They're the perfect couple: cheese and herbs, ancient essences of Mediterranean cuisine. Layered with nuts, vegetables, and crusts and molded into delightfully picturesque forms, these elemental ingredients form rich, tangy appetizers known as tortas, from an Italian word meaning “tart”, “pie”, or “cake”. Cheese tortas are stunning as a centerpiece on an appetizer table or served alone as the featured hors d’oeuvre with a glass of good white wine.
The French, with their inventive appetite for capturing food in shimmering mounds of gelatinous purees and pâtés, may have originated the appetizers in the shapes we now know them, but the Italians added lusty, pesto-rich layerings along with toasted pine nuts for a satisfying crunch. Almost any combination of soft cheeses and herbs can be used, so let your imagination and intuition be your guide.
Constructing a cheese torta is simpler than the finished product would suggest; all you need is some cheesecloth (the porous cloth originally intended for draining the moisture from soft fresh cheeses), a mold, a lively combination of cheeses, herbs, and complementary ingredients, and a few hours for the mixture to firm up.
Soft fresh cheese has the pliability necessary for thorough mixing as well as molding. Most often, ricotta, cream, mascarpone, feta, goat, and cottage cheeses are used for the base of the torta. Harder, stronger-flavored cheeses can be added to the soft mixture or layered for flavor.
Cheese has been called “milk’s leap toward immortality”. Indeed, cheese reflects far more of a region’s culture and satisfies the palate more richly than milk ever could. All cheeses start as coagulated milk, which is then separated into solid curds and liquid whey. Most cheeses are made from cow’s, goat’s, or sheep’s milk. Buffalo-milk mozzarella is an exception, but although extremely desirable in Italian cooking, it is not readily available in the United States. The flavor of the cheese is influenced by its animal source, its region of origin, and the season. Summer pasturing yields a different-tasting milk from grain feeding through the winter. Even regional differences in microorganisms can make cheeses made from the same type of milk source in the same season taste different.
Cheeses may be made from whole, skim, or extra-fat milk (as in the French double and triple cream cheeses). The more cream in the milk mixture, the creamier and smoother the cheese.
Soft fresh cheeses have not been aged. Creamy and white, they have a simple flavor. Fresh cheeses are highly perishable because of their high moisture content; they should be kept covered and refrigerated and eaten within one week of purchase. The following fresh cheeses are especially suitable for tortas.
Cream cheese. Uncooked and unripened, cream cheese contains at least 33 per cent butterfat and is smooth and buttery to the taste. Triple cream cheeses are luscious and incredibly rich (75 per cent butterfat) and are often served as part of a dessert course.
Mascarpone. A whipped, sweetened Italian cream cheese, bland but delicious mascarpone is often paired with fruit and nuts. In a commercially made basil torta imported from Italy, mascarpone is layered with gorgonzola dolce (a younger, fresher version of blue-veined gorgonzola) and fresh basil.
Cottage. Made from whole, part-skim, or skim pasteurized cow’s milk, cottage cheese has a large curd and is very moist and mild. The curds are washed and drained briefly to remove the cheese’s natural acidity; if allowed to drain longer, they form pot cheese. Farmer’s cheese, a firmer, smoother fresh cheese, results if the curds are drained even longer. When using it in tortas, briefly process cottage cheese in a food processor or press it through a sieve to break down the curd.
Ricotta. This rich fresh cheese is made mostly from the whey drained off while making cheeses such as mozzarella and provolone. The word “ricotta” means “recooked”, alluding to the process of heating the whey from another cooked cheese. Ricotta is moist, slightly sweet, and has a grainy texture but is smoother than cottage cheese.
Goat cheeses (chèvres). Chèvre is the French word for “goat”, and fresh goat’s-milk cheeses have a distinctive tart, tangy flavor and a pure white color. Young goat cheeses have a mildly sour taste with a peppery sting, while aged goat cheese is more powerful in flavor and drier in texture. Only the most devoted connoisseurs seem to appreciate the aged varieties, although the younger, milder versions are now in vogue in the United States. They come in a variety of shapes including cylinders, discs, cones, and pyramids and are sometimes wrapped in leaves or coated with ash or dried herbs. Chèvres keep for one to two weeks if you wrap them in plastic and change the wrap frequently. The most common varieties are the mild, moist montrachet (produced in the white Burgundy region of France); banon (made from both goat’s and sheep’s or cow’s milk), which is dipped in brandy and wrapped in chestnut leaves for flavor; and chalk white, usually log-shaped boucheron, a good chèvre for beginners.
Fresh mozzarella. Mozzarella is an Italian “pasta filata” (spun-paste) cheese, originally made from water buffalo’s milk but now produced mainly from cow’s milk. The curd is washed in hot water, kneaded and stretched until pliable, then shaped into forms by hand. Mozzarella should be smooth and elastic but not rubbery. Fresh mozzarella is often served as a first course in Italy drizzled with olive oil, sometimes with sliced tomatoes and fresh basil. It has a mild, delicate flavor and should be used within a few days of its purchase. American factory-made mozzarella is drier, stringier, and is most often used for pizza and lasagne dishes.
Feta. Although some feta is produced from goat’s milk, most is made from sheep’s or cow’s milk. It has a sharp, tangy taste and a crumbly but moist texture, and usually comes packed in its own brine. Sheep’s-milk cheeses such as feta come from regions such as Greece, Spain, and the Middle East that have too little pastureland to support cattle. Feta is usually pressed into square cakes and contains 45 to 60 percent butterfat.
Construct tortas the day before serving to allow the softened, whipped cheeses to become firm. Herbs that complement or contrast with cheeses may be added directly to the blended cheese or sprinkled on top or between the layers. Fine-weave cheesecloth is used to line the mold so that the torta may be flipped out onto a serving dish at serving time. The cheesecloth gives the torta a velvety, earthy-flat texture that contrasts beautifully with the sheen of the pressed herbs. Molds for tortas can be anything from a loaf pan to a ceramic bowl. The mold should be deep enough to hold all of the layers of the torta.
Serve cheese tortas accompanied by a basket heaped with lightly toasted thin slices of French bread, light crackers, or wafer crisps. The Italian Pesto Cheese Torta (below) could be served with fettunta—Italian bread slices toasted, rubbed with fresh garlic cloves, and drizzled with olive oil. Tortas are rich and satisfying appetizers; even a small one will serve 10 to 15 guests.
Mary Herrick is The Jazz Cook of Fort Collins, Colorado, a food writer, and the owner of an event planning and catering business.