Brie reigns for holiday entertaining

There was a time when you couldn't go to a holiday party without finding brie at the center of the appetizer table, its soft, chalky essence oozing slightly on the platter filled with crisp toast and dried figs.

Yet, in recent years it has disappeared, its place taken by hard Spanish or Dutch cheeses, edged out by veiny domestic blues and aged white cheddars.

I'm here to tell you brie is back, reclaiming its throne as the King of Cheeses.

Royal rind

Culinary legend has it that in 1815 at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, diplomats discussing the reorganization of Europe got into a friendly competition about cheese and which country could claim the best cheese in the world. A French statesman put a wheel of Brie de Meaux before the diners and it was crowned the king of cheese.

The bloomy, and completely edible, rind on Brie results from Penicillium Candidum, a white mold applied to the surface that ripens the cheese from the outside in a matter of weeks.

True brie is soft-ripened cow's milk cheese made in the Champagne and Ile-de-France regions of France and, because it is not pasteurized, it cannot be imported into the United States.

Some French brie has been pasteurized for export to the U.S., but you can also find Brie made in Wisconsin, Texas and Quebec (Quebec's Rondoux Double Creme took top honors at the 2011 American Cheese Society competition).

Brie basics

“What I love about brie is its texture,” says chef Chris Barth or Retro Bistro in Mount Prospect. “It's smooth and elegant.”

Brie should have a pale ivory color and a mild to pungent flavor, depending on its aging. Pricewise, you can find an 8-ounce wheel of brie at Aldi for $2.99 or pay up to $24 a pound at artisanal cheese counters.

When purchasing brie, look for wheels about 1 inch thick; the exterior should be firm and the center should feel springy. Underripe brie will be too hard (and no, it won't ripen at home, unless you have a spore-filled cheese cave under your house), while overripe brie will be brownish with a gummy rind and an ammonia odor.

Barth says eating the rind — yes, the moldy part that's been rubbed with the bacteria — is part of the sublime Brie experience.

“The rind adds to it; that's what brie is,” Barth says. “It's a wonderful part of the cheese. Just go for it.”

It's easy to “just go for it” when it means scooping up some of the pastry-wrapped dried-cherry-stuffed brie Barth features on the Retro Bistro winter menu.

Barth likes to pair brie with Beaujolais Nouveau, but says it also goes well with a dry chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

And many sources suggest serving it alongside champagne or a fruity lager.

Barth's elegant recipe is easy to replicate at home, as are the other recipes featured here.

Whether family and friends, old friends or new acquaintances are on your guest list, they will eat like royalty with these on your holiday table.

Celery Spears and Whipped Brie

Turkey, Cranberry & Brie Quesadillas

Baked Brie Stuffed with Dried Cherries and Almonds

Wisconsin Cheese Terrine

Courtesy Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board 2011
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