Apparently, so my sources tell me, Italian Cheese Week is being celebrated from 15-22 June 2017 (like I need an excuse!). So, in honour of all things cheesy, I decided to share a couple of really easy recipes for you that I’ve picked up over the years.
There are a few things I like to have a good stock of & cheese is one of them. As with my pasta shelf, I also have a cheese shelf in the fridge (yes, really). Grana Padana, Gorgonzola (preferably Dolce, but I don’t mind a bit of Picante), Mozzarella, Mascarpone, Ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano (Parmesan) & usually a bit of mild Cheddar all live happily together (albeit in diminished quantities by the end of the week). And there’s always at least one tub of proper, full-fat cream cheese too. As you all know, cream cheese goes with pretty much anything – mix with a splodge of pesto to make a creamy pasta sauce or, if you’re feeling naughty, it’s really nice spread thickly on a digestive biscuit with a dollop of raspberry jam on top (don’t judge me, try it – it’s addictive though!). Recently, I’ve been a bit unhappy with my usual brand of creamy cheesiness – because according to it’s list of ingredients, it’s more fillers than actual cheese (locust bean gum anyone? No, didn’t think so) & therefore I have switched to another brand. It always pays to read the back of a packet, because if like me you want a pure product for a specific recipe, you need to know that’s what you’re getting.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been making my own Ricotta cheese – thanks to the lovely Gennaro Contaldo’s recipe in “Gennaro’s Italian Year” (which was given to me by my guys & like them, it is very much loved!). Now before you all start going “ooh! that must be really difficult!”, it’s not. All you need is a few pints of milk, some fresh lemon juice & a big saucepan (I use my pasta pan, which is pretty huge). It takes a few minutes to bring the milk to the boil, then just take it off the heat for roughly 30 seconds before repeating the process a couple of times. Finally, put it back on the heat & squeeze in the lemon juice, bring it back up to the boil & turn it off. Then give it a stir – it will separate into curds (the cheese) & whey (the cloudy looking liquid). Tip it into a sieve & leave it to stand over a bowl, so that the liquid drains away & as if by magic, you are left with a lovely soft cheese. While that’s cooling, I’ll whizz up some wilted spinach in the food processor with a few pine nuts (untoasted), a little lemon zest, a spoonful of my favourite full-fat cream cheese (just because I like it) & a shake of sea salt & black pepper. It’s then mashed up with the ricotta, before I pop the lot into a piping bag, ready to fill my favourite ravioli!
Sometimes (quite often), I will have a little leftover pasta & the lovely cheesy mixture, so I like to ladle some of my homemade tomato sauce into individual dishes, then layer up the lasagne sheets with alternating fillings of piped cheese & tomato sauce.
Adorn the top layer with a few ripped pieces of Mozzarella, a grating of Parmesan & a pinch of Oregano, then bake for 15-20 minutes at 200*C until everything is bubbling up around the edges & the cheese is crispy & golden on top. They make a tasty simple starter or a light lunch, served with a gorgeous green salad.
And now, my pièce de résistance: cheese biscuits. These are probably one of the easiest things to make – you just chuck everything in a bowl & squish it together. It’s great for using up all those random leftover bits of cheese that seem to congregate at the back of the fridge. Want to get cheesy? Hands washed, aprons on & here we go!
What you need:
8oz grated mixed cheese, at room temperature (I use 80% medium Cheddar, then 10% each of grated Parmesan & Grana Padana, depending on what I’ve got in the fridge)
8oz plain flour
8oz salted butter, at room temperature
Half a teaspoon sea salt
Half a teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Half a teaspoon English mustard (the pre-made type, not the powder)
Quarter of a teaspoon of cayenne
Optional: a teaspoon of fennel or poppy seeds
How to do it:
Pre-heat the oven to 200*C & line a couple of trays with sheets of greaseproof paper (unless you want to do lots of washing up later, lining your trays this way will mean that you simply lift the paper out after cooking & transfer to a cooling rack, leaving clean trays – you’re welcome!).
Mix the cheese & butter together in a bowl with the mustard – use a spatula or the back of a wooden spoon to make it into a smooth type of thick paste.
Mix the dry ingredients together & slowly add to the cheese & butter, stirring well to form a soft, pliable cheesy dough.
On a lightly floured work surface, take a third of the dough & carefully roll it out to about half a centimetre thick. Using a palette knife, slide this under the rolled out dough to ensure it is not stuck to the worktop & add a little more flour underneath, if need be.
Cut into shapes – either use small cookie cutters or slice into finger length strips, just create whatever you like! Lift them onto the lined baking trays, leaving about an inch gap all around (they will not grow too much) & then repeat the above, until you have used up all the dough.
No cutters? No problem! Roll your dough into a sausage shape, about an inch or so around & then wrap in cling film, twirling the ends tightly like a big sweet wrapper (cut the biscuit sausage down into 2 or 3 sections if it’s too big). Pop them in the fridge for 10 minutes to firm up, then use a piece of cotton to cut them up into equal slices! You can also freeze these for future snack emergencies too (trust me, it happens).
Bake in the centre of the oven for about 10-12 minutes, until they are lightly golden, then transfer to a cooling rack & remove from the greaseproof paper.
Once cooled, either eat them as they are, top with various cheeses as a snack, or make into canapes to go with pre-dinner drinks! These crisp little bites of melt-in-the-mouth moreishness have just the right amount of kick too – the heat sneaks up on your tongue, so be warned!
Here’s to a “grate” week of cheesy delights! Stay hungry 😉 Aimee x