For those of us who are in a state of Thanksgiving panic, the last installment of A Denver Guide to Thanksgiving offers a simple and elegant solution to appetizers–and desserts–that requires very little time. Forget baking, frying, or hours of chopping and slicing for your holiday appetizers. Cheese Platters show off one of the world’s most delightful foods in pure form, and Janet Schaus of The Truffle Cheese Shop in Denver is here to save the day with her expert advice on pairings, presentation, and selection. Her tips will take you from Thanksgiving to Christmas to New Year’s Eve parties, since cheese platters make excellent additions to any of these festivities.
And if you have not yet been to The Truffle Cheese Shop, do all of your senses a favor and stop by. You will find cheeses from around the world in this European-style shop. Because they specialize in small-batch, artisan, and farmstead cheeses, The Truffle Cheese Shop offers a rare treat for foodies. They also have every element, from cured meats to baguettes (from French bakery Trompeau) to jams and imported biscuits, that you will need for your platter.
Composing The Perfect Platter
Variety is the spice of life, and it’s also the key to an impressive cheese platter, according to Schaus. “What we like to do is vary milk types. Cow, sheep, goat, and water buffalo are the main milk types, and we like to include at least three of those. Vary the texture, so you have something hard and crumbly, something kind of medium textured, and then something soft. Then we like to vary the flavor profiles so you have something that appeals to all palettes. So something soft and creamy that’s a little on the mild side, something that may be a washed rind that’s flavor forward, and then maybe a blue or an aged gouda–something that’s going to have a lot of flavor to it.” Schaus says to avoid hard cheeses that need to be sliced by guests, since that is difficult to manage with a plate or wineglass in hand.
What Else Should Go On A Platter?
Schaus explains, “As far as accompaniments to the cheese, meats are always a nice idea, any kind of charcuterie, salami, or speck or prosciutto. If you just want to keep it to cheese, we always like to use different kinds of fruit, and in the wintertime there is not a lot of fresh fruit that is really great. So to keep it more seasonal you can use chutney or jam, or apple or pear butter is amazing. These cheeses go so beautifully with fruits. The sweetness compliments the creaminess or the sharpness of the cheese. Nuts are wonderful. Honey is another really wonderful thing to pair with even the stronger cheeses. Of course olives or any kind of pickled products are also great for cheese plates.”
Cheese and wine are a natural pairing, but Schaus claims this relationship is not as important during large holiday meals. “You don’t worry too much about pairing it with wines when you do it for an hors d’oeuvre or as an addition to a dinner because people will be drinking so many different things and there are so many flavors going on in the whole dinner that you just want the cheese to be a part of that.”
How To Arrange Your Platter
When we think of the various sweet and savory elements on a cheese platter, such as salami, olives, pears, or grapes, it’s hard to know where to put them. Do we make separate platters for sweet and savory? Schaus advises, “As a personal preference, if I’m doing it for a dinner, I will keep it all on one. And I will keep the pickled products or the olives with the more savory cheeses, and with the more nutty cheeses, that’s where I’ll put the fruit or the honey. We use a lot of dried fruit when we do our platters: dried cranberries and cherries and pears. They just have a really nice kind of concentrated sweetness that goes well with cheese.”
Did you know that cheese is seasonal? Winter is the best time for aged alpine cheeses. The cheesemongers at The Truffle Cheese Shop are happy to give you their expert insight on such matters. As Schaus says, “Every cheese has a story.” Think seasonal for accompaniments too. “This time of year apples are really beautiful, and there are so many flavor profiles with apples, from granny smiths that tend to be a little sour to honeycrips that are super sweet.”
Cheese For Dessert
Schaus says that Americans are beginning to embrace the European tradition of cheese for dessert. If you have never tried it before, now is the time. It might just change the way you think about dessert. “It’s really lovely. You don’t really need a lot of cheese. You are not really looking for quantity as much as quality with dessert because you’ve already had a big meal. It’s just to get a taste of it. And at that point I like to keep the accompaniments on the cheese platter a little on the sweet side. One to three cheeses. Again you can vary the milk types and vary the textures.”
Shaus says not to fret about the actual platter that you use to serve your cheese. A plain glass plate is simple and beautiful, but really the sky is the limit. “Just a piece of marble or wood or put a piece of wax paper on your grandmothers old silver set works well,” she says.
Day After Thanksgiving
One of the reasons a cheese platter works so well for the holiday table is its versatility for later meals. Whether you use your gouda on turkey and cranberry sandwiches or shred some parmesan into a frittata, the results are delicious. Schaus adds, “Cheese for breakfast is wonderful. For anything that is left over, just toss it into pasta or risotto.”
The Most Important Part
Schaus claims that the most essential element of the perfect platter is one that might surprise you. “The biggest thing with cheese is how you store it. Wax paper or foil–not plastic–because cheese is a living, breathing thing. In Colorado it tends to dry out. Wrap it in wax paper or foil then put it in a separate container in your fridge.” Schaus uses a glass container, but says that plastic also works. And if all else fails, you can use the meat or produce drawer in your refrigerator because they are higher in humidity.
On Tuesday, we shared a recipe for Braised Turkey Leg by Gabe Godell, chef de cuisine at The Kitchen Denver (click here to read the post). Today, Chef Godell offers a delicious side that will make your family dinner feel like a feast. The best way to describe this recipe for Roasted Winter Squash and Apples is that it tastes just like Thanksgiving. The aroma of fried sage and roasted hazelnuts blankets a warm dish of acorn squash and apples tossed in honey and butter. Shallots play up the savory profile of the dish, while cider vinegar adds a bright note. It’s perfectly lovely at the same time that it is easy to prepare. This one-pot side calls for two six-inch cazuela baking dishes, but Chef Godell claims that any small ovenproof dish will work well.
4 cups acorn squash, cut into large dice
2 cups granny smith apples, cut into extra large dice
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon pepper
5 sage leaves, cut into chiffonade
10 sage leaves, fried
3 medium shallots, sliced
2 teaspoons honey
4 teaspoons butter
2 teaspoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup hazelnuts, toasted
Start by lightly pan frying sage leaves in olive oil on medium heat in a small sauté pan. Once moisture is released, pull out and drain on paper towels.
Melt butter in a small sauté or sauce pan until just starting to bubble. Sauté sliced shallot for 1 minute. Toss in sage and sauté for another 30 seconds. Add in honey, cider vinegar, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. Use this mixture to coat squash and apples and bake in a small ovenproof baking dish at 350 deg for 20 minutes. Check doneness on squash and apples. Put mixture in serving dish and top with toasted hazelnuts and fried sage leaves.
The traditional dessert on our Thanksgiving menus is one that often fills novice bakers with a sense of fear. We have all toiled in the kitchen for hours only to end up with a pie crust that was shrinking, burned, soggy, or gummy. If you have ever baked a pie with an overly browned crust and a fruit filling that was not even cooked through, you are not alone. The Humble Pie Store owner Tamara Brink serves an average of 1,000 to 1,500 pies per week at her hip Denver bakery. She is here today to offer her expert advice on the art of making pies. And if you are looking for a unique recipe, check out our post on Brink’s Salted Caramel Apple Crumb Pie here.
Don’t Obsess About The Butter Temperature
The traditional wisdom on pie crusts is that butter needs to be about as cold as possible. Brink says that in her experience butter temperature is not the most crucial factor. She claims, “I don’t think it’s necessary for your butter to be super cold. Typically, we cut the butter into dime-sized chunks and then cut that with the flour. Blend those two together before you add any liquid.”
Add Liquids Slowly
If you are using a food processor to prepare your pie crust, Brink suggests that slowing the speed as you add your liquids helps distribute them more evenly throughout the dough. “Put it on slow and then slowly pour the liquid in,” she advises.
Brink explains, “The less water you add, the more flaky your crust is going to be, but you have to add water to make it pliable. So what we do is use half water and half vodka. It’s great because it’s more pliable and of course the vodka evaporates when you bake it so it’s super flaky.”
Also Use Plastic Wrap
Anyone who has ever made a pie knows that the ideal dough is still crumbly when you remove it from the food processor. Traditionally, you sprinkle flour on your work surface and form the dough into a ball before rolling it out–a process that requires even more flour. Especially for those baking in Colorado, all of that extra flour can really dry out your crust. Brink’s advice? Use plastic wrap, not flour. “We just take plastic wrap and put the dough in between two sheets. Roll out the pie crust in between the plastic. The plastic wrap makes it completely stick together, so you don’t have to use flour and it’s not drying it out.”
Butter or Shortening?
Brink uses both. The butter for flavor and the shortening for a flaky texture. She also uses butter-flavored shortening. It’s a great way to sneak some flavor into an ingredient that really has none on its own.
How To Avoid A Shrinking Crust
If your pie requires pre-baking in the oven, Brink suggests that aluminum foil can help you fight shrinkage. “Press aluminum foil into it. Bake it, and after about 15 minutes take the aluminum foil off so it will brown. That way the sides don’t slip down.” Brink says it is important to press the foil firmly around the sides of the crust so they are completely covered.
Many fruit-filled pies end up with overcooked crusts. Brink says this is all a matter of oven temperature. Start with the particular texture and size of fruit that you want for your pie. So, if you love soft fillings but want big slices of fruit, you will have to lower your oven temp. “You can have your fruit any size you want. You just have to adjust your temperature and baking time accordingly. So if you have big chunks, you’re going to want your temperature lower and to bake it for a really long time. If I have big chunks in my pie, I bake it at an hour and a half to two hours but at about 200 hundred degrees. I don’t like to have a lot of crunch to my fruit. So if you have slivers or sliced fruit, I would say to do it at 300 degrees for about an hour.”
Oven Temperature Is Not Set In Stone
When baking, it’s usually best to follow a recipe to the letter, but this may not be true for oven temperatures. In our previous post with Cake Crumbs Bakery (you can read it here), we learned that perfect cupcakes are all about watching your oven. It turns out that the same thing is true for pies. “We have to assess pies halfway through baking,” Brink explains. If your crust is browning too much, turn down the oven temperature.
The Best Way to Reheat A Pie
Brink suggests warming a pie in the oven for 10 to 15 minutes at 300 degrees. Microwaves can make your crust soggy and lead to uneven heating. A warm oven works best.
Make Breakfast While You Make Your Thanksgiving Dinner
Most pie recipes, like Brink’s Salted Caramel Apple Crumb Pie, only use half of the pie crust dough. She claims this provides an excellent opportunity to prepare an easy breakfast dish. Her advice: “Quiche is so easy. It’s a light breakfast. You can bake your quiche in the oven at the same time your turkey is baking. Just reheat it in the oven.” You can even use some of the savory ingredients from your Thanksgiving meal, like asparagus or potatoes, in your favorite quiche filling.
We continue A Denver Guide to Thanksgiving with pastry favorite, The Humble Pie Store. Proprietor and Pie Slinger Tamara Brink shares one of her favorite holiday pies. It’s hands-down the best apple pie you will ever eat, and it’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser for Thanksgiving. The gooey salted caramel adds a savory touch to tart granny smith apples, creating a toffee-like experience as it hardens on a buttery crust. The result is a marriage of the candy goodness of caramel apples with a complex, grownup flavor profile. It’s heaven. When asked for her favorite pairing for this pie, Brink claims that Colorado-made Sweet Action Vanilla Bean ice cream is the very best. If you don’t have time to make a pie for the holiday or you are not much of a baker, you can order pies from The Humble Pie Store here. The chocolate chess and apple-pear cranberry are also to die for. Check back tomorrow for pie tips from Brink!
Pie Crust Ingredients:
2 and 1/2 cups unbleached AP flour
1 teaspoon table salt
2 tablespoons sugar
12 tablespoons butter, cut into 1/4 inch slices
1/2 cup cold vegetable shortening, cut into 4 pieces (Humble Pie Store uses butter-flavored shortening for more flavor)
1/4 cup cold vodka
1/4 cup cold water
Pie Crust Directions:
Process 1 1/2 cups flour, salt, and sugar in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogeneous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 15 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds and there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.
Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Divide dough into two even balls and flatten each into 4-inch disk.
Today we introduce A Denver Guide to Thanksgiving, featuring recipes and advice from local experts. We start off with a two-part series from Gabe Godell, chef de cuisine of The Kitchen Denver. Check back on Thursday for a delicious seasonal side in Part Two. Chef Godell offers a new take on traditional Thanksgiving turkey. This one-pot dish is a play on coq au vin. Slowly braising the turkey in red wine and stock brings out the flavor of the dark meat. The addition of pearl onions, roasted mushrooms, and bacon creates a savory star for your holiday table. Chef Godell claims the dish is perfect for a Thanksgiving bird: “With turkey, the dark meat is super tasty if it’s braised.”
Braised Turkey Leg
2 turkey thighs
2 turkey drumsticks
1/2 cup AP flour
8 oz slab bacon
8 oz oyster mushrooms
8 oz shiitake mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups red wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 medium yellow onions
2 carrots, cut into large dice
2 celery stalks, cut into large dice
5 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
10 sprigs thyme
2 bay leaves
2 quarts turkey stock
1/4 cup canola oil
Heavily season turkey with black pepper and kosher salt. Coat turkey with flour and set aside. Cut bacon into lardons and brown with butter in a large braising pot or Dutch oven. Once some of the fat has rendered out, add in the mushrooms and pearl onions, season with salt and sauté for 2 minutes. Remove the bacon, onion, and mushroom mixture, and set aside to add to the finished sauce. Add ¼ cup canola oil to pot and start browning the turkey on both sides, working in batches if needed. Once turkey is browned, remove from pot and set aside. In the same pot, brown carrots, onions, and celery for 3 minutes. Add in tomato paste and smashed garlic, continue to sauté for another minute. Deglaze pot with red wine and allow to reduce to almost dry. Add browned turkey back to pot along with the turkey stock. Bring to a simmer, cover, and bake in a 250 degree oven for 1 hour. Check turkey after an hour. It should be coming off the bone. Once turkey is done, allow to cool at room temperature for 20 minutes. Pull turkey out of pot and strain braising liquid into a saucepan. Reduce by 1/3 or to a consistency that you like, keeping in mind that salt will concentrate as sauce reduces. Add turkey back to sauce along with pearl onion, mushroom, and bacon mixture. Bring back up to a simmer to reheat turkey. Serve in a large bowl with sauce.
The Mordecai Children’s Garden at the Denver Botanic Gardens is a 3-acre interactive learning space. It is a place of great natural beauty, with alpine plants, a pond, stream, grasslands,and a view of the Rockies, but it is first and foremost a place of imagination. On a typical day you will find toddlers running down the path in fairy costumes and kids moving small logs to create fortresses. The energy of kids who are actively learning at the garden is palpable. For Denver-area readers, the Botanic Gardens offer regular programming to teach children, including Seedlings Classes, Homeschool Days, and Family Fun Nights, among others. Today, Children’s Program Manager, Claudia Kiesenhofer draws from the many techniques that she uses at the garden to give us some advice on teaching kids through nature.
Bring the Outdoors into Your Routine
We all know that kids these days are glued to TV screens and iPads, so Kiesenhofer’s first bit of wisdom is simple: “The best advice that I can give is to first of all bring them to nature. Get them outside. Ideally, you have a garden; if not, maybe there is a park close by where you can get them out and get them in nature.”
Help Them Connect to Nature
At the Mordecai Children’s Garden, you will find written prompts posted throughout. Plant beds feature small signs asking kids about textures and shapes. These tools help kids learn about the outdoors but they also get them engaged with their environment. Kiesenhofer claims you can use a similar technique at home. “I think kids are not really used to just playing on their own, so they might need a few questions, like What can you find here? or Which shapes and colors do you see? For little kids, ask them to find a leaf that is bigger than their hand for instance. It allows them to be aware of what’s around them. Or if they are older, you can ask them about a specific plant to find, so they connect with it.”
Engage the Senses
Kiesenhofer claims, “Involving your senses is definitely important for smaller kids. For example, in fall use a pumpkin. Ask the kids to touch it, feel it, smell it. Let them manipulate the material in different ways. A pumpkin looks very different on the inside than it does on the outside and it smells very different. Ask them what they can do with a pumpkin. Let them taste something made of it, draw a picture of it. Use all of the different creative ways to express themselves and use all of their senses because then they really experience what they are learning. I think that’s very important.”
Provide Unstructured Playtime
Kids at the Mordecai Children’s Garden often appear to be in their own worlds. There is a stage for impromptu performances, complete with costumes, and numerous other vehicles for learning and imagination. Kiesenhofer says that this free-spirited play is actually essential for learning. “I think one of the wonderful things we offer in our garden is unstructured playtime. And many parents are very good at that. Maybe the kids need a little bit of input in the beginning, like What can you find here? What can you do here? Is there anything you want to build? Is there an interesting animal you want to be? And then give them some time to actually explore. Have them feel and touch plants out of their own interests and motivations. I think it’s very rare in our children’s lives that they actually have the time to figure out what they want to do. Unstructured time is very rare for kids, and it’s important that they have time to really learn through things. A great deal of learning comes through play.”
Use Tasks to Hold Their Attention
Anyone who has ever taken a class of students outside knows that it’s easy for them to get distracted. Kiesenhofer has some advice for keeping kids focused in nature. “I think it’s good to let them fulfill a few tasks. Set some very basic rules. When we have kids here we give them journals and with the journals they can do activities at different stations. It’s a more unguided experience but they know they need to fill their journals out. So it’s learning through doing. That is something that helps them focus and as a leader you can always refer to that to focus them back on the task.”
Provide Prompts for Imagination
Employees at the Mordecai Children’s Garden station logs, stuffed animals, and other toys throughout the environment. This allows children to tap into their imagination and make things as they play. Kiesenhofer explains, “What we offer here is very simple. There are not any explanations on how to use the materials. They are just there. And if children have the chance to be in these situations they become very creative.”
Last week we introduced you to Denon Moore of Cake Crumbs Bakery and the Denver Cupcake Truck. Moore shared her expert advice with us for moist red velvet cupcakes (click here to read that post). Today she offers her perspective on a hot culinary trend: bacon desserts. Moore is the perfect person to explain the tricks of the trade, since Cake Crumbs’ maple bacon cupcakes are a sweet and savory sensation in Denver. If you have tried bacon candy or cookies with less than desirable results or you have flirted with the idea of bringing this trend to your holiday table, read on for some easy and unexpected tips.
Keep It Together
It may be tempting to select the savory and sweet elements for your bacon desserts by simply using your favorite products in each category. But buying your favorite bacon and your best tasting milk chocolate might ruin the outcome of your dessert. Moore explains, “What we get into trouble with is tasting things separately. You really need the salty and the sweet.” When selecting the ingredients for Cake Crumbs’ maple bacon cupcake, Moore and her team paired numerous products until they landed on the perfect combination. A similar process at home might lead you to more satisfying ingredients.
Go Easy On Sugar
Bacon pairs beautifully with maple. It’s true for both breakfast and dessert. But Moore warns that adding maple syrup to a dessert like cupcakes is a sure way to ruin them. “If you add the syrup it gets really sticky. You can overdo it on the sugar, so we add maple extract.” Moore has another useful tip on this front: only use pure, high quality maple extract, instead of artificial, since this enhances the flavor (Cake Crumbs uses Colorado-based Savory Spice Shop extract).
Watch the Fat Content
Bakers know that balancing the sugars and fats in desserts is a fine science and most recipes have careful ratios of these ingredients already in place. So, if you dice up some bacon and toss it into your vanilla cupcakes, it will upset this delicate harmony. “We cook our bacon before we make the cupcakes. We bake it twice and drain it because we don’t want to contribute any extra fat or oil,” Moore claims.
Use Uncured Bacon
Although the magical combo of salty and sweet is the thing that makes bacon desserts special, you can have too much of a good thing. “You have to figure out how to make the saltiness balance. We have had to do research on bacon. We actually use uncured rather than cured bacon because it is less salty.”
Don’t Forget the Frosting
Moore says that the flavor and texture of frosting in bacon desserts can also be undermined by sweet ingredients like maple syrup. She uses maple extract in cream cheese frosting for her bacon cupcakes for the same reasons that she uses extract in the cakes themselves.
Keep It Simple
Part of the beauty of dessert lies in its simplicity. When we opt for unusual flavor profiles like bacon and chocolate or bacon and maple, Moore claims that keeping it simple is a key to good results. “Don’t use anything too strong.” So if you are tempted to add some rosemary to your bacon cupcakes or coffee, caramel, and black pepper to bacon cookies, try scaling it back a little.