Ounce for ounce nothing offers flavor as rich and intense as hard cheese. As cheese ages it loses water, concentrating its flavors. While aged cheeses don't melt as well as creamier young cheeses most of them will melt in your mouth. They're perfect for snacking, and with dried fruit or nuts make a great hors d'oeuvre or dessert. If you're entertaining you can't go wrong with a plate of hard cheese for your guests to nibble as they sip wine and socialize.
I wanted to see how a variety of hard cheeses melted, so I made some appetizers by layering prosciutto, tomato, and hard cheese on a wonton wrapper. Baked at 350 F for 10 minutes they became mini pizzas (and my dinner). All the cheeses except Mizithra melted reasonably well. They weren't gooey like melted Swiss or mozzarella, but their flavors intensified - in the way that browning intensifies the flavor of butter.
Here's a rundown of the cheeses I tasted:
Red Leicester (UK) is reminiscent of cheddar. It has a slight, pleasant chewiness and a nutty, just-sharp flavor. It's typically aged for 3 to 9 months and like many yellow cheeses gets its deep color from annatto. Leicester pairs well with apples and pears, and its dusky tones make it a beer friendly choice.
Naked Goat Mitica (Spain) is aged and smoked. It's as dense a goat cheese as you'll find. It slices like a hard cheese, but retains a bit of creamy texture in the mouth. Aged goat cheeses pair well with almonds (and nuts in general), honey (drizzled on top), and dried figs. This cheese would go great with bits of honey glazed ham on chunks of crusty bread.
Mimolette (France) could be a substitute for Parmesan. It grates and melts like Parmesan. It's a bit milder, but the color is beautifully intense. You can use it instead of Parmesan to create toasted wafers of nutty cheese called "Frico."
Five Year Aged Gouda (Netherlands) is the most complexly rich of the cheeses I tasted. It's a richly grained cheese that tastes of butter and toasted nuts. Considering how bland and nondescript plain Gouda in the red wax ball tastes it's impressive how much flavor develops as the cheese ages. I like adding aged gouda to the blend of cheeses for a pizza. It's also a nice cheese to grate onto pasta.
Mizithra (Greece) is icy white and salty. It grates into beautiful white flakes. It's the least rich of the hard cheeses, and lends itself to pastas that are tossed in butter or olive oil. Serve it with Kalamata olives. Since it doesn't melt it doesn't get gummy when tossed with warm pasta.
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Parmesan Reggiano (Italy) doesn't need an introduction, but I'd like to suggest pairing it with -strawberries, balsamic vinegar, melon, and prosciutto - especially if you're sipping a full-bodied red wine.
Hard cheese is as close as I can get to a one-ingredient recipe. And, it comes out right every time.
Andy Broder is the chef/owner of AndyFood, A Culinary Studio.