Let’s bake brie!

October 14, 2013

Last weekend, we were wandering through a craft show and noticed several pottery vendors selling Brie bakers. If you’ve never seen them, they’re round, about six inches in diameter with straight sides not quite two inches tall. The way to use one is quite simple: unwrap a round of cheese and place it in the pan, bake until the cheese is warm and soft, then serve with fruit slices or crackers.

I was tempted to buy one, but remembered that space is at a premium in my kitchen cabinets and resisted the urge. Like every food-related topic, this launched me on a quest to understand why this one-purpose pan was created. My first surprise was to learn that true Brie cheese is largely unavailable in this country.

Named after the region of France where it has been produced for centuries, Brie is a straw-colored, soft cheese covered by an edible rind of white mold. It begins as raw cow’s milk that is mixed with rennet to create curds. These are ladled into a form with a pelle à brie or brie shovel and drained. After an inoculation of cheese mold, it ages four to five weeks, during which time the soft white bloom appears.

Although you can find any number of cheeses carrying the name Brie, there are only two considered by the French government to be authentic: Brie de Meaux and Brie de Melun. These have earned the designation AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) which translates to controlled designation of origin. Not only does this dictate that the cheeses must meet rigid requirements for production, but also ensures that the raw milk used to make the cheese comes only from cows born and raised in the region.

This latter requirement is to protect a quality known as terroir, a concept familiar to oenophiles. Just as in vineyards, there are unique agricultural characteristics in the Brie region and the microclimate of the specific location will imbue the cheese with a flavor profile impossible to produce anywhere else.

That doesn’t mean you can’t find Brie that is rich and creamy with a subtle tang, it’s just not likely to carry the AOC label. All of the Brie manufactured in this country will be made with pasteurized milk and very little of it is made by hand, let alone with a brie shovel. The traditional size of a round of Brie is almost 14 inches in diameter, a size too large for the average household to consume before it spoils.

Which explains what you’ll find at the cheese counter. Instead of selling the whole cheese, it’s cut into wedges and sealed in plastic wrap. Once the wheel has been cut open, the aging process stops, which can be ideal if the cheese has reached its optimum degree of ripening. It can also be unfortunate if the cheese has not yet fully aged or if the seal is not airtight.

When selecting a wedge of Brie, make sure there are no pieces of flaking rind, discolored splotches or dried out edges on the cheese. Smell the package to see if there’s any hint of ammonia, a sure sign the cheese is past its prime. Check the sell-by date and choose the furthest from the current date, since the cheese should have been sent to market at its peak.

The other discovery you’ll make is that Brie is also sold in smaller rounds, just about the identical size as the empty space in a Brie baker. This had me wondering which happened first – the reduced size of the cheese rounds or the one-purpose pan designed for baking it.

No matter the answer, a round of baked Brie is a delicious treat, whether drizzled with honey or piled with caramelized onions. And, you don’t need a special pan – it cooks just as well on an ovenproof plate. However, as you can see from the photo, a plate might not contain the melted mess quite as well.

Baked Brie with Onions

2 T butter
3 large onions, thinly sliced
1 T minced thyme
1/3 C dry white wine
salt & pepper, to taste
8-oz Brie round
sliced baguette

Preheat oven to 350°F. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high. Add onions and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add minced thyme, reduce heat to medium low and cook until onions are golden, stirring often, about 20 minutes. Add wine and cook until liquid evaporates, stirring often. Season to taste with salt and pepper; cover and set aside. Meanwhile, unwrap cheese and place on an ovenproof plate, in a glass pie pan or in a Brie baker. Bake until rind is puffy and cheese is melted, about 20 minutes. To serve, spoon caramelized onions over the cheese and scoop out melted cheese with baguette slices.

Baked Brie with Apples

1 T butter
1 apple
1/4 t cinnamon
2 T honey
1/4 C sliced almonds
2 T pomegranate pips
8-oz Brie round
sliced baguette

Preheat oven to 350°F. Cut the apple into quarters, remove core and thinly slice. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium-high. Add apple and sauté until glistening, about 5 minutes. Sprinkle with cinnamon, reduce heat to low and cook until golden, stirring often. Meanwhile, unwrap cheese and place on an ovenproof plate, in a glass pie pan or in a Brie baker. Score the top of the rind with a sharp knife to create a grid of squares. Bake until rind is puffy and cheese is melted, about 20 minutes. To serve, drizzle honey over top of cheese, cover with apple slices, sprinkle with almonds and pomegranate pips. Scoop out cheese with baguette slices.

Baked Brie en Croute

1 puff pastry sheet, defrosted
8-oz Brie round
3 T raspberry jam (optional)
1 egg
1 T water

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Unfold the pastry sheet on prepared baking sheet. Unwrap the cheese and place it in the center of the pastry. If desired, spread cheese with jam. Fold the pastry up over the cheese, pleating it together to seal. Whisk together egg and water; brush the mixture over the pastry. Bake until golden, about 25 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

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