Tag Archives: creme fraiche

Cheeeeeeeese to the Rescue!

Several months ago, before I’d begun bike commuting in earnest and MUNI was my go-to method of transport, I made a project of finding the quickest two-bus route to work. I’d take the 21 or the 71 downtown, then catch either the F (Note: yes, I know the F is not a bus), the 8BX, or the 30. One morning, disembarking the 8BX, I walked past a sign advertising The Cheese School of San Francisco. Cheese school? I thought. Is this for real?

Is this ever for real! The Cheese School, as I learned, offers workshops in the history, production, and appreciation of cheese. There are offerings for those who wish to pair cheese with wine or with other foods (Cheese & Wine Pairing, Whisky & Cheese, Belgian Beer & Cheese, Red Wine & Cheese: Pairings that Tame the Tannins, and so on); there are courses about cheeses from different geographic regions (Cheese & Wine of Spain, Cheeses of Italy). There are  And for those who just want to know the basics, there’s a cheese primer. In fact, there were so many choices on the course list that I was pleasurably overwhelmed: where would I begin my educational journey about this food of the gods, this beloved food o’ mine?

I decided to start simple. I registered myself (and Hook) for Home Cheesemaking, the description of which follows:

Chef, educator and cheesemaker extraordinaire Sheana Davis will lead this brand new class focused on making fresh cheeses at home. Through demonstration and discussion this class will provide an introduction to the basic principles of making fresh cheese, covering three different fresh cheese types for the home cheesemaker. As a special treat, each student will be provided with fresh chèvre to form and infuse with their own custom blend of herbs and zest, and will be able to take their creation home to share with family and friends.

Sounds good, right? It seemed only logical that I begin at the beginning, learning how to make my own cheese before learning about cheeses of a specific country, or about pairings with 72%-cacao chocolates. (Note: Taking this seminar also puts me closer to achieving one of my resolutions from last New Year’s: “Learn to make my own cheese.” I bought a book on the topic but sadly, regrettably, have not cracked it yet. Oops.)

The first of many glasses of sparkling wine (the key to any successful lesson, I think).

 

When Hook and I arrived at the school, an airy group of rooms on the second floor of a building on Powell, we were promptly handed glasses of sparkling wine. Holla! (Note: I’m immediately more inclined to appreciate an experience if said experience begins with sparkling wine.) In the “classroom area,” rows of tables were set with tablecloths, plates of samples, baskets of bread medallions and trays of figs; rustic decanters of water and tumblers were placed at one end of each table, pyramids of empty jars at the other. In the front of the so-called classroom was Ms. Davis’ demonstration table, complete with burner, cheesemaking gear, and samples of cheeses she’d prepped the night before. (Ms. Davis brought jars of creme fraiche and chevre that she’d started earlier so that we, the students, could see these cheeses in a more advanced stage of development.)

The class itself was relatively informal. Ms. Davis had prepared a handout detailing the eight main steps of cheesemaking (common to the preparation of all varieties, that is) and including recipes for the three soft cheeses — paneer, chevre, and creme fraiche — that we’d be sampling during the class. An assistant distributed said handout to the participants, and we mulled it over while we sampled the cheeses we’d be learning to prepare. The plates of cheese samples were beautifully presented; accompanying the cheeses was a portion of Meyer Lemon preserves that was maybe the best thing (or preserve, anyway) I’d tasted in the last month.

Cheese samples (and preserves).

 

Davis first made paneer; the whole process, from heating the milk to Finished Product, took about fifteen minutes. Score! I thought. A cheese for someone with my limited attention span! Instant gratification has its drawbacks, though: while the cheese was prepared quickly, it was a bit bland, similar to mozzarella but without the same bite. (Note: Hook and I decided that, if we make paneer, we’ll add chopped herbs or maybe black pepper to kick up the flavor.)

Next, Davis demonstrated how to start making chevre and creme fraiche; both varieties have to sit overnight, so Davis explained the process in-depth while showing us how to heat the milk to the correct temperature (and emphasizing that heating the milk is a process that requires vigilance: overheat it and you’ll have to start from scratch). It was at this point that the pupils, myself and Hook EXcluded, became quite chatty, murmuring amongst themselves about Cowgirl Creamery and where to find raw milk and god knows what else. I’ll say that I was put off by the seeming disrespect of the other attendees, but the workshop was casual and Davis didn’t seem to mind the chit-chat.

Glasses of wine and two hours later, We the Students were allowed to “infuse” fresh chevre with our choice of add-ins: chopped red peppers, chopped cranberries, pumpkin butter, or nuts. (Note: the jars stacked at the far end of each table? Those were for our so-called “cheese infusions!”) Hook filled his jar with plain chevre and called it a day. I mixed mine with pumpkin butter and cranberries and could barely screw the lid on. (Oops.) I liked the mix-ins the school provided: I only wish there had been more options — fresh-chopped herbs, say, or a greater variety of dried fruits. Still, the cranberry-pumpkin chevre mixture hit the spot, especially on a flax-blend English muffin.

Our cheese "infusions." Hook's is plain; mine is gussied up with pumpkin butter and chopped, dried cranberries.

 

How did this first cheese class rank? Thanks to the generous samples and even more generous pours, pretty highly. Davis is both experienced and very enthusiastic about her profession; she aptly handled the questions shot at her by the students without blinking an eye. Cheerful, energetic, and exuberant, Davis’ enthusiasm was so great that it made me want to run out and buy a cheese thermometer and cheesecloth immediately. In any pursuit, a good teacher is key: not only does the instructor impart the knowledge essential to the craft, but piques the pupils’ enthusiasm. Davis did both.

That said, I wish the class had been more interactive. Given the fairly high enrollment and the limited classroom space, I understand that a total hands-on experience was out of the question, but this event felt more like a tasting than a true workshop. Still, I’m ready to take my new-learned cheesemaking skillz to the kitchen. I’ve bought a stockpot; I’m going to buy my cheesecloth, thermometer, and cultures. Then, I’ll hit the ground running (and will hopefully have some luscious curds & whey to show for my efforts).

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Restaurant Review: Bar Tartine

On Sunday, I hoped to have a brunch fantasy fulfilled. H. had made reservations at Bar Tartine, lauded for its simple, well-crafted, and seasonally-focused dishes (and for its fabulous bread, sourced from Tartine Bakery). Was I pumped? Hell yeah! In honor of this occasion, I spent extra time styling my hair — a rarity for a weekend mornings, when I usually just twist my hair up into a high hipster bun and call it a day — and made sure we left the Haight with enough time to allow for a pleasant, unhurried bus trip.

I’d checked Bar Tartine’s online menu and had plotted out my brunchtime course of action: Pt. Reyes blue-cheese stuffed dates as an appetizer, savory bread pudding with red onions, Spring Hill cheddar, nettles and green salad as an entrée, and a beverage to be determined. Since reading this New York Times piece about savory bread pudding, I’ve been craving some hardcore. Bar Tartine was going to sate this weeks-old hankering, I was sure.

Hook, waiting for the dates to arrive.

Bar Tartine has a lot going for it, atmospherically speaking. The dark, rough-hewn floor feels like a transplant from some provincial attic; ditto the chandelier crafted from intertangled antlers. The shelves near the front entrance and the bathroom counter are decorated with skulls; in the instance of the latter, the skull had fresh blossoms placed in its eye sockets — a detail charming and macabre. On the topic of flowers, the bathrooms at Bar Tartine and at plain-old Tartine had vases of fresh flowers on display, which detail I appreciated from visual and olfactory standpoints alike. Yes, Bar Tartine’s setting is romantically rustic, catering to those who dream about rambling country houses with chipped, 19th-century crockery, heavy-handled knives, and jugs of wildflowers picked from the adjacent meadow. Not that I belong to that demographic subset or anything; this is all purely conjectural. Like so many of his colleagues in this city, our waiter was coolly detached/borderline unhelpful. He asked us what we’d like to drink; when we ordered coffee, he brought our coffee. He took our orders and brought our food to the table. But he never asked how we liked our food — rather, if we liked it — and Hook practically had to grab the waiter’s arm to get him to bring us a pepper mill. As one who eats out a good deal, I understand the value of understated service. I don’t want a waiter or waitress all up in my business, asking every five minutes how everything is and constantly topping off my glass of water. On the other hand, I’d like to have pepper brought to the table without having to resort to acrobatics to catch the waiter’s attention.

Dates stuffed with Point Reyes blue cheese and drizzled with honey.

On to the meal. The stuffed dates (four to an order) were average, failing to live up to the glory I’d predicted. One of my dates tasted overpoweringly of blue cheese (with not enough sweetness to offset the pungency of the cheese), while Hook said that all he tasted was the date. My second sample was more balanced than the first, but the cheese still overwhelmed the flavor of the fruit.

My omelette with a side of mixed greens.

To my disappointment, savory bread pudding was not featured on Sunday’s menu. No matter: both the walnut-bread french toast (with a side of seasonal fruit) and the omelette appealed to me. I ordered the latter. Served with a simple green salad and adorned with fresh herbs, creme fraiche, and sweet 100s tomatoes, the omelette would have been a delight had it been cooked thoroughly. As it happened, there were large, underdone patches on the omelette’s face. I ate around those patches and picked off the tomatoes/ scooped off the creme fraiche, but the runny eggs were enough to put off my appetite. I finished less than half of the omelette.

One of Bar Tartine's most successful elements was its decor -- including this sign.

Hook fared a little better. He built his own breakfast from three a la carte items: scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast. His eggs were also underdone (not as egregiously as mine), his bacon was extremely salty (I had a piece and corroborated his opinion), and his toast was buttered so heavily that it was greasy. Not moist, not just buttery: greasy. It wasn’t the worst brunch ever, Hook conceded, but was a major let down for the price point.

More than anything, I was disappointed by this meal. Had the service been off-point but the food delicious, or vice versa, I might have given a more sympathetic review. Sadly, the most enjoyable part of my brunch was the taxidermically-themed decor. Far from inspiring brunch monogamy, Bar Tartine may not even get a second date.