We’re heading into the Bring It season, the days and weeks and weekends of celebrations between now and next year. Whether we gather with fellow fans to watch the Redskins, visit around fire pits with out-of-towners or invite the new neighbors to share a pot of chili, a sure-to-please contribution for any get-together is cheese and crackers.
Not just any crackers. When they’re homemade, you can customize their flavors, toppings and glazes. And if your cupboard happens to be a repository for assorted bags of interesting flours, such as oat and rye, your cracker game will be strong.
A simple dough — a flexible ratio of flour, fat and liquid with numerous flavorful possibilities — and an equally direct process — just roll, cut and bake — make the accompanying recipes a breeze. Keep the dough in the refrigerator for up to three days, or, for a long-range plan, stash a dozen dough combinations in the freezer for the weeks ahead.
Homemade crackers deserve a superb cheese. Just about all the advice about composing cheese platters suggests varying the selection to include cow’s-, sheep’s- and goat’s-milk cheeses, and soft, ripened, sharp, sliceable, crumbly and tangy options. If that seems like altogether too many choices, focus instead on one really spectacular offering.
At Via Umbria in Georgetown, cheesemonger Alice Bergen Phillips says complex cheese platters work for large gatherings. But for a small group, a single cheese — with your snazzy crackers — just makes sense.
“Easiest appetizer in the world. You just have to unwrap it,” she says.
When you’re looking for that one conversation-starting cheese, she points to Jasper Hill Farm’s Harbison, “a bark-wrapped, soft-ripened, cow’s-milk cheese modeled after Vacherin Mont d’Or,” a classic French fromage. Made in Vermont, it is wrapped in spruce bark and served by plunging a small serving spoon into its gooey center. It makes for a terrific moment. Try Onion Rye Crackers with Harbison’s “meaty, mustardy” flavors, says Bergen Phillips.
Other bark-wrapped, super-soft cheeses she recommends include Rush Creek Reserve, from Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin, and Italy’s Domitilla, an organic goat’s-milk, washed-rind variety “for people who don’t think they like goat cheese.” The latter pairs especially well with my Togarashi Wheat Crackers.
Sometimes Bergen Phillips suggests a creamy blue, such as local cheesemaker FireFly Farms’ MountainTop Bleu. It has a stunning pyramid shape and a flavor that is not too intense, its earthy mushroom qualities complemented by my Sesame Oat Crackers. “It’s good for a party if you don’t know the people well. You don’t want to go too intensely funky with strangers,” she says. For groups of 15 to 20, she advances this idea, admittedly soigné: an entire Brillat Savarin (over a pound), named for the great gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. “It’s like eating the most decadent butter,” she says.
Of course, there are treasures to be found in the grocery store cheese department, too. And, frankly, that’s when those homemade crackers come in handiest. Think pimento cheese. Goat cheese. A wedge of blue.
With a basket of your crackers in hand, you need only follow these cheese rules:
● Shop for the cheese a day before, or as early as possible the day of, the party.
● Leave the cheese unwrapped on the platter to come to room temperature.
● Round out the platter with olives, nuts, dried fruit, savory jam, membrillo (quince paste).
● Borrow a page from food stylists, and decorate the platter with herbs, leaves or flowers.
Barrow is a Washington area cookbook author. She’ll join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.