Keep Christmas cheesy with these three great recipes
Cavanbert cheese, Toons Bridge ricotta and Parmesan will bring cheer to any table
Highbank Baked Cavanbert
Every two years, around September, we get a phone call. “Are you guys heading to Bra? Will we put you on the roster?” Bra is a tiny little town in Piedmont in Italy, where for the past decade myself and David have been volunteering for Cais, the Association of Irish Farmhouse Cheesemakers, at the Slow Food Cheese Festival. Bra is also home to the Slow Food University, while here in Ireland we also have our own Slow Food gatherings providing farm walks, seaweed talks and that sort of thing.
Not being from this side of the world, I didn’t know my Parma from my Parmesan, and I really craved knowledge of all things charcuterie and cheese. This brought me to work for a stint in Sheridans Cheesemongers, the best job I’ve ever had. I made so many great pals working there, including the talented Enda McEvoy of Loam. We used to make all the sandwiches and terrines for the shop downstairs while listening to the Ray D’Arcy Show.
Sarah Hennessy was the manager of the cheese shop: we started with a 250-sheet folder, and one by one we learned every Irish and European cheese we had in stock. We tried them all, from St Tola to Gubbeen, Mimolette to Milleens, and learned the importance of raw milk and how hard it is to produce a raw milk product in Ireland. Sarah has now moved back to Durrus in Co Cork, where she makes cheese with her mother, Jeffa Gill, who has been producing it since 1979 in the Coomkeen Valley. It is so inspiring to see these women in action.
Which brings us to Corleggy, Creeny and Cavanbert cheese. Silke Cropp and her son Tom are another family double act. They are extremely skilled raw milk cheese makers and their Cavanbert features in today’s recipes. Their cheese really provides the “tah-dah” element for a great cheeseboard.
HIGHBANK BAKED CAVANBERT
No, this is not a typo – this cheese is made in Co Cavan. It’s a mild, soft cow’s cheese, and normally at Christmas you can buy it in its own little ceramic dish. An easy starter for a dinner party or when entertaining at this time of year. You might want to wait a minute before you dig in – you don’t to burn your mouth.
1 (234g) Cavanbert
A few leaves of sage
1 elephant garlic clove, sliced
75ml of Irish cider such as Highbank, or a good dash of white wine
1 small sprig of well-washed thyme
Cornichons or house-made pickles and breadsticks or crackers for dipping.
Preheat your oven to 200 degrees (180 fan).
Unwrap your cheese from its packaging, then put it back in its bowl. If your cheese hasn’t come with a terracotta base, place in an appropriate-sized ramekin or small, oven-proof dish.
With a sharp knife, make little cuts in the top of your Cavanbert just big enough to fit a slice of garlic and a little leaf of the sage.
Pour over the cider or wine and put it on a baking tray.
Strip the leaves from the thyme stalk and scatter over the surface.
Bake for 15-20 minutes depending on how melty you like your cheese. We serve ours with pickled pears and crackers.
SPICED PARSNIPS, HAZELS AND WHIPPED RICOTTA
This takes a bog-standard veggie side dish to the next level by tossing parsnips in honey and spices and adding the crunch of nuts and the creaminess of soft cheese. It’s a great accompaniment to Sunday lunch or a festive dinner. Ricotta, meaning “recooked”, is a soft Italian-style cheese made from whey. In the restaurant ours comes from Toons Bridge, a family-run dairy based in west Cork. They make cheeses in small batches, using local unpasteurised cow and buffalo milk, as well as sheep’s milk from their own farm.
1 packet of Green Saffron madras curry powder
60ml of extra virgin olive oil
65ml of raw honey
Salt and black pepper
100g roasted hazelnuts, left whole or very roughly chopped
200g of Toons Bridge ricotta
1 clove of garlic
Salt and black pepper to taste
Heat the oven to 200 degrees (180 degrees fan).
If your parsnips are 100 per cent clean there is no need to peel the skins, just top and tail them. Slice in circles or lengths, depending on how cheffy you want this to look. (Hint, lengths are nearly always cheffier.)
In a large bowl, rub the curry powder into the parsnips really well with 40ml of the olive oil and 25ml of the honey and season them lightly.
Place on parchment on a baking tray and bake, turning twice in the oven to make sure they go golden brown and crispy all over – this should take about 30 minutes.
While they are baking, make the whipped ricotta. Put the soft cheese, garlic clove, the remaining honey and a little salt and pepper into a blender. Whizz it all together, taste and adjust the seasoning if needed.
Give the parsnips a good poke with a sharp knife in the thickest part to see if they are soft all the way through. When they are ready, allow to cool slightly, add the hazelnuts and toss together.
Spoon the whipped ricotta on to a serving plate and top with the warm, golden parsnips and hazelnut mixture. Drizzle over the remaining olive oil and serve immediately.
Ribollita is a classic, cheap and cheerful Tuscan winter soup. There are hundreds of variations but the main ingredients always include leftover bread, cannellini beans and inexpensive vegetables. It is very popular throughout Tuscany, but particularly in Florence. For the traditional recipe you line the serving bowls with stale bread and pour the soup over the top – the bread soaks up the soup and thickens it. I prefer to turn mine on its head and put the bread on top.
50ml of extra virgin olive oil
2 big carrots, cut into cubes
1 large onion (about 150g) chopped
½ a head of celery into cubes
200g of thickly sliced cavolo nero or dark green kale
3 red peppers diced into cubes
4 sprigs of thyme
3 bay leaves
3 smashed garlic cloves
1 fresh chilli (or 1tsp of dried chilli powder)
800ml of chicken, vegetable or vegan stock (plus extra water if required)
200g fresh tomatoes or 1 tin of chopped tomatoes
A pinch of sugar
200g tin of chickpeas
200g tin of cannellini beans
50g of Parmesan, plus extra to serve
Slices of old sourdough or stale bread
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan. Place the carrots, onion, celery, cavolo nero, peppers, thyme, bay leaves, garlic and chilli in the pan and cook over a medium heat until softened, stirring frequently, for about five minutes.
Add your stock, tomatoes and sugar and leave the pot to simmer on a low heat for about 30 minutes or until a third of the liquid has evaporated.
Rinse the chickpeas and cannellini beans in a fine sieve and add them to the stock with the freshly grated Parmesan and allow to heat through. This is a good time to season, but remember Parmesan is salty, so be careful.
Scoop your ribollita into warm soup bowls. I like to serve with a slice of sourdough on top, toasted and brushed with butter, then grate extra Parmesan over the hot bread and soup.