I'm here today to extol the virtues of one of the world's most perfect, most luxurious foods: warm cheese. Yes, warm cheese. Tell me something: when you read those two words together, doesn't your stomach do a little flip of joy in sweet anticipation? Where does one begin, really, with warm cheese? There it is on your pizza, or oozing in between your two slices of sandwich bread, or melting over your bowl of pasta, or possibly bubbling and gurgling slowly, awaiting the next plunge of your fondue skewer (if you're a stuck-in-the-seventies kinda person, like, ahem, someone I may know?).
What's so great about warm cheese (besides, of course, its taste) is its equal opportunism, its democratic nature: it's found alike in cuisines high and low. Let's take, say, lasagna, as just one example of the myriad, masterful examples of classic Italian cuisine built on a foundation of soft, salty, creamy warm cheese. And then on the other hand there's the grilled cheese or the fondue that I cited above: nowhere near as technical, yet every bit as satisfying (and sometimes more so).
The dish I want to talk about today falls somewhere in the middle: perhaps not the most sophisticated dame on the block, but pretty damn classy nonetheless. It's simple baked goat cheese, and it's yet another recipe I learned from Emilie when I was volunteering on her farm in southern France last fall. Actually, the preparation is so straightforward that it barely qualifies as a recipe at all, and it goes something like this: 1. Drizzle goat cheese with oil. 2. Bake. 3. Eat, with bread and salad. 4. Repeat.
Philippe and Emilie, the farmers I worked with last year, brought their impeccable produce to market three times a week, on Tuesdays, Fridays, and Sundays. Those were hectic mornings, which consisted of rising early to finish prepping the fruits and vegetables for sale, loading them into the truck, and harvesting delicate items, like salad greens, at the very last minute. Then it was off to market to set up the stand and sell until sometime around 2 pm, when the last vendors were packing it in for the day. That meant that there really wasn't a lot of time to throw lunch together. What it didn't mean was that we'd eat any less fantastically than we did on all other days. Often, on market days, this baked goat cheese, plus a (homegrown) salad and a fresh baguette, was Emilie's go-to lunch, something that took perhaps five minutes to prepare, but was delicious and filling nonetheless.
Despite having eaten and enjoyed Emilie's baked goat cheese on numerous occasions last year, I just plain forgot all about it until yesterday, when I found myself in my local supermarket right around lunchtime and my stomach started to speak up. I was browsing the cheese section, because when am I not browsing the cheese section here in France, when my eyes settled on a small, firm, dappled round of perfect-looking goat cheese. Emilie's lunches popped right back into my head, and within ten minutes I was home and sliding the olive oil-slicked cheese into the oven:
And about 15 minutes later my little friend emerged all golden, its creamy insides threatening to overrun the tiny cracks in its ever-so-slightly crispy shell:
I don't think my words can adequately capture just how good this incredibly simple dish is: the cheese exits the oven warm, impossibly creamy, salty and tangy, its burnished outside contrasting texturally with its melting interior. I always eat it alongside a simple green lettuce salad dressing with a lemony vinaigrette, as well as some fresh bread, as I mentioned before. I eat the cheese smeared onto the bread, or just as is, with some lettuce speared onto my fork, or sometimes I drag the cheese-anointed bread through the vinaigrette: the citrusy brightness cuts through the richness of the cheese and makes this lunch feel almost like health food. Almost.
Baked Goat Cheese
Ingredient note: select a slightly firm, slightly aged goat cheese for use in this recipe. You don't want anything too fresh, because it won't stand up to the heat of the oven, but you don't want anything too aged, either, because it won't be tangy and refreshing like it's supposed to be. Shoot for something in between.
1. Preheat the oven to a moderate temperature, say, 300°.
2. Place the cheese in a small glass baking dish and drizzle it with about 1 teaspoon of olive oil, smearing it all around the cheese and on the bottom of the dish so it doesn't stick.
3. Bake until the cheese is slightly browned and warmed all the way through, about 15 minutes.
4. Serve, with a green salad (I use a dressing made of mustard, lemon juice, olive oil and salt) and some fresh crusty bread.