By Ann Cipperly
On New Year’s Eve, there will be plenty of us ready for this year to be over and ring in 2021 with hopes of it being much better. Instead of preparing a big meal, a cheese board, cheese fondue or assorted appetizers will feel more like a party for family gathered in your home. A cheese board is great for an easy appetizer, to end an elegant meal or as a light supper on its own.
While we savored superb cheeses in France and Holland, one of our favorite cheeses is made in Alabama and is maybe America’s most awarded goat cheese. The Belle Chevre Creamery and Cheese Shop and Tasting Room Café are located in Elkmont.
A few years ago, we drove to Elkmont and visited cheesemaker Tasia Malakasis, who talked about her journey from high-tech companies to cheese making with Belle Chevre. While the goat cheese is highly rated, Tasia admits the product is better known in New York than her home state of Alabama.
Elkmont is near Huntsville, where Tasia grew up. She majored in literature at the University of Alabama at Huntsville.
“I had no idea what I wanted to do,” she said.
After college, Tasia worked for high-tech companies in the Silicon Valley, New York and Philadelphia.
When she wasn’t working, Tasia was cooking. She took a sabbatical from her job to attend the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, New York. While she had a passion for food, she never thought about making cheese.
Her life took a turn while in New York City, shopping in Dean & DeLuca when she picked up a log of goat cheese made in Elkmont. It surprised her since it was so near where she grew up, but she had never heard of it.
“I wondered why an Alabama girl would have to come to New York to find something that was made in her backyard.”
Discovering the exceptional cheese sparked her interest to learn more about it. She discovered that the cheese, which began in 1989, had received awards and was served at the White House and famous restaurants.
Tasia quit her job and called the owner of Belle Chevre to tell her she was coming home to learn how to make cheese. She worked without pay for six months and then purchased the company in 2007.
Tasia did not change the base recipe, which is made in the French tradition. She expanded the product and began offering Belle Chevre in fig and cinnamon for a breakfast cheese. Tasia also created goat cheese ice cream and a cheesecake, which received an award in Switzerland as the Best Cheese Dessert.
In a short time, Belle Chevre received numerous national and international awards. It has also been named one of the 50 Best Independent Food Brands.
The company purchases goat milk from regional farms. “My passion is food,” said Tasia. “I leave the goats to the farmers. I enjoy making the cheese.”
Belle Chevre’s newest product is “better for you cream cheese.” It is offered as original and in four flavors. The cream cheese received two awards this year.
The creamery and cheese shop both offer samples. At the creamery, a video is shown, and visitors can watch cheese being made by hand through glass. Because of COVID-19, reservations have to be made ahead for tours.
The Belle Chevre Cheese Shop and Tasting Room Cafe is quaint with window boxes filled with flowers. For lunch, the shop serves sandwiches with cheese, cheese fondue and a cheese tasting plate. The shop also offers goat cheese ice cream and the award-winning cheesecake by the slice or whole to take home.
We used to find Belle Chevre at Earth Fare, but now that has closed. You can order it from the website at Bellechevre.com. If you can find or order Belle Chevre, it will be an enjoyable addition to your cheese board.
While the trend for cheese boards is to arrange crackers, nuts, dried fruits and other items together on one board with the cheese, I am old school if there are several cheeses. I prefer the crackers and bread on the side in order to have space to slice the cheeses.
For just one or two cheeses, I will often place every item on the board. When you add more cheeses, be careful not to over fill or nuts and fruits will start falling off as the cheeses are sliced.
For a classic cheese board, choose a selection of soft ripened, semi-firm, firm and hard cheese and arrange on a board from mild to strongest flavors. Offer your favorite accompaniments, such as a honeycomb or honey, slices of pears, grapes, almonds, walnuts and fig preserves or dried fruits.
Along with crackers, such as water biscuits, offer slices of French baguette or sourdough. They can be toasted for crostini. Set cheeses out 30 minutes ahead to reach room temperature.
If your budget only allows for one cheese, then make it Humboldt Fog goat cheese if you can’t find Belle Chevre (if you find it locally, let me know) or a brie.
If you select brie, you can serve it as is, or embellish it by baking it or adding a topping. Brie cheese can be toasted in a skillet, wrapped in pastry and baked, topped with pecans and brown sugar or sliced and filled with fruit, then baked. It is a versatile cheese and good to have on hand for when you need something special in a hurry.
One of the best cheese boards we have enjoyed was prepared by family months ago when we visited them in West Palm Beach. While we generally offer three or four cheeses, they were generous with a board providing 10 cheeses, which served as our Sunday night supper.
Three blue cheeses from mild to strong flavored were at one end, with mild soft and semi-soft at the other end, including Humboldt Fog goat cheese. A sharp cheddar and other hard cheeses filled in the board.
Accompaniments were grapes, sliced apples, walnuts, pecans, almonds, blueberries, fig preserves, fig butter, assorted crackers and warm bread squares. It was delicious and filling with a variety of yummy flavors.
If you are serving wine with cheese, select the lively citrus and subtle toasted oak tones of Chardonnay, which pairs well with soft and young semi-firm cheeses. Cabernet Sauvignon provides dark fruit flavors for perfect pairing with the complex tastes of firm and hard cheeses.
Whatever you serve on New Year’s Eve at your home, may you be hopeful for the best to come in 2021. Once COVID-19 ends, may we never again take for granted being with family and gathering with friends.
Cipperly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Creating a Cheese Board
To assemble a cheese board, place mildest to strongest flavored, such as brie, soft ripened; Parrano Gouda, semi-firm; Manchego, firm; and Parmigiano Reggiano, hard. To add a blue-veined cheese, select Roaring 40s or Blue Castello, and for a goat cheese serve Belle Chevre or Humboldt Fog.
Set cheeses out at least 30 minutes ahead to reach room temperature.
A honeycomb or honey, sliced pears, almonds, walnuts, grapes and fig preserves can be added as accompaniments along with water crackers and sliced baguette.
Pair Chardonnay with brie, Chardonnay or Pinot Noir with the gouda and Cabernet Sauvignon with Manchego and Parmigiano Reggiano.
1 French baguette, sliced or loaf of sourdough bread, sliced and cut into triangles
Extra virgin olive oil
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Brush both sides of bread with olive oil and bake for 8 minutes or until lightly toasted.
Classic Swiss Cheese Fondue
1 clove garlic, halved lengthwise
1¾ cups dry white wine (such as Sauvignon Blanc, Alsatian Riesling)
1 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
½ lb. Gruyere cheese, grated or cut into small cubes
½ lb. Swiss cheese, grated
1½ Tbsp. cornstarch
Accompaniments: French bread or sourdough, cut into bite-sized cubes, and Granny Smith apple slices
Rub inside of a fondue pot or chafing dish with cut sides of garlic halves, discard garlic. Pour wine and lemon juice into pot and bring to a simmer over medium low heat.
Toss cheeses with corn starch. Gradually add cheeses, a handful at a time and stir gently until mixture is creamy and cheeses are completely melted. Stir in nutmeg. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding a little salt, if needed.
When ready to serve, place pot containing hot fondue in its stand. Light fuel burner and set to low heat. Serve with fondue forks and accompaniments for dipping. Serves 4 to 6.
Goat Cheese Balls with Pecans
4 oz. goat cheese, room temperature
8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
½ cup finely chopped pecans
Mix cream cheese and goat cheese until well combined.
Form small balls: roll in chopped pecans. Keep in refrigerator until ready to serve.
Hot Brie with Toasted Almonds
1 round brie or camembert cheese
1 pkg. slivered almonds
2 Tbsp. butter
Melt butter in skillet; sauté almonds. Add cheese. Cook turning until inside softens. Serve with crackers and grapes.
Baked Goat Cheese Spread
3 oz. log goat cheese
4 Tbsp. olive oil
2 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
¼ tsp. Herbs de Provence, optional
Crackers or toasted baguettes
Put goat cheese in small baking dish and press to about ½ inch thickness. Coat goat cheese with olive oil. Sprinkle herbs de Provence over cheese.
Pour balsamic vinegar around mixture.
Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes or until cheese has softened. Serve with crackers or toasted baguettes.
1 egg, beaten
1 Tbsp. water
1 cup Italian breadcrumbs
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1 lb. wheel brie cheese
1/4 cup vegetable oil
Grapes, French bread slices, crackers
Combine beaten egg and water in one bowl and breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese in another dish. Dip Brie in egg mixture and then coat with breadcrumb mixture. Chill. Can prepare up to 8 hours at this point.
When ready to serve, add oil to skillet over medium heat. Cook Brie about two minutes or less on each side until golden brown and softened. Can prepare and keep warm in low temperature oven.
Serve with crackers, toasted French bread and grapes.
Brie with Apricots, Cranberries and Walnuts Baked in Bread Loaf
6- to 8-inch brie wheel
¼ cup brown sugar
½ cup dried apricots
½ cup dried cranberries or cherries
½ cup apricot jam
¾ cup toasted walnuts, chopped
Mix ingredients and place on top of Brie. Bake at 325 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. You may want to cut the top rind off the cheese before adding ingredients.
The brie can be baked in a round loaf of bread. Take a round loaf of bread and cut a thin slice off top. Remove inside of bread and cube. Press brie with mixture on top down into round bread. Bake about 30 minutes. Serve with crackers and bread cubes.
Blue Cheese and Pear Crostini
4 oz. blue cheese crumbles
6 oz. cream cheese, soften
8 slices French or other bread
1 pear, sliced
Toasted walnuts or pecans, optional
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine blue cheese and cream cheese; set aside. Cut bread into strips. Brush one side of bread with olive oil. Toast about 12 minutes until brown; cool.
Spread cheese mixture on untoasted side of bread; top with slice of pear dipped into lemon juice if preparing ahead. Sprinkle with toasted nuts, if desired. Serves 8 or more.
Baked Brie with Preserves and Almonds in Pastry
1 puffed pastry from a box of frozen puffed pastry
1 round block of Brie
I small jar raspberry or fig preserves
¼ cup sliced almonds
Crackers or green apple slices
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Take thawed puffed pastry and unfold onto greased baking sheet. Place Brie in the center, and cover top of Brie with your favorite preserves.
Next sprinkle the sliced almonds onto the preserves and fold all sides of pastry up around the Brie. Press the edges together at the top.
Bake for 30 minutes, and then take out of oven and let stand for 5 minutes before cutting. Cut into small pie shape slices and serve with crackers or green apple slices.
Rosemary Cheese with Fig Preserves
8 oz. pkg. cream cheese, softened
1 Tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
3 oz. log goat cheese (chevre)
2 tsp. honey
1 tsp. coarsely ground pepper
¾ cup fig preserves, chopped
Process all ingredients except fig preserves. Spoon into lightly greased 1 ½ cup mold lined with plastic wrap. Cover and chill at least 2 hours. Invert onto serving dish. Spoon chopped fig preserves over cheese. Garnish with fresh rosemary sprigs and serve with crackers, toasted French bread slices, bagel chips, etc. Makes 2 cups.
Baked Brie en Croûte with Pastry Designs
You will like my foolproof technique for wrapping the cheese. Recipe from Jennifer Segal.
2 sheets frozen Puff Pastry, thawed (I use Pepperidge Farm)
2 Tbsp. honey
1/3 cup dried cherries, roughly chopped
1/4 cup chopped pecans
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1 (16 oz.) Brie cheese round (about 6-inches in diameter)
1 large egg, beaten with 1 Tbsp. water
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Slice off the top rind of brie and discard.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll each pastry sheet out to a 12-inch square. Trim corners of each sheet to form two circles.
Set scraps aside; you will use those later for decorations. Put one of the pastry rounds on the prepared baking sheet. Place Brie on top of the pastry, rind side down. Drizzle top of cheese with honey, and then top with dried cherries, pecans and rosemary.
Brush exposed edges of the pastry with egg mixture. Cover Brie with the other pastry circle; press against sides of the
cheese and bottom pastry to form a tight seal. Using a pizza cutter, cut off excess dough, leaving a generous 1-inch border.
Crimp edges firmly with a fork to seal. Brush pastry with egg mixture. Set aside.
Using a pizza cutter or cookie cutter, cut out nine leaves (about 2-inches long and 1-inch wide) from the scraps. Use a knife to draw
the ribs on the leaves, pressing down but not cutting all the way through.
Place leaves on top of pastry in the shape of a flower, overlapping them slightly and pressing them together in the center. Brush leaves with the egg mixture. Roll up a 1/2-inch ball of dough and press it in the center; brush the ball with the egg mixture.
Bake for about 20 minutes, or until the pastry is golden brown. Let stand for 45 minutes, then serve with fruit and crackers.
Note: You can prepare this appetizer ahead of time up until the baking step; refrigerate until ready to cook.
1 Tbsp. water
½ of a 17.3 oz pkg. Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry Sheets (1 sheet), thawed
½ cup seedless raspberry jam
1/3 cup dried cranberries
¼ toasted sliced almonds
1 (13 oz. – 16 oz.) round brie cheese
Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Beat egg and water in a small bowl with a fork. Unfold pastry sheet on a lightly floured surface. Roll pastry sheet into a 14-inch square.
Spread raspberry jam on pastry to within 2 inches of the edge. Sprinkle with cranberries and almonds. Place cheese in the center of the pastry. Fold pastry up over cheese to cover. Trim excess pastry and press to seal. Brush seam with egg mixture. Place seam side down onto a baking sheet.
Decorate with pastry scraps, if desired. Brush with egg mixture. Bake for 20 minutes or until pastry is golden brown. Let stand a few minutes before serving. Serve with crackers.