Many things that aren't necessarily dessert end up being the domain of pastry chefs. For example, cheese often ends up being tossed to pastry. Luckily, I love cheese. One of my favorite things about my first official restaurant job was that we made the cheese plates back in our little pastry nook. While the cheese plates there consisted of nothing more than one ounce wedges and a few thin slices of bread (which was purchased from elsewhere), we had a great selection of cow, goat, and sheep cheeses in a range of textures and funkiness. As a result, I got to try all sorts of cheeses, and I learned that I adore sheep cheese, that Mimolette is the holy grail of hard, salty cheese, that meaty, runny cheeses are not my favorite, and that blue cheese is delightful but makes my mouth itch in large quantities (all that mold).
Cheese has been called the "red-headed stepchild of the pastry department" by a colleague of mine. No surprise, considering many restaurants can barely justify employing a single pastry employee, let alone someone to expertly handle the subset of lovingly fermented dairy.
"The neat thing about the pastry department handling cheese plates is the opportunity to create custom accompaniments."
The neat thing about the pastry department handling cheese plates is the opportunity to create custom accompaniments. I know of a couple of pastry chefs who are lucky enough to make a different, complimentary selection of items for each cheese on the menu. This, to me, is ideal, but not really the norm—at least not yet.
The closest I've gotten in my experience has been making preserves, one for a cheese plate and one for a charcuterie plate. Nothing specific; I was not even told or consulted with on the specifics of the cheese and meat. The chef de cuisine simply asked for a marmalade (blood orange until we could no longer get them, then Meyer lemon) and a fig jam.
The fig jam is something I am particularly proud of. Made with dried figs and balanced with lemon zest, black pepper, and a splash of vinegar, you can't tell it started life as dried fruit and simple syrup. A scattering of yellow mustard seeds that are candied in the simple syrup add a slight bite and are almost incognito, appearing to be slightly larger than the fig seeds. And though the fig jam was the accompaniment for charcuterie, it goes equally well with a tangy, salty goat cheese, so I thought it would work wonderfully on top of a wedge of barely-sweet goat cheesecake.
Serving tiny wedges of this cheesecake is an elegant and very grown up way to end a dinner party or holiday meal. The cheesecake is meant to taste like an ultra-creamy goat cheese, with a boost of salt and flavor from the almond flour crust, which also makes the dessert gluten-free. The fig jam recipe makes plenty enough for the cheesecake plus a little extra, which, despite the somewhat odd ingredients, still makes a fabulous spread on toast or, even better, on a bagel with cream cheese.
About the Author: Anna Markow is a pastry chef obsessed with doing things that no one else does and giving unusual ingredients their time to shine. You can follow her sometimes-pastry-related thoughts on Twitter @VerySmallAnna.