Cheese Ball Pops!

There are recipes that get passed down from generation to generation and others that get passed around from friend to friend. The latter was the case with this cheese ball recipe. My friend Rosie brought a delicious blue cheese ball encrusted in toasted pecans to a dinner party. I loved it and called her the next day for the recipe. She promptly emailed a recipe that had been forwarded to her by her friend Trudy, whose friend Paula had forwarded it to her. Trudy’s request to Paula went like this, “My husband cannot stop talking about your cheese ball…” It was that good.

At the dinner party, Rosie shared with us a story about how a cheesemonger at the grocery store scoffed at her when she mentioned she was looking for blue cheese to make a cheese ball. A cheese ball? Without her even asking for his permission or advice, he went on to recommend other, more high brow cheeses. He cheese-shamed her!

Perhaps you have your doubts, too?

The Original Recipe

Paula’s recipe was perfect and easy: “Combine eight ounces each of blue cheese, mozzarella, and cream cheese. Add a tablespoon of flavorful port or sherry. Shape into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, chill until firm. Toast and chop about ¾ cup of pecans and roll the cheese in the nuts to cover.”

Playing with Add-Ins

Ever since I wrote last week’s post, A Cake for All Seasons, I’ve been thinking about ways to use flavor-building add-ins like herbs, spices, and fruits to see how they would change the way foods taste. It’s a personal journey. Last year’s journey was about self-actualization. This year, it is about pushing my limits creatively.

With that in mind, I considered what fruits and herbs I could add to an already delicious cheese ball to change it up. I love dates stuffed with blue cheese and nuts, so I started there. I tried various nuts and herbs in the empty cavity of the dates, thinking one would be especially good. They were all good! For this recipe, I stuck with the pecans and added dill.

About dates, the food, that is.

Cooks often use dates as a natural way to sweeten foods, especially desserts. Many recipes tend to call for Medjool or Deglet Noor dates. Medjools are sold fresh and can be found in the produce section, while Deglets can be found in the aisle with dried fruits. Both varieties are very sweet, low in fat, and high in potassium, iron, and fiber. Medjools are larger, softer, and moister than dried dates. Deglets have a more delicate flavor, are firmer, and are a little less sweet.

Dates grow on date palm trees in warm climates. They are labor-intensive to grow, and their priciness reflects that.

Reasons to Make a Cheese Ball at Your Next Party:
-The cheeses can be blended 2-3 days ahead if needed. The flavor improves overnight. However, don’t add the toasted nuts and herbs until ready to serve. We want the nuts to remain crunchy and for the herbs to stay bright green.
-The recipe can be cut in half. Or, you could make two small cheese balls and freeze one (but don’t add nuts until ready to serve).
-It can be shaped into a ball, a log, or single-serving cheese pops.
-It may be a good way to use up stray cheeses in the refrigerator. I would make a small bite-sized sample of whatever cheeses you plan to put together to make sure their flavor profile works.

Ingredients:

1 cup pecans, chop and then toast
10 pitted dates, chopped (only 7 if using the large, unpitted Medjools)
2 heaping tablespoons, minced dill leaves, from 8 sprigs or 1 package
8 ounces blue cheese (I tried Gorgonzola and would not recommend it)
8 ounces mozzarella
8 ounces cream cheese, cut into 1-inch chunks for easier mixing
1 tablespoon port or flavorful sherry. I used a tawny port
Serve over crackers, pretzel sticks, or ginger snaps (sweet, but delish!)

Mise en Place:

Instructions:

Chop pecans into small crumbles and toast in a 300º oven for about ten minutes. Watch closely, so they don’t burn. Set pan of toasted nuts aside.

Chop dates into small pieces. Set aside.

Mince dill leaves. Set aside.

Place cheeses and port in the bowl of a food processor and pulse until well mixed. Add the chopped dates and pulse 2 or 3 times more until cheese, port, and dates are just combined. Do not purée!

Use a spatula to scrape the cheese mixture onto a sheet of parchment paper. Wrap the paper around the clump of cheese and shape it into a ball. Refrigerate for an hour.

Remove cheese from the fridge and decide how you want to serve it: one ball, two balls, a log, or as cheese pops. I made about a dozen cheese pops and a traditional cheese ball.

I used a small cookie scoop to shape the balls and then rolled them in the pecan and dill mixture. I used thin pretzels for the sticks.

I formed the remaining cheese into a  ball and rolled it in the nuts and dill. I love the colors and texture!

You haven’t lived until you have spread this cheese on a ginger snap. Oh, my goodness! It could be a dessert.

The pops would be a great appetizer to pass around at a party on a tray, while the large cheese ball would be perfect set out on a table for a Super Bowl Party. Check out other party snacks here.

Thank you, Rosie, Trudy, and Paula for sharing the original recipe! xo

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© 2014-2020 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Roasted Fig Preserves with Lemon and Thyme

This is what a lush, ripe Brown Turkey fig looks like. Notice the stretch marks. That means it is bursting with flavor.

During fig season, I can see these dark, plump jewels sunning themselves on the tree from every vantage point in my backyard. First, they tempt and then they taunt me until I finally find myself risking life and limb to get to them. Often, I  have to climb a ladder and use a long garden tool like a bow rake to grab and pull down a limb, and then reach even further to pluck one from a branch. This all happens first thing in the morning while the outside temperatures are still tolerable. My friend Linda calls it #pajamagardening.

There are others who desire the same figs. I am in constant competition with small birds, the squirrels in the neighborhood, and my chickens. They know they can eat figs to their heart’s content without fear of being seen by predatory hawks when under the canopy of the broad, palmate-shaped fig leaves.

Here’s a video of one of my chickens reaching for a fig. It is best watched in full screen mode. My friend Carrington calls it #rubberchicken.

 

Ina would use the big leaves to line a cheese platter. Just sayin’.

Growing Figs

Fig trees are native to tropical climates, but a few varieties, such as Brown Turkey and Chicago Hardy, have been cultivated to grow in cooler climes (zones 6-11). We planted our tree in front of a southern-facing brick wall so the heat stored in the bricks could warm the tree during winter. Additionally, and this was purely happenstance, our air-conditioner’s condensate pipe drips over the roots all summer long keeping the tree well-hydrated.

Our fig production and access capabilities quadrupled after I pruned the tallest limbs by almost half last March. Later, in April, my husband fertilized the roots with chicken manure. Now the tree is shaped like a sprawling ball and is loaded with figs.

Everything you wanted to know about fig reproduction, but were afraid to ask.

One of my hobbies is studying plant reproduction. All fruits and vegetables start with a flower that once pollinated starts to grow a pod with either one seed in it, like a peach, or many seeds, such as apples and tomatoes. Botanically, the seed pod is known as an ovary. Aggravating as it may feel when a squirrel or chipmunk runs off with a peach or a tomato you have patiently watched ripen, they are doing what nature intended — they are dispersing seeds. Mother Nature doesn’t care if we like our fruits and vegetables. She cares about plant reproduction and species survival.

With that in mind, the first thing I noticed when my tree started producing fruit was the absence of flowers. This photo was taken on April 7th as fig pods and leaves appeared. The pods emerged from the branches but were never preceded by a flower.

This begged the question, How does the fig reproduce without flowers? It turns out the flowers are inside the fig. Hundreds of them! The color inside a fig comes from its flowers.

Last summer, the producer and host of Nashville Public Television’s The Volunteer Gardener came to my garden to film a segment featuring Jeremy Lekich, an expert on edible landscapes and owner of Nashville Foodscapes.   In the show, Jeremy takes viewers around my yard and introduces them to many unusual edibles and explains fig pollination. You can watch the segment here.

By virtue of where the flowers are located, pollination needs to take place inside the fig. To move pollen from a male fig to a female requires the presence of specialized fig wasps who enjoy a symbiotic relationship with figs. The wasps get a place to reproduce and the figs get access to highly specific pollinators. I found this awesome video that shows how microscopic wasps crawl into figs. This other video from PBS’s Gross Science takes it from there describing what happens next in reproduction.

New varieties of common figs, like my Brown Turkey, have been cultivated to not need a wasp for pollination. The female trees are asexual, and the seeds produced are not viable — they are empty seeds. You will see lots of them when we finally get around to cooking the figs!

Every Christmas I make my grandmother’s Sicilian fig cookies. The recipe calls for dried Calimyrna figs. Calimyrnas are a Californian cultivar of the Turkish Smyrna fig (Calimyrna = California + Smyrna) that does require a wasp for pollination. They produce “true seeds” — seeds that are viable for reproduction. Fertile seeds are thick and crunchy, and have a nutty flavor preferred by bakers. They are the figs used to make Fig Newtons.

How to Make Fig Preserves

I cooked many not-so-delicious batches of fig preserves  on the stove before it occurred to me to try roasting them with herbs as I do my strawberry jam. The results were amazing. Roasting intensified the depth of flavor exponentially. They were so good, I took all my reject batches, mixed them together, and roasted two trays for about an hour. Suddenly, they were all tastier, too.

Ingredients:

4-5 pounds fresh figs (12 cups, once stemmed and quartered)*
5 cups granulated sugar
⅓ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
one bunch of thyme sprigs (⅓ ounce) or 3-4 long stems of fresh rosemary

*Today, I saw four varieties of figs for sale at Trader Joe’s!

Instructions:

Remove stems and quarter figs.

Place in a lightly-greased heavy-bottomed pot.

Add sugar and acids and stir. The amount of sugar sounds like a lot, but you need sugar to preserve fruit. Acids help fruit release its naturally occurring pectin. Once mixed, place in refrigerator and allow to macerate for a minimum of two hours or overnight.

When ready to cook, preheat oven to 175º. Add thyme or rosemary and simmer on low heat for about twenty minutes. If using thyme, strip leaves before stirring in. If using rosemary, do not strip leaves; leave stems intact and remove before bottling.

Pour hot figs into two rimmed sheet pans and roast for about 4-5 hours.

One way to tell if they have cooked long enough to gel once cooled is to draw a path through the figs and see if the two sides stay separated. If they do, they are ready. You should be able to smell them if they are sufficiently roasted. If you overcook them, they will become thick and gummy when cool. Better to undercook than to overcook.

Pour hot preserves into clean jars, wipe the rims, cover with screw top lids, and turn upside down while they cool. I store them in the fridge, where they should be good for two months.,

I’ll end this story with one last video of my chickens eating figs in the early morning hours.

 

What are my favorite ways to enjoy fig preserves?

By the spoonful — just out of the oven.

My cousin, Marion, served the fig preserves over a delicious blend of cow, sheep, and goat milk cheeses called Rochetta. It was delish. As soon as I got home, I bought a similar cheese called La Tur at Whole Foods.

I often have fig preserves spread over Homemade Ricotta on toast for breakfast, or I’ll make an almond butter and fig sandwich for lunch.

I love brie and fig paninis. Hard to get a photo of the finished product with these crazy-good sandwiches, though.

Please let me know if you make the preserves!

Related Posts:
How to Make Homemade Whole Milk Ricotta
Oven-Roasted Strawberry and Rosemary Jam
Homemade Grape Jelly
Crab Apple Jelly

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© 2014-2019 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

Crostini with Slow-Roasted Tomatoes, Burrata, and Basil

Although my tomato garden started out pretty, it did not produce all summer. I heard similar comments from many of my backyard gardening friends. About two weeks ago, I cleaned up my 26 tomato plants and gave them one last chance to make fruit before pulling them. I picked every tomato in sight in various stages of ripeness.

At our next monthly Master Gardeners of Davidson County meeting, I asked our UT Extension Agent, David Cook, if he had an explanation. He said in long periods of heat and drought, tomatoes take longer to ripen. Additionally, he said the plants do not set new fruit because the heat coupled with high humidity cause the flowers to shrivel up and drop. He said he’s been wondering if it is time to rethink when we plant tomatoes locally.  Perhaps later in June would work better since we have a long growing season. Coincidently, I learned my father-in-law planted his tomato beds on July 1st, and they were lush and producing when I saw them last week.

The first thing I did with the ripe portion of tomatoes I harvested was to make and freeze a few batches of @JudysChickens Marinara Sauce. Soon after, I had the pleasure of tasting Robin Verson’s slow-roasted tomatoes while attending an indigo dyeing workshop at Hill and Hollow Farm, in Kentucky. I’ve made oven-roasted tomatoes before, but their flavor wasn’t nearly as intense as these. These were like little flavor bombs.

I asked her how she prepared them. She wrote, “Cut off the tips of Roma tomatoes, then cut them in half. Place in baking pan and sprinkle olive oil, salt, and pepper. Put a nice
amount of freshly pressed garlic on top of each half. Bake at 225 for many hours, usually half a day.” Thus began my days of slow-roasting tomatoes.

Slow Roasted Tomato Ingredients

4 pounds small tomatoes (I used 3# Roma and 1# cherry)
5 -6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic pepper (used only for cherry tomatoes)

I divided the tomatoes into cherry (Juliettes and Sungolds) and the larger tomatoes (Romas and Lemon Boys). I found that garlic doesn’t stick well to whole cherry tomatoes, so I used garlic pepper for them.

Instructions
Preheat oven to 225º
Line two 13″ x 18″ rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper.

For the pound of cherry tomatoes: mix tomatoes with 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 teaspoon of garlic pepper. Spread them on a baking sheet. Set aside.

For the three pounds of Romas and Lemon Boys: cut the tomatoes in half, lengthwise, and scoop out the seeds with your index finger. Mix olive oil and minced garlic in a small bowl to moisten the garlic. Place tomatoes on a baking sheet in a single layer. Use a teaspoon to drizzle the olive oil and garlic over the tomato halves.

Slow cook tomatoes for 4-5 hours. The cherry tomatoes were ready about 30″ before the Romas.

We call the cherry tomatoes “poppers.” They are fun to eat individually or to throw in sauces, salads, and vegetable dishes for a burst of flavor.

The roasted Romas are good to eat as an appetizer, a side dish, or as a mix-in for foods like hamburgers, vegetable dishes, and even over pasta. They are especially good smushed on bruschetta, or on crostinis, as we shall see. They will last in a covered dish for about a week in the refrigerator, or they can be frozen.

Crostini Ingredients
Yield: 18 Crostini

1 baguette
½ recipe of slow roasted tomatoes (see above)
4  2-ounce balls of burrata cheese
a few leaves of basil, minced
balsamic vinegar
Cracked sea salt and pepper

Instructions
Preheat oven to 400º

Slice a baguette into ½-inch slices. Lightly brush each with olive oil. Place slices on a sheet pan and toast for about 7-8 minutes.

Slice the burrata and place some on each slice of bread.

Top with one roasted tomato half.

Grind a little sea salt and pepper over each crostini. Sprinkle with chopped basil. Drizzle each with a few drops of balsamic vinegar. Arrange crostini on a serving platter.

If you are looking for other ways to cook tomatoes check out Tomatoes! on the MENU page.

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Remember to always check this website for updated versions of a recipe.  

© 2014-2018 Judy Wright. All rights reserved. Photos, videos, and text may only be reproduced with the written consent of Judy Wright.

A Quick and Easy Baked Hummus and Feta Appetizer

Recently, I  hosted my book club’s annual dinner where guests signed up to bring either beef or chicken chili, salad, cornbread, dessert or an appetizer. When Book Hunters member, Janna, uncovered her Greek-style appetizer, the aroma of warm feta and olives wafted through the kitchen attracting us like moths to a flame. Guests started scooping up the dip with abandon, or at least I did. Soon, there was a lot of gushing going on in my kitchen.

Janna said the appetizer was easy to make.  Even better.

Ingredients:

1-pound container hummus
6-ounce container crumbled feta
5 ounces (¾ cup) flavorful tomatoes, chopped
4 ounces (¾ cup) flavorful kalamata olives, cut in half
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Mise en Place:

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 350º. Allow ingredients to come to room temperature if times allows.

Layer ingredients in an 8″ by 8″ square pan or other ovenproof containers, as shown. Drizzle with extra virgin olive oil.

Bake in a 350º oven for 20-25 minutes.

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Serve with pita bread or crackers. We loved it with naan dippers.

A few words about the ingredients. I tried this with cherry tomatoes but thought the sliced tomatoes had a lot more flavor. One tomato was enough.

It took me a few attempts to find kalamata olives that were tasty. Make sure the ones you choose are flavorful.

We preferred the dip with the garlic-flavored hummus.

Things to knit while watching the game

How to Knit a Hat and Make a Pom Pom
A Birthday Tribute for my Mother: Knitting Neck Warmers with Mom’s Stash
What to Knit for a Baby: a Hat, a Sweater and a Blanket

Foods to serve a crowd on Super Bowl Sunday