Sunday, June 24, 2007

Flying like a Red Hawk: Cheese Pairing distractions

Continuing on our cheese pairing adventures, I have to, again, give props to Jack and Joanne over at Fork and Bottle, who proposed a blog-athon highlighting great cheese pairings. What a great idea! As my Omnivore says, "This is just way too much fun."

Totally true that, although I have to admit that already I'm feeling some obscure jealousy reading Casa Festiva's account of how she got to visit Rinconada Dairy and help make some of that amazingly good Pozo Tomme...

But we have our own work to do. I shut down the computer for a moment and consider our plan of action. After some hits and misses with the Matos Family St. George, we were eager to move on to our next target cheese, our favorite of favorites, The Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery.

Luscious and briny, this washed-rind, triple creme cow's milk cheese always seems to me to be full of the sea air and the hillsides of the Northern California Coast. At its best, a ripe, unctuous Red Hawk smoothing over your tongue is the epitome of the sensual cheese experience.

The Cowgirls recently brought a round of it up to our Tuscan dinner in Petaluma, so although we had had some pairings before, we wanted to re-investigate one or two of them in a more scientific way, (that is, with clean palates and before we'd drunk too many bottles of wine).

So on Saturday morning, I toddled down to the Ferry Plaza markets with at least a few ideas in mind.

I can never get up early enough to do the Farmer's Market thing. I'm just lazy that way. So I tend to go around 1 pm, just as everyone is thinking about packing up their stands. By that time, the frenzied crowds have usually thinned.

But even if the choicest fava beans have already been picked through and sold, there's still a lot to enjoy. I'm on a mission, but that doesn't mean I can't stop at Eatwell and sniff the lavender, or pop by the della Fattoria and get a pullman of dense, comforting Integrale. Then there's the Andante Dairy stand... but more on that in a later post.

There's also fruit all over the place, now that we're in summer season. The peaches look great, but I scooped up a few apricots and nectarines since they looked so incredibly juicy and smelled fantastic. (I should never be allowed to shop when I'm hungry.)

Inside the building, the crowds are still going strong, and I fight my way over to Cowgirl Creamery, which is mobbed as usual. As I wave a greeting at one of the Cowgirls, she waves back and I see that in her hand is a Sir Francis Drake. "There are only four left!" she shouts over the din.

SCREECHING halt, as I go diving into the case after a round of Drake. We've had this serendipitous cheese before and it's an addictive little morsel. Batches of it only appear in the cheese case after the bacteria haven't quite worked out, which is not to say that it doesn't work out for us. Washed in a fortified wine and topped with a clutch of currants, it's one of their most enticing cheeses, and worth snatching up when you see it.

"Must focus...must focus... I'm here for Red Hawk," I mutter to myself, thinking I must have Food-Related Attention Deficit Disorder.

I catch up with the Cowgirls and explain my mission-- the need for Red Hawk...

"Oh, get her a good one!" exclaims our Ranger. "Good" here taken to mean "squooshy, gooshy ripe." Oh yeah.

They suggest putting it with some of della Fattoria's Currant-Walnut bread, but I shake my head. There wasn't any left out there. We scan the shop and her eyes light upon another option.

"Well how about this, " she says, hoisting up a package of Fruit Nut Bread from Anjou Bakery.

I consider. At $10.75 a package...dang, those are some expensive crackers, but they're also gorgeous. And we have to make sacrifices for art. I sigh. But now, I have really got to get something to eat, or I'm just going to buy up the whole place. I take my treasure trove to the counter and then haul home with a bag full of goodies.

I lay out for inspection the cheese accompaniments, which include (from the right, clockwise) nut and fig bread, Snow Queen nectarines, fig conserve, Tilton apricots, mashed Medjool dates and some homemade hazelnut brittle.

All items have been sniffed and approved.

"You may proceed."

The pairing experiment is really about the Red Hawk, but since we had the Drake, we figured, hey, why not? Go ahead, cut a chunk and let's give it a go too. But primarily, this is about the Red Hawk.

  • Tilton Apricots and Gewurtztraminer (from Sutter Home) - Good Pairing. Sutter Home isn't a winery we often think of, partly because it's such a large producer and so readily available everywhere. But a friend brought us this wine and I have to say, for its price range, it's a nice summer picnic wine. The apricots, which are juicy sweet right now, and the Gewurtz brought out a very pretty floral aspect to the Red Hawk, making for what I thought of as a very delicate pairing. I liked it because Red Hawk isn't what I would call a subtle cheese, and I enjoyed the way the fruit and wine refined it. (Interestingly, the apricots did not play well with the Drake, making the cheese taste buttery, but almost like popcorn.)
  • Snow Queen Nectarines - Not so good. I had high hopes for this one, because the rosy aroma of the Snow Queens was just fabulous, but taken with the cheese, they just became bitter and strange tasting. And forget about the wine.
  • Fig Conserve from the legendary June Taylor and Fruit Nut Bread from Anjou Bakery - Great Pairing. We had the conserve at the Tuscan dinner, and it was just as good as I remembered. Lending a slightly smoky, almost tobacco aroma to the party, the conserve brought out a full-bodied savory earthiness to the Red Hawk, while the fruit nut bread offered a wonderful crunchy texture with little sparkling bursts of salt that stood in sharp contrast to the silky pate. (The Drake, eaten with the fruit and nut bread brought out much more of the currant flavor -- unsurprising, since the cheese is aged with currants. It was fine as a pairing with the fig conserve, but there was a slightly acid sourness that lingered.)
  • Hazelnut Brittle and mashed Medjool Dates - Great Pairing. By far, however, the most successful matchup was this decadent, almost dessert-like combination. Inspired by Thomas Keller's Epoisses "Creme Brulee" cheese course-- which layers pureed Medjool dates with briny, washed rind Epoisses and tops it with a hazelnut tuile-- we did a simplified version. Although it seems impossible, the combination makes the Red Hawk seem even more unctuous than ever. The sweetness of the dates tames the saltiness of the brine on the cheese ever so slightly, even as the brininess of the cheese plays well with the hazelnut brittle, which offers a fantastic textural crunch. We just wanted to swim in this one. (With the Drake, the dates did not work at all, making the cheese seem far too salty. Fascinatingly, the hazelnut brittle and the Drake seemed to dredge up a long-lost childhood memory of a flavor we couldn't quite place... until my Omnivore said triumphantly, "Captain Crunch!")
All in all though, we felt a sigh of satisfaction at the end. Much cheese was consumed, many flavors were investigated, much cheese was consumed, interesting beverages were quaffed, and cheese was consumed. Yum.

Hazelnut Brittle
1/3 cup water
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups hazelnuts (about 5 1/2 ounces), toasted, husked, coarsely chopped

Line a rimmed baking sheet with a Silpat or foil. Mix 1/3 cup water and the cream of tartar in a small saucepan. Add the sugar and stir over low heat until sugar dissolves. Increase the heat and boil without stirring until golden, occasionally brushing down sides of pan with wet pastry brush and swirling pan, about 11 minutes. Add the hazelnuts and swirl to combine. Pour the mixture out onto the baking sheet, spreading with metal spatula and allow to cool.


BernaD*va said...

Thanks for this post...I just bought a bit of the Red Hawk today, and I love it! I think this might become a staple in my apartment :) Thank God I live in SF, where I can get this ALL THE TIME!!!

ME said...

Mmmmm, isn't it fantastic? If you like the Cowgirls' cheeses, see if you can find some SF Drake. It's not washed like the Red Hawk, but it is a terrific cheese, and it isn't available all the time...My husband got some at Whole Foods yesterday. I think you'll really love that one too.