Baked Cheese Is the Ultimate Holiday Appetizer—Here's How to Make It
No disrespect to the Instagram-worthy cheeseboard phenomenon, but when the holidays roll around, a baked cheese appetizer is an absolute must. Many of us would agree that melted cheese is simply irresistible and, technically speaking, we are literally hardwired to respond favorably to the delicious smoothness and warmth of hot cheese: Heat breaks down the matrix of milk proteins which yields that soft gooey texture that we find so appealing.
Classic options for baked cheese appetizers include the majestic looking pastry-wrapped Baked Brie, but there are also creamy dips like Hot Crab-and-Oyster Dip (which oozes with Swiss cheese) and the ever-popular Hot Spinach Dip (complete with strings of gooey mozzarella). While those are already fantastic in their own right, what we're most excited about this holiday season is a simpler baked cheese appetizer—no pastry required. The Baked Camembert with Bacon, Rosemary, and Pine Nuts that's pictured above is a fabulous example.
If all that hasn't sealed the deal, know that most baked cheese appetizers can be made ahead of time, so whether you're hosting a party or a dinner, it's one less thing to do as guests are arriving.
What Are the Best Cheeses for Baking?
While French cheeses like brie and Camembert are obvious choices for baking, they aren't the only options. Fresh or brined cheeses including ricotta, goat cheese, feta, and blue also bake up beautifully. Baked cheese can serve as a dip for bread, vegetables, or crackers, but one of the easiest appetizers is made using hard cheeses. Cheese Crisps or Frico are thin light wafers made from cheese such as cheddar, asiago or Parmigiano Reggiano. Frico can be made ahead of time and pair beautifully with all kinds of wine or a cocktail.
How to Bake Cheese
When it comes to baking cheese, some recipes, such as Roasted Tomatoes and Cheese with Thyme, use cast-iron skillets; others use ramekins or small baking dishes, as is the case with our Tomato, Feta, and Red Pepper Cazuela. While these methods are perfectly fine, the easiest way to bake cheese might just be using a cheese baker. Cheese bakers are small, round covered casseroles made of ceramic or stoneware, which means they can be used for baking as well as serving; they're also easy to clean, were specifically designed to bake round cheeses such as brie, and are oven- and microwave-safe. Chef and cookbook author Belinda Smith-Sullivan has created a lot of recipes using cheese and is a fan of the Emile Henry cheese baker ($54.95, amazon.com). She says, "We love Camembert in our house, and I especially like the presentation factor involved with using my baker. It takes something as simple as eating cheese and crackers, and turns it into an occasion!"
When baking a wheel of brie or Camembert, use the same ingredients you would with an unbaked wheel, such as chutney, fruit, nuts, or honey. Simply top the cheese with the ingredients you like and bake in a moderate oven (350 degrees) for about 15 minutes. The advantage of using a cheese baker is that you can use any combination of those ingredients with a wheel of cheese and because the baker has a lid when it bakes, steam will quickly help to melt the cheese and concentrate the flavors of the added ingredients.
How to Serve
Baked cheese dishes can serve as the first course of a holiday meal, as party food, or as part of a buffet. A cheese baker, fondue pot, or hot cast iron skillet will keep hot cheese hot longer. And while a baked cheese dish is a fantastic way to whet your guests' appetites, it can also function as the basis of an impromptu meal. Baked brie combined with a salad or soup or baked mozzarella and marinara tossed with pasta make for easy and comforting sustenance during the hectic holiday season.