Many things benefit from a prelude -- an orchestral overture introducing tunes to come, an opening monologue to loosen up the crowd, a preface to set the backdrop for a book. That's what a good hors d'oeuvre can do, priming the palate for the meal ahead.
Cheese always pleases, and even more when it appears in bites that are a little unexpected: a crunchy biscotti rich with Parmesan and almonds, a classic cheese straw of cheddar with a kick of cayenne, or a rosemary-laced shortbread of goat cheese and the surprise of tart-sweet dried cranberries.
Serve one with wine, beer or the spritzer of the moment, and you establish a spirit of anticipation for the meal you've prepared. Bonus: Serving an hors d'oeuvre fills the time between when guests arrive and when the last-minute touches on the main dish are complete, without anyone feeling neglected.
Serve all three during a holiday open house, or simply a Friday night "stop by after work and we'll nosh, maybe order a pizza," and you've established yourself as someone who's always prepared for a get-together.
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And you can be, because these are make-ahead bites. The cheese straws, in fact, are even better the second day. The biscotti keep for a couple of weeks as is, but you can refresh them in a low oven for 5 minutes if you want to fuss. They take well to a schmear of your favorite cheese spread.
The goat cheese and cranberry shortbread is a revelation -- which may surprise some diners. They actually were among the runners-up of 2013's Taste holiday cookie contest, festive with dried cranberries and with a subtle sweetness from powdered sugar. But the no-kidding dose of chopped rosemary takes the shortbread far enough into savory territory that contest judges mused about how it might fare as one component of a cheese plate.
Short answer: fabulously.
Besides, there's something so thoughtful about serving something homemade. The boxed crackers and purchased cheeses come in handy, no question. But in less than an hour, you can make and bake a small bite. The holiday season is in the wings. Curtains up!
Makes about 3 dozen.
Note: These are especially nice served with a soft goat cheese. Herbes de Provence is a blend of several herbs. Adapted slightly from "Cheese Hors d'Oeuvres" by Hallie Harron.
2 1/2 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, firmly packed
1 tablespoon herbes de Provence (see Note)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup slivered almonds
1/2 cup cold water
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, mix together the flour, salt, baking powder, Parmesan, herbes de Provence and softened butter with a wooden spoon. Mix in the slivered almonds.
In a separate bowl, beat eggs. Set aside 2 tablespoons of beaten egg. Mix 1/2 cup water with remaining beaten eggs and gradually beat into the flour mixture. Turn the moist dough out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth, about 2 minutes. Divide in half and form 2 logs about 10 inches long. Place on the baking sheet and press down to flatten slightly. Brush logs with reserved beaten egg.
Bake for 25 minutes or until lightly golden. Remove from oven to cool slightly, about 5 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Using a serrated knife, carefully cut the logs into 1/4-inch thick slices and return slices to the baking sheet. (You may need to do this in 2 batches). Bake for 10 minutes, then turn over and bake for another 10 minutes. Store, tightly covered, for up to 3 weeks.
Makes about 4 dozen.
Note: This classic hors d'oeuvre is from the legendary Southern cook Edna Lewis, and her protege, Scott Peacock, in "The Gift of Southern Cooking: Recipes and Revelations From Two Great American Cooks." These actually improve in flavor if made a day ahead.
1-2/3 cups flour
1-1/4 teaspoons dry mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 pound extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated (2- 1/2 cups)
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tablespoons water
Sift the flour, mustard, salt and cayenne into a medium bowl; set aside.
Using an electric mixer, beat the cheese and butter on low speed until well blended. Gradually beat in the flour until completely incorporated. Add the 2 tablespoons water and beat for 1 minute until the dough comes together.
Gather dough into a ball in the bowl, then place on a lightly floured surface and knead 5 times. On a large sheet of wax paper, roll the dough into a 9-by-12-inch rectangle, keeping the edges as straight as possible. Slide the dough onto a baking sheet and refrigerate until chilled, about 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut the dough in half crosswise, then cut it into 1/4 inch-by-6-inch strips. Transfer the strips to 2 baking sheets, about 1/2-inch apart. Bake 1 sheet at a time for about 10 minutes, or until the cheese straws are golden and just firm. Do not overbake. Let cool slightly, then carefully transfer to a rack to cool completely.
GOAT CHEESE AND CRANBERRY SHORTBREAD
Makes about 3 dozen.
Note: This recipe was among the finalists of last year's holiday cookie contest in Taste. Judges considered it a bit too savory to be a cookie, but it was so delicious, we've brought it back as an hors d'oeuvre. From Jennifer Pettit of Coon Rapids, Minn.
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons freshly chopped rosemary leaves
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus 1/2 tablespoon for pan
11-ounce log of goat cheese, at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1/2 cup dried cranberries, finely chopped
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter bottom and sides of a 9-by-9-inch baking pan.
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder and rosemary, and set aside.
In a large bowl, combine butter, goat cheese and vanilla extract, and mix until creamy. Add powdered sugar, flour mixture and cranberries and, using your hands, knead until thoroughly combined.
Pat dough evenly into prepared pan and bake for 20 to 22 minutes; do not overbake. Remove pan from oven and transfer pan to a wire rack to cool completely.
Cut shortbread into small triangles or squares and serve.