Food & Drink

When you're in France, say cheese

Since returning from France, I find myself pondering many things I learned during my recent visit. I've learned that the beautiful, miniature pastries pack a big flavor and I must make them! I've learned that the three huge, ethereal, puffy pastel meringues in the patisserie window are neither worth the twelve Euros nor the five miles my friends and I trudged to purchase them.

I've learned apple cider in France means fermented cider and is customarily served with crepes in Brittany.

Finally, I learned France produces some of the most noteworthy cheeses in the world, and I joyfully sampled many of them.

France produces more than 400 different kinds of cheese, and one market showcased 29 different varieties of goat cheese alone. Cheeses vary significantly — some are moist while others are very dry; some are mild while others are strongly flavored; some are white and creamy while others are crusted with ash.

While I was totally intrigued with all these fabulous cheeses, I was a bit surprised when my host lamented that she was unable to make a decent cheesecake like we have in America. I asked why. She responded that cream cheese (the basic ingredient in cheesecake) is unavailable in France. At that moment I realized we all have ingredients that are indigent to our areas, and those differences are what make regional and international cuisine so interesting.

Perhaps you have had the same issue as one reader had with cheese that stays in the refrigerator too long.

Sometimes I purchase cheese but don't use it right away and it develops mold around the edges. I've heard mold is part of what imparts flavor to cheese. Is it harmful or is it safe to eat?

It depends upon the kind of cheese. Mold is a natural part of blue-veined cheeses, such s Roquefort, Gorgonzola or various blue cheeses and it is, of course, safe to consume. If mold appears on a hard cheese such as cheddar or Parmesan, you may safely peel it away, discard the molded part, and consume the cheese without any harmful effects. However, if the mold is on a soft or fresh cheese, such as cream cheese, ricotta, fresh mozzarella, etc., it is not safe to eat. Discard it; it is far better to be safe than sorry.

Q: I have a recipe that calls for 1/4 teaspoon of cream of tartar. What is it and what is its purpose in a recipe? Does it matter if I leave it out?

A: Cream of tartar is a byproduct of wine-making. During fermentation, tartaric acid crystallizes in wine casts, is collected, processed and sold as cream of tartar. It is used primarily for stabilizing egg whites, increasing their volume and stability, as well as a leavening ingredient used in baking powder. Technically, you could omit the cream of tartar in beating egg whites and probably would have good results if you moved quickly before the beaten egg whites had time to collapse.