Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Fromage blanc: oui ou non?


Thanks, public domain.
I should mention here that thirteen years ago I interviewed Sue Conley and Peggy Smith (the Cowgirls) for a story I wrote to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of Chez Panisse and celebrate its legacy. It was a miserable story to report because Alice Waters was icy and her assistant an unspeakable expletive and although I believe Waters has been a powerful force for good in the world, I can’t see a picture of her without rolling my eyes.

But you know who was great? Sue Conley. Peggy Smith wasn’t not-great, but she told me a few stories about Chez Panisse and then had to go somewhere. Conley, though, sat and talked to me on a patch of grass by the old Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market and patiently explained how the flavors of milk change seasonally if you buy from small, local dairies like Straus in Marin County. Because they let their cows graze on wild pasture, the milk is grassy one month, floral the next. Big producers, on the other hand, feed their cattle a bland diet to ensure the product always tastes the same. She convinced me to start buying Straus milk which I have done sporadically (it’s expensive) ever since. It’s beautiful milk, unhomogenized so the cream rises to the top, and it comes in bottles that you send back to be re-used, which is more efficient than recycling plastic. Also, organic, local, better for the cows, etc. 

Yesterday I read the milk section of Cowgirl Creamery Cooks and remembered that pleasant conversation because the book lays out the facts in pretty much the way Conley did back in 2001. If you read it you’ll understand why a person might pay extra for milk from producers like Straus. I need to get Mark to read it.

I made recipe #2 from Cowgirl Creamery Cooks last night: Kate’s grilley: stilton and cheshire on walnut bread. “Grilley” is what the Cowgirls’ former colleague, an Englishwoman, called a grilled cheese sandwich. I hope it doesn’t catch on. To make this sandwich you combine fromage blanc, crumbled Stilton, and grated fontina (or another cheese of similar texture) in a bowl, spread the mixture on walnut bread, and cook in skillet. 

Everyone in the family liked these sandwiches except me. The cheese did not so much melt as liquefy and it was everywhere and nowhere at once. It lost all body and seeped into the bread and onto the frying pan and while you could smell it and taste it, you couldn’t find it. Do you know what I mean? Has this ever happened to you with super-soft cheeses? Is this how the sandwiches are supposed to be? Did I do something wrong? I don’t know. No one else minded. What they minded was the walnut bread. That was the only part I liked. 

But here’s my question: Is calling for fromage blanc in grilled cheese sandwiches -- even your most basic grilled cheese sandwiches -- a food professional-home cook disconnect? My gut feeling is yes, but I could be persuaded otherwise.

16 comments:

  1. Well, I just clicked on fromage blanc because I didn't know what it wuz . . . Also, your description of your Alice Waters is not particularly surprising (and HOLY COW, you've interviewed all these folks!!). Lastly (and very randomly), I'm thinking about building a cob oven in the yard. There are books and tutorials online. Is it doable if one is good at following written instructions? Or is a workshop a must?

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    1. Sweet. Thanks.

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    2. Hi Adah, You need this book: http://www.amazon.com/Build-Your-Own-Earth-Oven/dp/0967984602/ref=la_B001JS51CO_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1389275827&sr=1-4
      Plus supplementary guidance from other sources online. There are some good forums. And I'm no pro, but you can always ask me.

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  2. I'm embarrassed to say I've never used fromage blanc. How is it different from cream cheese?

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    1. If you've never used it either, that answers my question. It's like yogurt, but with more tang, like goat cheese. It strikes me as a specialty ingredient that is simply too innocuous to push outside its native land.

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    2. Yes, I guess so. Like certain British comfort foods. Bakewell tarts (fine, I guess), or mushy peas (you have to be British). We tend to deify French foods, but there must be some boring ones!

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  3. In my dream life where I live in Point Reyes and have ample cheese scraps just lying around my beautiful farmhouse, I think it is probably acceptable to put fromage blanc in your grilled cheese. Alas, in reality I would probably sub in some other more readily available cheese.

    I do love the Cowgirls though! I used to work for one of the Ferry Building companies, and that cheese shop was like heaven. I remember one time all I bought was cottage cheese, because I was so intimidated. It was probably the best cottage cheese I have ever eaten, and I still dream about it today. It was also probably like eight dollars. Worth it!

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    1. Have you eaten at their Ferry Building cafe? I haven't, but now want to. I remember becoming obsessed with Cowgirl Cottage cheese, too. I think I only ate it once, but someone talked it up to me. It might even have been Sue Conley herself! And it was great. I think it's fine that if a famous food establishment puts fromage blanc in its sandwiches, they write that in their recipes. It's part of the historical record. A cookbook doesn't have to be prescriptive, it can be purely documentary. What's irritating is when things get confused, when the authors casually imply (or enthusiastically state) that we should be doing something the way they do when it's totally impractical for the home cook. I'm not sure this is the case with the Cowgirls, I'm just a little wary.

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  4. fromage blanc--non. I feel like it would be the same as a grilled mascarpone sandwich--it would just melt away. I want to see strings of cheese if I break a sandwich in half. Did you have to make the walnut bread too? I don't think I would like this cookbook if I had to make the bread.

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    1. I bought the bread. I think the real culprit in the liquefied filling was the stilton. I don't get how these sandwiches are supposed to work and taste -- I really want to go try a grilled stilton sandwich at their cafe to find out.

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  5. I think this is a big disconnect, as least for me. I don't mind looking for rare ingredients if I am going to make a rare dish. But looking for something like this for a grilled cheese sandwich offends me. I think grilled cheese should be made with whatever cheese you like, i.e. you have it on hand. It is not something I should have to go to the store to procure. I once made a mac and cheese that called for 3 rare cheeses, it was very expensive, and I was expecting something spectacular, but it wasn't. It was mac and cheese that was different and expensive. I think effort and expensive should equal something worth the effort and expense. Maybe I am a home cook snob?

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    1. I agree with you. That's why it's ok with me to look for and pay for something like stilton, which is amazing (though not in these particular sandwiches), but tiresome to have to seek out something blah like fromage blanc.

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  6. In defence of the peculiarities of the English I have never heard the expression 'grilley'. We would call such a sandwich a 'toastie' which you may find equally obnoxious! I think we're rightly obsessed with Stilton, though.

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    1. Let me say right now that both "grilley" and "toastie" are infinitely preferable to the American "sammie."

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  7. I agree that it's a disconnect. There's no way I would buy an entire container of fromage blanc just to make one "grilley." Do they offer any more common substitutions? I tend to make cheese swaps a lot, actually, based on the price of what's called for in a recipe. (example: I made - and loved - the Roquefort Grape recipe that you posted but swapped in Gorgonzola when I saw the side by side price at the grocery store) I can sometimes be a sucker for rushing out to buy a new-to-me exotic ingredient...if it's not too hard to source or very expensive. My aversion to high priced ingredients is only sometimes checked if it's a special occasion. Grilled cheese rarely qualifies as special occasion, so no fromage blac for me.

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