Dress up that cheese plate for the holidays

Tampa Bay TimesDecember 3, 2013 

Baked Feta with Blackberry and Rosemary Compote.

ILEANA MORALES/SPECIAL TO TAMPA BAY TIMES

Cheese and crackers are fair game for entertaining, and I’d be pleased with a good Gouda or something triple cream and soft with fancy crackers. But why not step it up?

Dressing up a cheese platter doesn’t take much more effort. The trick to keep up your sleeve: Baked Feta with Blackberry and Rosemary Compote. Test it on a few friends this weekend and you’ll have a go-to appetizer for the season.

The name may sound a little fancy, but the steps are straightforward and the ingredients can be modified if necessary. The results are dramatic. Feta, browned and barely held together, is topped with warm berries in a rich garnet syrup with hints of spices and herbs.

A compote is fruit gently cooked with spices and sugar until it releases some of its juice while the fruit still mostly holds its shape. It can be made ahead and stored in the fridge overnight. Gently reheat the compote in a saucepan the next day while you brown the feta in the oven, and this is an easy appetizer. Serve it on a white platter and it is stunning.

This baked feta was a hit at our home when Danny’s mom visited for the weekend. She has a mean sweet tooth but we always seem to prepare a cheesy dish together, too. I’m thinking this would serve 6 to 8 people who are waiting for dinner with a drink in hand. Something to tide them over and keep them entertained with a couple of bites until the main event. Or you could grab a few forks and dig in, which is what we did. In that case, it serves three.

Morales: alittlesaffron@gmail.com

Baked Feta With Blackberry and Rosemary Compote Feel free to use another berry or swap in thyme for rosemary. The compote can be made ahead and kept in the fridge overnight. Gently reheat to serve with cheese. Adapted from Food52. For the compote: 3 black peppercorns 4 juniper berries (or a bay leaf if you can’t get juniper) 2 sprigs fresh rosemary 2 tablespoons sugar 1 1/2 tablespoons honey 2 cups (1 pint) blackberries For the baked feta: 16-ounce block of feta cheese Olive oil

MAKE compote: In the center of a small square of cheesecloth (6 x 6 inches would be enough), place peppercorns, juniper berries and rosemary. Tie up ends of the cloth to create a pouch. Place it into a medium saucepan along with sugar, honey and berries. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, making sure to keep cheesecloth pouch tucked under berries in the center of the pan. The blackberries will start to release some of their juices as they begin to simmer.

REDUCE heat to medium low and simmer until some of fruit breaks apart and juices turn syrupy, about 25 minutes. Stir occasionally but don’t make too much of an effort to break up the fruit. You want most of the berries to hold their shape. Discard cheesecloth pouch and serve compote warm.

MAKE feta: Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the block of cheese in half lengthwise. Lay the pieces in an ovenproof dish and brush them with olive oil.

PLACE dish in the upper third of the oven and bake until feta is softening, about 8 minutes. Turn on the oven’s broiler setting and let the cheese keep cooking until the top browns, 3 to 6 minutes or so. Keep an eye on it. Carefully transfer the cheese blocks with an offset spatula to a serving platter (or keep the cheese in the same baking dish).

SPOON warm compote over feta and serve immediately with crackers.

Yield: 6-8 servings

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