Herb Tortas

Cheese and herbs are a classic and delectable combination

| June/July 1993

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.

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