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C'est fromage Comte cheese worth the fare to France

October 12, 2005

Foodies, of which I am one, pride themselves on knowing the newest thing. Many times, ironically, these are age-old products that are just coming to the attention of communities beyond their own. I first heard of Comte cheese when I was given a sample at a local grocery store. I thought it tasted like Gruyere, only better. Indeed, as I found out, all Comtes are Gruyeres, but not all Gruyeres are Comtes.

Since the Middle Ages, the Franche-Comte region of France has produced only enough Comte (pronounced cont-A) cheese for itself. It was so popular there that there was no push to export it. Only a small portion was shared with the rest of France, or the world, until recent years, which is why all I knew was Gruyere.

I'd never been to this region before, and I was eager to go. I have made so many foodie trips with my friend, Marilyn Harris, that I can't count them all. Sometimes, we just eat. Other times, we try to gather some information, as we did this time.
The region is above Lyon, to the right of Dijon and Paris and abuts Switzerland. The fast train from Paris to Besancon, the capital of Franche-Comte, took less than three hours, giving us plenty of time to see the green, lush countryside, fields of bright yellow canola flowers, cows in flower-studded grasses, citadels and castles, mountains, rivers (full of pike, pikeperch and whitefish) and waterfalls.

We stayed a bit out of town, on our first night eating in Bescancon at Mango Park Restaurant, where we had amazing food, with Comte in every course, made by a woman chef. This is where we ate a cheese custard flan, which I've tried to duplicate here. The small custard was not sauced up, but was just firm enough to stand on its own, melting in my mouth yet having a little give from the cheese. It was the first thing I had to try to make when I returned.

FLAVORED MILK
These dishes are enhanced greatly by flavoring the milk. Heat the required measurement of milk in a heavy saucepan with a variety of flavorings until the milk has bubbled around the edges. Let it sit until needed, strain and use or refrigerate.
For instance:

1 small shallot sliced in half
2 cloves of garlic peeled and whole
A sachet of your favorite herbs, such as parsley, thyme and oregano
Six black peppercorns

COMTE CHEESE FLAN
Small white custard cups worked fine the first time we tested this, but the ideal mold and shape turned out to be one of the new Le Creuset Cook 'n Bake orange silicone molds. This one was borrowed from Le Creuset. The instructions make it clear you should never put the mold straight on the rack, so my assistant and I put it in a roasting pan. We filled the molds with the filling, then carefully poured water around them. We were able to pop the little custards out onto our hands, then put them down on the plates.

Comte Cheese Flan
3/4 cup heavy whipping cream or milk
3 large eggs
1-1/4 cups grated Comte or Gruyere cheese
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Lightly mix cream (or milk; flavoring optional) with the eggs in a medium-size bowl. Stir in the cheese and season to taste. Spread a kitchen towel over the bottom of a deep baking pan (to prevent overbaking). Arrange six custard cups or souffle dishes on top of the towel. Pour your flan mixture evenly between the six dishes. Place discs of buttered wax paper on the top of each mixture to prevent skins from forming. Fill the baking pan with water to halfway up the sides of the molds and move to the oven carefully. Bake until the centers of the flan are set and a knife comes out clean, approximately 30 minutes, avoiding boiling the flans. Serves 2-3 as a main course.

COMTE CHEESE FONDUE

One Frenchman said to me, "Cheese fondues don't have to have a good cook. Good cheese and good wine will do."

I remember well my first cheese fondues. I had to scurry around to three stores and find Kirsch liquor (a French cherry brandy), a specific kind of white wine and two kinds of cheeses, Emmentaler and Gruyere. The recipes that came in the little booklet with Swiss maids in full skirts dancing on the cover offered no alternative. This was cheese fondue, and nothing else. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't.

Like any food that transcends borders, it turns out the Swiss don't have a monopoly on cheese fondue. On our trip, we ate two radically different fondues. We wanted to see the tiny town Arbois, where Louis Pasteur lived in his childhood and returned in his later life. It was a chilly day, so we ordered fondue in the tiny cheese/gourmet shop that had half a dozen tables. The shop owner and his wife wore many hats, taking the orders, cooking the food and manning the cash register. Our fondue was a combination of two local cheeses, Comte and Morbier, a cheese made with a layer of ashes in the middle. He used no Kirsch, just a French Chardonnay for the liquid.

Our second fondue was within walking distance to Switzerland, in a wacky rural restaurant with two teepees outside for people who wanted to stay there. (Not me.) We sat outdoors in the sun on a wooden bench, next to an affectionate cat, while we were waiting for our food.

This fondue had garlic, dried local morels, local smoked bacon, Comte cheese, Chardonnay, Kirsch and cornstarch. It was made in an iron-skillet-type pan before being transferred to a fondue pot. I liked it, but I liked our first one better since I am all for simplicity.

Here is my recipe for fondue, which we first melted in a heavy Le Creuset saucepan and then kept hot in a borrowed Le Creuset fondue pot. Heavy is the key word. A flimsy pot for melting or keeping warm may burn the cheese or cause it to separate.

I see no sense in buying a brandy to use a few times a year, so unless you know you are going to make a lot of fondue, omit the brandy and spend your money on a wine you'll enjoy both cooking with your fondue and drinking.

Easy Cheese Fondue
1 clove garlic, halved crosswise
1-1/2 cups white wine, such as Chardonnay
1 tablespoon cornstarch
4 cups grated Comte or Gruyere cheese (see cook's note)

Cook's note: Any creamy, rich white cheese will do. I also have used Emmentaler cheese.)

Rub the bottom and sides of a medium-weight saucepot with the garlic and then discard. Add the wine and bring it to a simmer over moderate heat. Meanwhile, stir the cornstarch with a teaspoon of water or a splash of wine to make a slurry. After the wine has reached a simmer, use a zigzag motion and gradually add the cheese. (Circular strokes will leave you with clumpy cheese balls rather than a silky-smooth fondue!) Once all of the cheese has been melted, give your cornstarch mixture another stir and add it to the mixture.

Bring the fondue back to a slow simmer for 5 minutes or until it has reached a light boil and has thickened. Transfer to a fondue pot equipped with a lighted candle or Sterno can.

Serve fondue with crusty French or Italian white bread cut into cubes. Each cube should have some crust attached. Spear the bread through the crust and dip into the cheese sauce to coat before eating. Apple and pear slices, meat and/or vegetables also may be used for dipping.

This recipe was developed by my apprentice, Elle Lien. It's a good way to move into summer.

Elle's Tomato Tart
3 to 4 tomatoes
3 eggs
1 cup milk (preferably flavored with herbs, peppercorns and the greens of two spring onions)
1 cup grated Comte or Gruyere cheese
1 pie crust

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In a pot, bring enough water to cover the tomatoes to a boil; add tomatoes and roll with a spoon 10-20 seconds. Remove tomatoes from the water and rinse in cold water to cool. Peel off the skins and cut into 1/2-inch slices. Remove seeds. Sprinkle tomatoes with salt and let them sweat for 10 minutes. Pat dry.

Meanwhile, mix together the eggs, room-temperature milk and cheese. Arrange two layers of tomatoes in the bottom of your pie crust and pour the liquid mixture to fill. Bake on a tray in the oven for 15 minutes. Check the tart, covering the pie crust edges with foil to prevent burning if necessary. Reduce heat to 300 degrees and continue baking until the top of the tart is golden brown and a knife comes away clean from the center, about 45 minutes. Serves 4 for lunch or use as a starter.

LIGHT-AS-AIR SOUFFLE
Souffles are so much easier to make than most people think. They are just sauces to which flavorings, egg yolks and beaten egg whites are added before baking. They may be assembled in advance and baked shortly before serving. It is better to underbake a souffle, as an overbaked one will collapse and an underbaked one can be returned to the oven to complete cooking.

Tip: Every souffle dish is different. If a dish is too large, it will appear the souffle didn't rise. If it is too small, the souffle will spill over and a paper collar must be tied around the dish and secured with string to keep in the souffle in while baking. Ideally, the souffle mixture will be a quarter inch from the top of the dish.Cheese Souffle
Butter and breadcrumbs for preparing souffle dish

31⁄2 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons flour
11⁄2 cups milk (preferably flavored)
3⁄4 cup grated Comte or Gruyere cheese
1⁄4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1 teaspoon prepared mustard
Pinch of nutmeg
Dash of cayenne pepper
6 egg yolks
8 egg whites
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Make sure there is room between the rack and the top of the oven for the souffle to rise. Place a baking sheet that will hold the souffle in the oven. Prepare a 6-cup souffle dish by buttering it and sprinkling breadcrumbs around the sides and bottom.

Melt the butter in a saucepan, add the flour and stir until a roux has formed. Stir in the milk and continue stirring until the sauce is smooth and comes to a boil. Remove from the heat, add the cheeses, mustard and seasonings, then the egg yolks, one at a time, mixing them in as you go.

This can be made well in advance and kept in the refrigerator.

If you choose to use this shortcut, reheat the mixture to lukewarm (no hotter as to not curdle your yolks) before using. Meanwhile, in a separate bowl, preferably copper, whisk together the egg whites and cream of tartar to firm peaks. Fold about 1 cup of egg whites into the warm sauce. Pour the sauce over the remaining egg whites and fold in lightly. Pile the souffle concoction into the souffle dish and smooth. Turn down the oven to 375 degrees and place the souffle on the preheated baking sheet, which will give it a boost. Bake for 25 minutes and test for doneness. It should have only a slight jiggle, and a knife inserted should come out with a little sauce on it from the interior. Remove from oven. Remove collar if necessary. Serve immediately.

If not cooked thoroughly, put back in oven. If the souffle collapses, run a knife around the rim, place a plate over the soufflé, turn over, give it a hard shake, and it should fall out, free form, and stand on its own. Serve it as is, with no explanation.
Serves 6.

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