After looking at hard and semi-hard cheeses last week, this week I'm turning my attention to semi-soft and soft cheeses. These cheeses have a high water content; because they are moist and therefore more susceptible to microbes than hard cheeses they ripen in a matter of weeks rather than months. Unlike hard cheeses, which are ripened from within by adding a starter bacteria, soft cheeses are ripened from the outside, by the action of a surface mould that is sprayed on after salting. Here are some examples of semi-soft and soft cheeses, from Blue Stilton to Feta. This week's recipes include some cheese butters, salads, a fondue and something for the sweeter tooth - Cheesecake on a Chocolate Base.
Goats' Cheese: Cheeses made from goats' milk come in a variety of flavours, textures and types. Ranging from soft and creamy to dry and sliceable, they are now produced in countries all over the world. Some of the best goats' cheeses are produced in France, where they are known by the generic term of 'chevre', and throughout the Mediterranean. There are also some excellent ones produced in Ireland and in Britain. Goat's cheeses all share a dry and piquant aftertaste, but their flavours vary according to the region of production and the ripening period. Mature continental cheeses have either a blue mould rind, a thick, white rind or are sometimes coated in ash. Some of the most popular goats' cheeses are the French log-shaped ones (buches) which have a thick, fluted white rind and are often sold in slices.
Fresh goats' cheeses are soft and chalky and should be eaten soon after they are made. Because there is such variation with these cheeses, it is best to sample them before you buy. This way you can ensure that the degree of ripeness, dryness, etc is to your taste. Avoid tough-looking rinds, messy colouring or a rancid smell. Many goats' cheeses are sold a bit under-ripe, but they will continue to ripen and mature at room temperature. If you want to keep goats' cheese at a particular stage of maturity, wrap it in baking parchment or waxed cheese paper and place it in an airtight container in the fridge.
There are many great Irish goats' cheeses in production today - here are three of the best that I have tried:Mature Cooneen: unusually for goats' cheese, this particular one has a deliciously gentle flavour. It is made in County Tyrone. Limerick Organic: this has a sharp flavour and is excellent grilled, fried or eaten as it is. Boilie: this handmade goats' cheese from County Cavan has a distinctive flavour and is great in snacks, salads or as a starter.
Moving further afield, the most popular goats' cheeses in Britain are Chabis, Golden Cross, Roubiliac, and Tymsboro. From France, the most famous are Chevrotin, Chavignol and Chabichou. When eaten fresh, these cheeses are all mild and creamy but they become firmer and develop more pronounced flavours when aged. Chavignol has a sharper, fuller flavour than the others. Holland did not produce any goats' cheese until about two decades ago when Henry Willig discovered that the famous Dutch cheese, Gouda, could be made from goats' milk. His Goat Gouda is now very popular in Europe and is also turning heads in America. From the Middle East (but now made in parts of Europe) comes Haloumi. This is my favourite goats' cheese of them all, and is great for grilling - the surface becoming crisp and the inside melting! Quite perfect. It has a slightly salty, mild flavour.
Blue Cheeses:Ireland's Tipperary Cashel Blue has an international reputation for its high quality and is mentioned in recipes around the world as its particularly creamy texture blends smoothly in cooking. The same people also make Mature Crozier Blue, this country's only blue sheep's milk cheese. Crozier combines the bite of ewe's milk with the sharp aftertaste of the blue. From Britain comes the rich, blue-veined Stilton, of which the finest is Colston Bassett Stilton. It has a distinctive rind and is moist and creamy. As this cheese becomes dry, or sometimes to hasten its ripening, it is sometimes fed with small quantities of port or Madeira, and even sometimes with ale. When choosing Stilton, make sure that it's creamy-ivory in colour. More recent British blues include Dunsyre Blue (cow's milk) and Lanark Blue (sheep's milk) from Scotland.
Thence to France and surely the noblest cheese of all - Roquefort. Some 2000 years ago it acquired its veining from the natural Penicillium glaucum, which thrived in the limestone caves of the Combalou plateau. Unusually for a blue cheese, Roquefort is made with sheep's milk, which is partly responsible for its pungent flavour. A fine, green cheese, it is strongly flavoured, but not as strong as Gorgonzola, Italy's champion blue cheese. Gorgonzola is strongly flavoured and pale yellow, with bluish green marbling and a coarse brown rind. Although it is a semi-soft cheese, it should be firm and fairly dry. It can be eaten as it is, but is also delicious if melted into sauces and risotto. When buying, make sure it's springy to the touch, and not hard.
Other Soft and Semi-Soft cheeses:Brie: Made from cow's milk, this soft, whitish, creamy cheese is smooth inside and has a mild flavour. It should be soft throughout, without any chalky, solid centre. It's usually eaten as it is, but is also delicious when wrapped in puff pastry and baked, or coated with flour, beaten egg and breadcrumbs, and deep-fried. St Brendan Brie is an Irish-made alternative to the French Brie. Produced on the Berridge family farm near Enniscorthy, it is a well-matured full fat cows' milk cheese with a delicious flavour. It can be eaten young and firm or mature and soft. Camembert: Similar to, but with a stronger flavour than Brie, this cheese should bulge, but not run, when the top surface is lightly pressed. It's great with biscuits and crusty bread or in salads. It can also be cooked like Brie.Cottage Cheese: Mild flavoured and very low in calories, this cheese is made from skimmed milk curds and is therefore very low in fat. It is often flavoured with herbs or fruit and is usually eaten uncooked in salads and the like. Sometimes cottage cheese is used as a substitute for cream cheese in cheesecakes and flans, in this case it is best sieved for a smoother texture.Cream Cheese:Usually a full fat cheese (although it is available in low-fat varieties), cream cheese has a rather bland, rich, creamy flavour and is ideal for savoury and sweet dishes including cheesecakes, desserts, pates and sauces as well as with bagels! Bel Paese: This Italian soft cheese is full of flavour, and is a good substitute for Mozzarella in pizzas. When buying, make sure that it is springy to the touch.Dolcelatte: This Italian cheese is creamy white with bluish green veins, has a robust flavour and moist texture. It's usually used uncooked, but may be used in cheese sauces, especially with pasta. Feta: This delicious Greek cheese is best known for its use in Greek salads. Made from a combination of 70% sheep's milk, with 30% goat's milk, it has a salty bland flavour and crumbly texture. Fontina: This is a soft Italian full-fat cheese. Straw coloured, with an orange rind and a few holes, it has a delicate, nutty flavour. As it melts easily, it's perfect for making sauces. Fromage Frais: This smooth, creamy-textured cheese is made from either skimmed or whole cows' milk that has had a culture added to it. It's a very versatile cheese and can be substituted for cream or yoghurt in cooking. It can also be served simply with fruit as a dessert. Mascarpone: A rich, creamy cheese made from cows' milk and with the consistency of soft butter. It can replace cream in pasta sauces and desserts. It is used to make Tiramisu, the Italian pick-me-up pudding!Vegetarian Cheese: Rennet, which is used in cheese making, traditionally comes from the stomach lining of cows. Strict vegetarians often avoid ordinary cheese because it contains this animal product. Luckily, cheeses are now available made with vegetarian rennet, which is genetically engineered from micro-organisms. A good example of vegetarian cheese is the St Brendan Brie, made in County Wexford by Paddy Berridge.
Now for some recipes containing soft and semi-soft cheeses, starting with cheese butters. These can be prepared well in advance and stored in the refrigerator in baking parchment or aluminium foil. You can cut off a slice or two as required - they make mouth-watering toppings for grilled fish, steak or vegetables: Camembert Butter, Roquefort Butter, Ricotta, Lemon Thyme and Garlic Butter.
Here's a useful recipe for Coriander and Goat's Cheese Pesto. This is really good as a sauce for pasta and you can also use it as a stuffing for vegetables, fish or chicken if you halve the amount of olive oil. You can vary the herbs also - basil is a good substitute for coriander here.
If you're a fan of blue cheese you should try this Roquefort (or Cashel Blue) and Walnut Salad. The new season's 'wet' walnuts are the best to buy. If you cannot get these, toast ordinary walnuts in the oven to bring out the flavour. Although high in fat, walnuts are a very good source of protein, potassium, iron, zinc, B vitamins and vitamin E. They also contain selenium, an important trace mineral thought to inhibit cancer and help protect from heart disease. Extremely healthy! Here's another great way of serving cheese - Smoked Cheese, Apple, Chicory and Watercress Salad.
No cheese feature would be complete without a recipe for deep-fried cheese and here's ours - Crunch-coated Goats' Cheese with Chilli Jam. The Chilli Jam is a good contrast to the richness of the cheese. This can also be made with something like Brie or Camembert.
The variety of fresh fish and seafood available these days is quite good, and the following recipe for Fillets of Lemon Sole with Prawns would be just as good if other white fish fillets were used, such as plaice, turbot or brill. The combination of mild, creamy Greek Feta cheese with the other ingredients is wonderful. As this is quite a rich dish, it is best to serve it with plain vegetables and a salad.
Although, strictly speaking, Cheese Fondue is made with a semi-hard rather than soft cheese, I feel I must include a recipe, and this one is simple and quick to make. And finally, here's my recipe for Cheesecake on a Chocolate Base. Enjoy!