4 pounds crimini mushrooms, sliced

4 cloves garlic, diced

1 bay leaf

5 sprigs fresh thyme

1 Tablespoon fresh rosemary, chopped

3/4 cup dry white wine

1-28 ounce can of diced tomatoes

2 Tablespoons fresh oregano, chopped

Salt & pepper

Chopped parsley (optional)

  1. Preheat oven to 325°
  2. Heat 5-quart dutch oven on medium heat;  dredge chicken pieces in seasoned flour and brown 2-3 pieces at a time, about 3-4 minutes each side.  Place browned pieces on a plate and set aside. 
  3. Add onion, red pepper, mushrooms, garlic, bay leaf, thyme sprigs, and rosemary;  sweat on medium heat until the juices from the vegetables are released (mushrooms will release a lot of water) and simmer for about 10 minutes until the liquids begin to reduce. 
  4. Add white wine and simmer for another 10 minutes.  Add tomatoes and oregano, and return chicken to the pot, burying the pieces in the sauce. 
  5. Bring to a full simmer again, top with lid, and put into oven for 30-35 minutes, until chicken is cooked through and is fork-tender.
  6. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

Creamy Polenta

4 cups water

4 cups lowfat milk

2 cups coarse ground polenta

6 ounces Fontina cheese, shredded

Salt & pepper to taste

  1. While the Cacciatore braises in the oven, pour water and milk into 4 quart pot and bring to a hard simmer.
  2. Sprinkle the polenta into the simmering liquid (it should “rain” polenta–don’t just dump it in.  Dumping = Clumping.  Got it?), while whisking constantly. 
  3. As the polenta starts to thicken, switch to a wooden spoon to stir.  Stir frequently while polenta simmers–as it thickens, take care as it will start to bubble and splatter (think hot lava). 
  4. When the polenta is of a thickness like porridge, approximately 15 minutes, add fontina, season with salt and pepper and serve with Cacciatore.

Note:  This makes a rather large batch of polenta–if you have plenty leftover, pour the excess into a buttered loaf pan or cake pan.  Polenta firms up as it goes cold, and can be sliced into pieces and pan-fried–absolutely delicious served with eggs the next morning.

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So there we were, two courses in and a few glasses of wine drunk, and I had timed the brie to bake while we had our main course, and it would cool while we ate our salads;  the timer on the oven rang as I toted the empty second course plates into the kitchen and I open the oven door to this:


Let’s rewind to a bit earlier in the evening, when I was prepping this–I had forgotten that when I buy puff pastry, it comes in two sheets wrapped together, and had defrosted far more than I needed.  I decided to use the extra to cut out the decorations, and then some extras to egg wash and sprinkle with some vanilla sugar for the Kiddo to snack on.

What I forgot is the little rule of smaller things will cook faster.

I think when I opened the oven door, I may have yelped.

Then I laughed, and called people in to the kitchen to point and laugh.

The brie was still absolutely delicious, served with sliced Gala Apples, black seedless grapes,

Brie en Croûte with Caramelized Red Onion Compote

2 tablespoons butter

2 large red onions, sliced thinly

3 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons sugar

1 small wheel of brie, 6-8 ounces

1 sheet Peppridge Farm Puff Pastry, plus extra for decoration (optional)

1 egg

  1. In a heavy-bottomed pot, melt butter on low heat.  Add sliced onions and begin to cook on low heat to caramelize.  Slowly cook onions until soft and starting to brown–keep your heat low!  You’re coaxing the sugars out of the onions, and this will take time.  Expect to cook onions for a minimum of an hour.
  2. Add red wine vinegar, and deglaze pan, picking up all the browned bits.  Add sugar, and continue to cook until onions are fully caramelized and take on a soft, jam-like consistency.
  3. Remove from heat and cool;  can be made up to 3 days ahead and kept in an air-tight container until ready to prepare brie.
  4. Defrost puff pastry sheet as per box directions.  Dust workspace with a little flour to keep from sticking, and unfold sheet.
  5. Spoon onion compote in the center of the pastry sheet, approximately the size of the wheel of brie.  Place cheese on top of compote, then wrap the brie by first bringing in the four corners to the center and pinching together, then taking the loose ends and “pleating’ them, pinching any open spots shut so the cheese will not run out during the baking process.
  6. Turn brie over and put folded side down on a parchment-lined sheet pan.  Whisk the egg with a tablespoon of water, and brush egg wash over all the pastry.  If using any cut pieces for decoration, use egg wash to glue on to the surface.
  7. Place in a preheated 375° oven and bake for 20 minutes, until puffed and golden.  Let rest for about 10 minutes before serving.

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