Tuesday, 8 April 2014

How to store cheese properly

No cheese, Gromit. Not a bit in the house ... 

I do like a bit of gorgonzola... 

What's wrong with Wensleydale??... 

I could just fancy some cheese, Gromit. What do you say? Cheddar?... 

Immortal words from Nick Park's wonderful creation, Wallace, the mad animated cheese-lover with the extremely clever dog. He's not the oly one who is partial to a bit of cheese. I am myself. I buy cheese often. Sometimes I buy it at the supermarket and sometimes I buy it from the makers at the farmers market, and sometimes I buy it at the Hill St Grocer for something a bit fancy, and sometimes I go all out and visit somewhere with a cheese room and splurge a fortune on something unusual and amazing. And then - I know. I KNOW. I just slap a bit of cling film on it and chuck it in the fridge.

Australia (and the USA) doesn't treat cheese as a wonderful, growing, changing thing, We treat it like it's a nasty little corpse and we wrap it up very tightly in plastic and we keep it at the coldest temperature possible so it stays 'fresh'. No no no no NO.

Cheese is better than that. Cheese develops and matures and ripens, and changes its flavour all the way through. Cheese should be cosseted and looked after and loved, not shoved into the fridge behind the mouldy dip and that smoked salmon that you don't feel like eating but can't bear to throw away. Cheese should be respected for its ability, like fine wine, to age gracefully and be better two weeks later than on the day of its purchase.

I'm embarrassed to say I have treated cheese worse than anyone in the past. Now, I know that most of us (this includes me) don't have the money or the motivation to buy our own cheese rooms. But I'm trying to learn a new way and stick to it, and I've found a wonderful new product to help me: CHEESE PAPERS.

These are basically just sheets of lightly waxed paper that come in a pack of 18 sheets, 11x14 inches square (large enough to wrap a large chunk, but not too big to be annoying).

They also come with a couple of sheets of labels so that you can transfer the details of the cheese when you wrap it.

Why would you bother with cheese wrappers when there's perfectly good Glad Wrap in the kitchen drawer?

Cheese - particularly soft and semi-hard cheeses like brie, camembert, mozzarella and others - doesn't like being wrapped in plastic.

Hard cheeses like cheddar and parmesan are less needy but many cheesemongers recommend that they too should be stored in waxed paper, or in a cheese bag, which is a good alternative.

Soft cheeses need a bit of air around them in order to ripen and develop their flavour. Some people refer to this as letting the cheese 'breathe'. Cling film does not allow the cheese any air. It can make the cheese too watery and can affect the flavour. In the end, rather than a cheese that gets too ripe, you'll have a cheese that goes rotten.

The reason waxed paper is good is that it allows some, but not a huge amount, of air to circulate around the cheese. It's enough to allow the cheese to breathe.

Ideally you should store cheese at about 12.5 degrees Celsius (53 degrees F). This is a bit higher than most fridges. In Australia (particularly in Tasmania where I live) you could consider storing your cheeses in a cool cupboard during the winter, protected by wrappers or a glass cheese dome. In summer. put it in the fridge but put it in the produce drawer because this is usually a little warmer than the rest of the fridge.

If you're interested in the cheese wrappers that I've shown here, I bought them for $16.95 (AUD) at the State Cinema Bookshop in Hobart, or you can find them here. But I've seen a few different ones around, so have a look in good delis and bookshops.

Happy cheese eating from Dr (cheesy) Cupcake!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

How to make gravlax and rye bread like a proper Viking

As I am descended from Vikings it is appropriate that my favourite things are white spirits and cured fish. I am not sure why it has taken me this long to think of combining these two amazing things, but anyway I have now, and I've gone and made a vodka-cured gravlax with dill and brown sugar.

I paired it with home made rye bread (I had to search for hours to find a recipe that didn't require me to start SEVEN DAYS IN ADVANCE WTF??!!).

Making the gravlax made me feel all historic and ancient-y, because every ingredient and process is totally, utterly natural and stone aged. Except for the brown sugar, but apparently you can use honey, which would be a bit more convenient if you were a Viking caveman.

The recipe I used is here, but I would recommend reducing the curing time to 24 hours or less, and using less salt. That's because I had a little chat to the friendly chef at Mako Fresh Fish in North Hobart. This 20-year veteran of gravlax was only too happy to discuss some of the finer points of gravlax curing. It seems that Scandinavian palates are fond of salt whereas Australian palates enjoy a fresher, raw-er taste (think of the influence that Japanese food has on us with its beautiful sashimi, for instance). For a less salty cure, reduce the curing time, reduce the amount of salt and be sure to use a salt that is not too strong - this one was recommended.

So basically you mix salt, brown sugar, pepper and lots of dill, and rub it all over your salmon fillets (see the picture above). Then you pour a good whack of vodka over the whole thing and squish it down with a large heavy rock.

OKAY. You do not need to use an actual rock (although this one from my garden was absolutely perfect and far better than anything else I had - before I found it I was trying to manufacture a suitable weight from jam jars and butter pats).

You could use anything flat and heavy as long as it presses down on the salmon, not on the edge of the dish.

Put it with its weight in the fridge - yes, I know Vikings had no fridges, but honestly they could have just left it on the nearest ice floe - and leave it for 12 hours. When you pull it out to inspect it, it will look like this.

Close up, you'll see the part of the flesh that's been immersed in the curing solution has changed colour slightly, becoming paler (the lower edge in this pic).

The skin of the fillet also becomes really firm and hard, I think from the compression that comes from being weighted down.

Turn the fish over and leave it for another 12 hours to cure the other side. Then take it out of the curing solution - it's ready to slice and eat.

You need a VERY sharp knife. I found it difficult to slice evenly, a bit like trying to slice prosciutto by hand - you want thin slices and it's difficult to maintain the smooth even pressure that you need. Practice helps. I got better.

I managed to get slices that were about 2-3mm thick and fairly straight.

You'd think I altered the colour saturation in this photo, but no. Gravlax really is a stunning, translucent coral pink. It was so beautiful I nearly cried.

I tried to cut whole strips but inevitably I ended up with half-strips and shards. I didn't really mind because I was hypnotised by the wonderfulness of it all.

I was wondering how to present it best. Re-layering the sliced gravlax fillet with its lovely peppery and salty dill crust seemed a good idea.

But you make the most of the colour and texture if you spread it out a bit.

What do you need with gravlax? Not much really. But I did wonder about making some rye bread. I had never done this before.

Let me tell you something. Despite what many cookbooks will imply, life is too short to spend 7 days making a loaf of bread. Yes, 7 days.

Do yourself a favour and use Nigel Slater's recipe which is awesome,  easy and has a two-hour turnaround.

Nigel's recipe makes enough for two loaves, which is fine, because rye bread keeps really well and you can go on using it fresh for days and toasting it for up to a week. He put his bread in tins but I wanted to hand shape my loaves and I gave them parallel diagonal scoring marks because I like the way it looks.

If you want to be purist you will of course make your own butter. Yes I do. I make my own butter. Before you scoff at my ridiculously purist attitude, try it sometime. You too may get addicted.

Normally when I cook things, I get to the end of the cooking process and I don't really want to eat anything straight away - it's like the cooking substitutes for eating and takes my appetite away. HOWEVER, I couldn't wait to slice the gravlax and lay it on the rye and sink my little teeth into it.

If you've read this far you must really like gravlax. I admit that smoked and cured salmon is totally awesome and one of the world's best foods, and if you want to see some other things I've done with it, you can have a gawk here. And, being Dr Cupcake, I've even done imitation sushi in cupcake form... which you can see here.

So long for now, all you gravlax-loving Vikings out there. I'm off to sample some vodka. I'd love to say it's top shelf stuff, but the regular quantities required would most likely bankrupt me :)

Love, Dr Cupcake