CHEESE, Please; It's a different course for those who prefer an alternative to sweet dessert treats

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Imagine indulging in a softly ripened Camembert instead of creme brulee, a blue-veined Stilton instead of apple pie or a creamy goat cheese instead of chocolate mousse. xx Forget traditional gooey sweets for dessert. This is the year to say "cheese."

The after-dinner cheese course, long considered a European tradition, is making a comeback on the American dinner table. Even the 1998 Zagat Restaurant Survey includes a first-time listing of where to go for the best cheese trays.

"Cheese is returning. I can really see the difference," says Fernand Tersiguel, owner of Tersiguel's, a French restaurant in Ellicott City. "I used to lose money on cheese, but now I'm breaking even."

After taking the cheese course off his menu some time ago, the restaurateur is planning to return the offering. He will serve French cheeses exclusively in deference to his native country and only as an after-dinner course.

Many Europeans believe cheese is too "heavy" to be served as an appetizer and prefer to indulge in the protein after dinner to "close" their stomachs. "When I came to this country, it was the biggest surprise to see that cheese was served before dinner," Tersiguel says.

For those worried about fat intake, cheese actually contains fewer calories and less fat than a slice of pie.

"An average piece of pie has 450 calories and a high amount of saturated fat," says Colleen Pierre, a Baltimore-based registered dietitian. "An ounce of cheese has 110 calories and about 9 grams of fat -- that's not enough to give you a heart attack."

Pierre says that while the fat content of the entire meal needs to be taken into consideration, "There's nothing better than a piece of cheese with some crunchy fruit."

Cheese is not only pleasing to the palate, it is also easy to prepare. No more tedious desserts involving rolling out pie crusts or peeling and slicing apples. No more worries about complicated mousses or fallen souffles.

All you need to do is find a good deli or gourmet shop. Then talk to a cheesemonger, who can help take the mystery out of Muenster and ensure that you don't need to be trilingual to understand the names of cheeses. It does help to learn a few key words, such as chevre, the French word for goat; vaca, Spanish for cow; and pecora, Italian for sheep.

But if those words are too much like tongue twisters, don't worry. Most specialty stores label their cheeses so that a buyer can learn the place of origin and the type of milk used to make the cheese.

"Always ask questions and taste cheese before making a purchase," says Rochelle Wildberger, a cheese specialist at Fresh Fields, a Mount Washington food market whose cheese department was voted "Best in Baltimore" two years ago by Baltimore magazine. "We gladly make suggestions, talk about each cheese but, ultimately, you have to go with the cheese you like best."

For a dessert course, Wildberger suggests using three varieties of cheese -- about 2 ounces per person -- along with apples, grapes, olives, crusty bread and flat, crispy crackers.

Her recommendations include a Maribo, a German brie-like cheese made with creme fraiche; a Parrano, a cross between a Gouda and Parmesan-style cheese with a rich and nutty taste; and an aged Cheddar from Wisconsin with a pleasant sharp bite.

Tersiguel's suggestions for after-dinner fromage include a creamy brie or Camembert and a Bleu d'Auvergne, an intensely flavored blue cheese.

Cheeses should be stored in their original wrappings in the refrigerator at temperatures of 35 degrees to 40 degrees and brought to room temperature two hours before being served.

If time is of the essence, cheese can be brought to room temperature by microwaving it at 30 percent power and checking it every 10 seconds, says Mary Beth Sodus, a registered dietitian and spokeswoman for the American Dairy Association.

"A cheesemonger might frown on this, but we have to be realistic, sometimes we just don't have two extra hours," she says.

To serve the cheese, arrange three to four types in varying shapes, tastes and textures on a cheese board or crystal platter, decorate with a few sprigs of fresh herbs, add a basket of crusty bread, bowls of fresh fruit and nuts, and voila! -- a hassle-free finale to a feast.

Despite European traditions, a hostess on this side of the ocean should feel free to stray from Old World customs and serve cheese as an appetizer or even as a main course as well as dessert.

"Cheese is perfect for any meal," Sodus says. "A cheese course evokes sharing and community."

For a cocktail buffet featuring cheese, allow 4 ounces of cheese per person. You also might want to add varied dishes such as a salad, fondue, nut bread and chocolate butter to the traditional cheese board.

At a recent cheese-tasting event at the Plat du Jour in Annapolis, Rita Calvert, a food consultant, served an Asiago Whiskey Peppercorn Mousse made with Italian mascarpone. Her menu also included Parmesan Lace Wafers, created with only one ingredient -- cheese. Parmesan was grated into thin, long shreds, then melted into circles and hung to dry over a dowel.

And for an eye-catcher, Calvert arranged pieces of leaf-shaped dilled havarti and Cheddar cheeses on an earthenware platter painted in fall colors.

"Any shape cookie cutter can be used to cut 1/8-to-1/4-inch cheese slices into designs. You're children might even want to help," Calvert says.

Calvert enjoys serving a cheese course because it gives her time to be with her guests. "A cheese course can be elegant or casual, but best of all it can be prepared quickly and the kitchen is all cleaned up before the guests arrive."

Parmesan Lace Wafers

Makes 24 wafers

2 cups freshly shredded (long, thin shreds) Parmesan

nonstick skillet

spoon handle or wooden dowel for drying

Preheat skillet over medium-high heat. Test the first wafer for correct temperature by placing 1 tablespoon of cheese in a small lacy 2- to 3-inch circle. Lacy means that cheese should be light and not compressed. There will be spaces. Let cheese melt gently. When you can lift the wafer with a spatula and bottom is lightly browned, the wafer is ready. Lift and place over a spoon handle or wooden dowel. Repeat with remainder of cheese, placing several circles in pan.

Tip: Wafers also can be formed into lacy cups or cylinders. Wrapped well, wafers store for about 2 weeks.

-- From Rita Calvert

Asiago Whiskey Peppercorn Mousse

Serves 10

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin

1/4 cup Calvados (apple brandy) or regular brandy

8 ounces mascarpone cheese

12 ounces Asiago cheese, finely grated

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground whiskey peppercorns (available in specialty stores) or black pepper plus extra 1/2 teaspoon for garnish, if desired

1 teaspoon fresh thyme, finely chopped

1/2 teaspoon fresh sage, finely chopped

fresh sprigs of thyme or other herbs

fresh fruit, bread sticks, wafer-thin crackers and bread for garnish

Line a 4-cup mold with plastic wrap.

Whip cream in a chilled bowl until stiff. Refrigerate. Soften gelatin in brandy. Heat over low heat until gelatin is dissolved. Let cool slightly.

Gently fold gelatin mixture, mascarpone and Asiago cheeses, ground whiskey peppercorns and chopped thyme and sage evenly into whipped cream. Place fresh sprigs of herbs on bottom of mold. Place whipped-cream-and-cheese mixture in mold. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Unmold, remove plastic wrap, sprinkle with additional 1/2 teaspoon of ground whiskey peppercorns (optional) and surround with fresh seasonal fruit, bread sticks, wafer-thin crackers and bread.

-- From Rita Calvert

Apple Cider-Cheddar Fondue

Serves 10

4 cups (about 1 pound) sharp Cheddar cheese, freshly grated

1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 1/4 cups sparkling apple cider

1/4 cup lemon juice

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

freshly ground black pepper to taste

for dipping: bite-size pieces of cooked chicken, pork sausages, waffle pieces, pizzelles (thin Italian cookies), strudel, apple wedges, cubes of Cheddar cheese

In medium-size bowl, toss the cheese with the cornstarch.

In a medium-size, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the cider and lemon juice over medium heat until barely simmering. Add the cheese, a handful at a time, stirring until the cheese is melted before adding more. When all cheese has been added, stir in salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and pepper, to taste. Cook over low heat until thickened, about 3 to 5 minutes.

Transfer to an enamel or ceramic fondue pot and keep warm over a fondue burner. Serve immediately.

-- American Dairy Association

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