Making the most of cheese

A sprinkle of pistachios gives extra pizazz to Woolwich Dairy's Madame Chevre Elite Cranberry With Port.

I think of cheese as sublime party and buffet food. Not cut in ugly little squares with toothpicks, but served as beautiful triangles or rounds of flavor with crackers or buttered toast, or cooked in such a way as to enhance it and spread the goodness around.

I haunt the cheese islands in our local grocery stores, looking for cheeses that are different, that want a new way of serving, or some new attention from me. Take, for instance, aged white cheddars. Fiscalini in California produces two such cheddars — one, incredibly, is Bandage Wrapped, and another is called San Joaquin Gold to insist on its place in the sun. They are less expensive, and deliver a product that is immediately recognizable and yet exotic. "What is this?" guests ask.

Out-of-the-ordinary containers and boxes draw me as well. That is, perhaps, why I tried Woolwich Goat Brie in its round wooden box. Served warm and melting wrapped in puff pastry, it tops cow's brie in its essence.

The dairy's Madame Chevre Elite, one of which is topped with a cranberry port chutney, just pops out of its clear container, ready to use. A little dressing up always makes it seem like the host did all the work; in this case, we just topped it with pistachios. (In contrast, I sauce other log goat cheeses like Montrachet with hot red pepper jelly.) Goat cheese likes toast and crackers as accompaniments, as well as apple or pear wedges, fresh figs and peaches.

Jarlsberg cheese is richer and creamier than Swiss, anotherupscale cousin of Compte. However, Jarlsberg accommodates itself to inclusion in dishes with other ingredients — holding its own, but melting easily to cling to ham and other goodies without the "plastic" texture and taste of so many pre-cut Swiss cheeses. It perks up an old buffet sandwich recipe and makes it new again.

I must admit to being seduced by one of my old standbys — Boursin Garlic Herb cheese, and its new sister, Roasted Red Pepper. I crumbled the cheeses on rare tenderloin, using them as a condiment in place of mustard or horseradish.

And so Meri Spalviero, a Culinary Institute of Charleston student who worked as my intern this summer, showed her skills with cheese in new and old ways, developing, cooking and styling these recipes.

This is one of Meri's favorite things to serve at wine and cheese parties. It's beautiful, delicious and not much harder than cutting up a block of cheese for a cheese plate. It looks very impressive, yet no one realizes how easy it is to prepare. Cutting the dough into a cross can be a little tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it, it's possible to have this brie wrapped in five minutes in one layer. You'll find yourself making it for every brunch and cocktail party! Since frozen puff pastry comes in two-packs, freeze the extra sheet and use it the next time, or make two wheels of brie ... your guests won't complain.

Meri's Goat Brie in Puff Pastry With Preserves and Almonds

Serves 6-8

1 (6.5-ounce) wheel goat brie

1 sheet frozen puff pastry

3 tablespoons slivered almonds

3 tablespoons fruit preserves, such as raspberry, strawberry, wine or fig

1 egg, lightly beaten

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Using a butter knife, gently scrape white "rind" off brie. (It is edible, but not very pleasant.) Roll out puff pastry to 1/8-inch thick on a lightly floured surface. Place almonds and fruit preserves in center of puff pastry and top with wheel of brie. Remove extra dough by trimming approximately 3-inch squares from each corner with a sharp paring knife, so that a cross shape is left with the brie in the middle of the cross. Trim 1 inch from the ends of cross to avoid excess overlapping of dough, reserving excess dough. Fold the flaps of the cross over brie and seal together with a little water, trimming excess dough as necessary, to cover the entire brie with just one layer of dough. Turn over and move to a piece of waxed paper. Use reserved dough pieces to cut out shapes and decorate the top. Wrap in the wax paper and freeze for about 20 minutes. Preheat baking sheet in the hot oven while chilling cheese and dough. When the dough feels firm, remove from the freezer and brush lightly with beaten egg and move to heated baking sheet. Bake for about 30 minutes or until golden brown. If decorations begin to over-brown, place small foil circle over decoration and continue to bake. Cool slightly before serving.

Tip: Puff pastry needs to be rolled and shaped as quickly as possible, preferably in a cool place. It does best going straight from the freezer to a hot pan.

These warm little rolls are a staple item at Meri's Christmas breakfast. Her cousin, Cameron, pulls the little foil packages from the oven all warm and gooey once the family arrives for breakfast. Very rarely are there any left.

To spruce it up for an evening party, I would add thinly sliced pears or apples for a little extra sweetness, although figs also would be a good addition. Cut the individual sandwiches into triangles to make beautiful finger food for your next cocktail party. They may be assembled in advance, and wrapped in foil before baking. If the "Hawaiian" sweet bread party rolls are not available, any soft roll will do.

Hot Country Ham & Jarlsberg Cheese Rolls

Makes 48 small sandwiches

1 cup mayonnaise

4 tablespoons Dijon mustard

1 large onion, finely chopped

3 tablespoons poppy seeds

2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

Kosher salt

Freshly ground pepper

2 pounds sliced Jarlsberg cheese, or other Swiss cheese

2 pounds Virginia country ham or baked ham, thinly sliced

4 apples or pears, thinly sliced

4 packages Hawaiian sweet bread party rolls, sliced in half horizontally

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Blend together mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, onion, poppy seeds and Worcestershire sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spread sauce thinly on the insides of both sides of buns, reserving leftover sauce. Layer cheese, ham, sliced fruit and another layer of cheese on rolls, beginning and ending with cheese, which holds the sandwich together when melted. Spread or brush reserved sauce on top of rolls before baking. Wrap with foil and bake for 20 minutes or until heated through.

Tip: Jarlsberg cheese is a mild, Swiss Emmentaler-style cheese made with cow's milk that has large irregular holes, a yellow-wax rind and a semi-firm yellow interior. The flavor is mild, buttery and slightly sweet. It is a great cheese to keep on hand, good for cooking and for snacking on as well. It can be substituted with any type of Swiss cheese that's hiding in the cheese drawer, but the nutty flavor of the Jarlsberg pairs exceptionally well with this warm roll.

This recipe, adapted from Damon Lee Fowler's Parmesan Wafers in his beautiful new book, "The Savannah Cookbook," features Fiscalini's Artisan Bandage Wrapped Cheddar. This Gold Medal-winning, extra mature white cheddar is made from raw cow's milk, bound in cloth, and aged for 18 months. The extra aging time gives this cheese a slightly smoky, earthy flavor that lends a delicious buttery finish to these crisp English biscuit wafers. These light and flaky treats pair well with fruit and wine, and are a must for your next cocktail party.

Any aged cheddar will do, but it may be necessary to reduce the water if using a moister cheese.

Meri's Aged Cheddar and Thyme Cocktail Biscuits

Yields 10-12 dozen

1 stick unsalted butter, softened

8 ounces aged white cheddar, grated

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped

8 ounces soft wheat all-purpose flour, such as White Lily

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

1/4 teaspoon of kosher salt

3 tablespoons cold water (may have leftover)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Beat the butter, cheese, Dijon mustard and fresh thyme in mixer with paddle attachment until light and fluffy. Sift or whisk the flour, cayenne pepper and salt together in a small bowl. Add flour mixture to the creamed butter mixture and mix until smooth. Add the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, until it is just holding together. Shape dough into a flat disk, wrap well in plastic wrap or waxed paper, and refrigerate or freeze for about 20 minutes. Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface to about 1/8 inch. Cut into rounds using a small 1-inch cutter, or decorative cookie cutters. Gather scraps into a ball, flatten into a disk, chill for 20 minutes, then reroll. Chill shaped "coins" 5 minutes to make them easier to move to an ungreased baking sheet, spaced 1/2 inch apart. Bake until bottoms are lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Cool on wire racks. Can be stored in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.