Garden Gin

Tea is our ingredient of the season this winter. We’re using that as an excuse to sit down more often and relax over a cuppa’. Check out the entire tea archiveThis post, in particular, is another one that calls for the use of Earl Grey (in ice cream sandwiches!).

I can’t believe that it took us two months to combine tea and alcohol, but the day is finally here! Today we’re sharing our take on this delicious cocktail from Sugar & Charm. As you’ll see, this drink is a complex mix of a variety of botanical flavors. The Earl Grey tea provides a dark tannin-filled foundation, and then it’s layered with lavender, lime juice, and just a hint of citrus, both from the tea and a sliver of zest. Honey adds just a touch of sweetness. Needless to say, this drink is far from the Long Island Iced Teas we all had one too many of in college.

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I mentioned that the drink gets a hint of citrus from the Earl Grey tea. Traditionally, Earl Grey is a black tea that is scented with the addition of bergamot essential oil. The bergamot orange is an extremely sour fruit with a rind the color of lemons. It is not considered edible, but with the addition of sugar can be turned into marmalade. Earl Grey tea was first produced in England in the early 1800s in an attempt to reproduce the flavors of more expensive Chinese teas. Perhaps surprisingly, combining gin and Earl Grey, as we do below, is not a unique idea. Although it’s not as fashionable today, it was common throughout the UK, particularly in the late 1800s.

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Sampling Cheese from the Nibble Nook

We’re snacking on a lot of cheese this season. So far we’ve talked about our favorite way to eat a few staples, but today we’re going out on a limb and trying some new varieties!
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There really are so many cheeses out there, and while I’m an adventurous eater, I often find myself sticking to a handful of cheeses that I know and love. Just walking up to the cheese counter is overwhelming ~ so many varieties, where do I even start? And then I would look at some of the prices and just shyly turn around and pick up my Cabot or Brie Supreme and go on my merry way. Or, that was the scene until I discovered Whole Food’s Nibble Nook!

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The Nibble Nook is a little basket of cheese ends/remnants (you can see it above tucked in between their off-the-shelf cheddar, feta, and mozzarella). My guess is that many grocers selling cuttings of large cheese wheels may have their version of a nibble nook. If you’re open to trying some new cheese and flexible as to the options available, the Nibble Nook is a great place to look. The selection within the basket is constantly changing as different cheeses are cut and as shoppers pick out their favorites. And the cuts are small, so while I would be hesitant to be a large wedge of a cheese that’s priced at over $20/lb, I’m happy to buy a small bit for nibbling.

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I always approach the bin with an open mind and pick out any cheeses that look promising (that’s every cheese), and right now I’m also sticking to only those made with pasteurized milk. On this particular visit, the bin was overflowing with two varieties of hard cheese from Uniekaas, a Dutch company: a 3 year Gouda and a Parrano. I’m sad to say, I had to pass on a beautiful looking cheese that had bits of black truffle throughout but was made with unpasteurized milk. From the labels, you can see that each of the cheeses I picked has a big price tag ($22 and $15 per pound), but the wedges are both close to a tenth of a pound, making it an affordable splurge (is that a thing?).

liveseasoned_fall2014_nibblenook2_wmI also love Whole Foods visits for their constant sample tables, on this particular day a table of raw uber-local honey (from hives within our county!), was perfectly positioned at the end of the cheese aisle. They even happened to be serving up the samples with a variety of Parrano, so I had to pick up a jar. And as you’ll see, it ended up making such a perfect treat!

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A little bit about the cheeses. Both of these cheeses are considered great snacking cheeses in the Netherlands, their home country.

Gouda

(The orange cheese in these photos)

Gouda is a Dutch hard yellow cheese made from cow’s milk. The cheese may be aged anywhere from a month to many years. This particular Gouda was aged for three years, classifying it as a “very old cheese”.  As a Gouda ages it acquires a caramel sweetness and develops a slight crunch from cheese crystals that form as water within the cheese evaporates. The cheese’s sweetness is due to removing some of the whey, which also removes some of the lactic acid, early in the cheese-making process and replacing it with water.

Parrano

(The white cheese in these photos)

Parrano is also a technically a Dutch Gouda, but with a flavor similar to aged parmesan. Parranos are aged for about 5 months, giving them a semi-firm texture. As described on the company’s website, Parrano is “slightly sweet, a little bit nutty but still with a deliciously strong flavour”.

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As is common, I like to include some fruit on my cheese plates. Continuing with my adventurous ways, I’m not too picky when it comes to the fruits I choose. I’ll often look for anything in season and deliciously ripe (there’s no point in serving out-of-season strawberries that taste like water, right?). On this particular day, I already had some raspberries and pomegranate in my fridge. As it turns out, their slight tartness was a perfect complement to the sweet honey and sharp cheeses!

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 The Honey

This is a raw, unfiltered, and unheated honey. As a result, it has a cloudy appearance from the honey crystals that have begun to form (it may also have some bits of wax, pollen, bee wings, and such in the jar). If you put a dollop of raw honey on a plate, you’ll find that it spreads more slowly than crystal clear honey. It turns out that this is really useful for gluing some fun cheese/cracker/berry combos together! And here you thought raw honey was just good for its enzymes.

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Look at how beautiful that cracker looks with a bit of cheese, dollop of honey, and a few perfectly placed pomegranate seeds! There’s no way those seeds will fall off on the way from the plate to your mouth. This is a particularly handy trick for cocktail parties if you want to make a few fancy cracker/cheese combos rather than having guests make their own. You definitely don’t have to worry about the appetizer falling apart before it’s served. I also found honey to be particularly useful for keeping the crumbly gouda on my cracker. You can see that I double-dipped in the last photo – starting with a slice of Parrano and then adding crumbles of Gouda over the honey. indulge much?

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I can’t emphasize enough how delicious these particular combos were. The crackers were just a basic wheat thin. Both cheeses had a bit of a nutty flavor. The honey added that touch of sweetness. And then, as I already mentioned, the fruit added a bit of a tart note. Plus it was extra fun to get that little spray of juice and crunch when biting down on the pomegranate seeds.

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And this adventure all started with a quick trip to the Nibble Nook. Who knows what next week’s visit will hold… and I can only hope that come April they add some of that truffle cheese back to the bin!

So tell us – does your grocery store have their own version of the nibble nook? Did you find any really outstanding cheeses there?

 

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Brie with Truffle Honey

We plan on eating a whole lot of cheese this fall, and then we’ll talk abut it here. Sarah kicked off the cheese-fest with a nut crusted brie, and while there are many different cheeses in the world, I couldn’t help but share another delicious brie idea. Next time a hard cheese, we promise.

I love the flavor of truffles, and whenever there is a truffled this or that on a menu, I’m going to order it. My last truffle indulgence was the delicious Lamb Bolognese with Truffled Ricotta Gnucchi at The Pullman in Glenwood Springs, CO. So good! And what a great guy Calder is by indulging my truffle love – he hates the flavor (thinks it tastes like gasoline!), but he knew that a jar of truffle honey would be the perfect Valentine’s Day gift.

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The Honey

Truffle honey is made by adding shaved truffles to honey and then heating it to speed up the extraction of the truffle flavor. You should be able to find some at gourmet cheese shops, but it’s also easy to buy online. It’s not cheap, but a single jar goes a long way. The jar I have has an intense flavor, so just like dishes that use truffle oil or real truffles, this may not be for everyone. Of course, if you know a truffle lover, I guarantee you that they will love this!

Until receiving this gift, I never had or heard of truffle honey and wasn’t sure what to do with it, but quickly discovered that it’s commonly paired with cheese and bread. But what cheese? It seems that everyone has their favorite pairing, some swear by a hard and strong cheeses like parmesan or cheddar while others gush over a soft and mild brie. I decided that I didn’t want to pair the honey with a strong flavored cheese, so I went with a relatively mild and rich brie. Once I had my cheese, I knew that the soft cheese/honey combination was calling out for a chewy bread that wouldn’t crumble with each bite. So I threw a baguette into my cart and we had the makings for a perfect appetizer.

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The Cheese

Bries are soft cheeses from France. They’re made from cow’s milk and surrounded by a hard, moldy or “bloomy“, edible rind. The mold will have a white to light yellow color (not the blues of the molds that come to mind when talking about blue cheese). The mold is essential to creating the cheese as it works to break down the fat and proteins of the milk and cream. Bries vary by the amount of cream used to make them, you may see “double” or “triple” on the label signifying increasing amounts of cream. Increasing the cream level increases the richness and buttery-smooth texture of the final cheese.

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When picking a brie you want to look for a “ripe” cut. When brie is perfectly ripe, it won’t be runny or pungent (there are other soft cheeses that are made to be purposefully pungent, brie isn’t one of them). As a brie ripens, you may notice that the wheel of cheese will bulge slightly, especially when cut. You’ll likely buy a wedge from a larger wheel, which makes picking easier. Look for a wedge with a uniform interior consistency that is slowly falling out of the rind. For comparison, an unripe wedge will have a firm interior (or combination firm and soft) that is the same shape as the wedge, i.e. not expanding beyond the original cut.

There are a variety of bries on the market, and I think Supreme is a great, basic example that’s affordable and readily available at many grocers (including Trader Joes if you’re looking for a source).

Serving Suggestion

Once you have your cheese, honey, and bread, serving is easy. We placed everything on a marble board with utensils for self-service. A bread knife for the baguette, a spreader for the cheese, and a small spoon for the honey. That way everyone could personalize their serving. Calder could skip the honey, I could pile it on (and then eat it straight from the spoon), and our civilized guests could take as much or little as they wanted with each slice.

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If you have the opportunity, I hope you’ll give truffle honey a try. And with the upcoming holiday/entertaining season, this makes a fantastic surprise to any cheese plate or gift for your truffle-loving friends!

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