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Italian-style cheesecake with fresh berries. (Credit: John Ross)
Italian-style cheesecake with fresh berries. (Credit: John Ross)

Bread, wine and cheese all share a similar heritage and some similar characteristics: All three have been around since before recorded time; all three depend on fermentation or bacterial activity to develop; and all three evolved because they turned a perishable commodity into one that had a long shelf life. 

Cheese has provided life-sustaining nutrients to people around the world for thousands of years. For most of history, cheese was produced by farmers, by hand, in small quantities. Although mass-produced cheese found in the supermarket is not bad, what we now call “artisanal” cheese has unique flavors and textures and, much like wine, is best when made by passionate small producers.

Today we can enjoy an infinite variety of cheeses from around the world (and from our own backyard). Although much of the cheese we consume is eaten as is, cooking with cheese adds a special dimension to many dishes. Here are some simple classic preparations that highlight the special characteristics of cheese. For best results you should use the best-quality cheese available.

Macaroni and Cheese

Begin by purchasing 8 ounces of extra-sharp cheddar cheese. Grate it on the large holes of a box grater and set aside.

Make a béchamel sauce by heating 2 cups milk and 1/2 cup heavy cream. Season it with a bay leaf, a small piece of raw onion, 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon white pepper, 2 teaspoons dry mustard and 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg.

While this is simmering at low heat, melt 3 tablespoons butter in a small pan and stir in 1/4 cup flour to make a roux. Cook this for 3 minutes before whisking it into the milk mixture.

Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil and add 8 ounces of cellentani pasta (or elbow macaroni) and cook al dente. Drain the pasta and add it back to the pot.

Strain the béchamel sauce into the pasta and stir in the grated cheese. Add this mixture to a small casserole and set the oven to 375 degrees.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a sauté pan and add 1 teaspoon minced garlic. Stir in 1 cup panko crumbs, 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon paprika. Cook until crumbs just begin to brown. Spoon this mixture over the casserole and bake for 30 minutes.

Serves 4-6.

Swiss Fondue

Grate 8 ounces of Swiss Gruyère, 8 ounces of Emmantaler and 4 ounces of Appenzeller cheese and combine them with 2 tablespoons flour in a bowl; set aside.

Rub the inside of a heavy two-quart saucepan with a clove of garlic and add 1/2 cup white wine. Bring this to a simmer and season with 1 tablespoon lemon juice and 1 ounce Kirschwasser liqueur. Using a wooden spoon, stir the cheese mixture into the wine in small batches, letting it melt and begin to bubble before adding more. Finish with a few grinds of fresh black pepper and nutmeg.

Serve with cut-up pieces of crusty French bread.

Serves 4-6.

Fettuccine Alfredo

Heat a small saucepan and add 1/2 cup heavy cream and 4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter. Season with 1 teaspoon kosher salt, 1/2 teaspoon ground pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. When the butter melts remove it from the heat and set aside.

Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil in a pasta pot and add 8 ounces of fettuccine. When the pasta is just al dente, drain it and place it back in the pasta pot. Add the butter mixture and place the pot back on low heat, tossing it to combine the sauce and pasta. Stir in 1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and continue to cook and stir for another 3 minutes.

Serves 2-4.

Italian-Style Cheesecake

Add two 8-ounce packages of cream cheese to an electric mixer bowl with a paddle. Add a 16-ounce container of ricotta cheese and mix at low speed.

Melt 4 ounces butter and let cool. Gradually add 4 eggs, 1 1/2 cups sugar, the juice and zest of 1 lemon, 1 teaspoon vanilla, 3 tablespoons flour and 3 tablespoons cornstarch. Add the cooled butter and remove from the mixer. Fold in 2 cups sour cream.

Spray a springform pan with no-stick and add the cheesecake mixture. Place in a 350-degree oven and cook for 1 hour. Shut the oven off and leave the cheesecake in the oven for another hour before cooling.

Refrigerate before serving with fresh raspberries, blackberries and blueberries as garnish.

Serves 8.

John Ross, a chef and author, has been an active part of the North Fork food and wine community for more than 35 years. Email: [email protected]