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Jacques Pépin’s Genius, Very-Last-Minute Appetizer—Two Ways

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Consider this blessedly simple recipe your instant holiday contingency plan: your on-call snack, your hungry people parachute, the thing you can always provide, even when you have nothing in the fridge, and nothing in mind.

Jacques Pépin's Fromage Fort
Jacques Pépin's Fromage Fort

Because this is how, following the lead of living legend Jacques Pépin, you can turn the leftover odds and ends in your cheese drawer into a sultry hors d’oeuvre. Two, actually.

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The first: a funky-delicious soft cheese spread for crackers and crudités. And the second: that same cheese spread, served on toasts hot and bubbly from the broiler. In either case, it’s called fromage fort, which translates literally to “strong cheese.” It’s never exactly the same twice, but it’s always very good, and very fast.

“Now we do everything in the food processor in two minutes,” Jacques Pépin told me over the phone, including fromage fort. But when Pépin was a child in France, without food processors and refrigeration, it took his father a week or more to make. Any soon-to-be past their prime cheese bits were packed in an earthenware jar, covered with broth and white wine, and left in the cool cellar to marinate, until the cheeses were soft enough to mash with a fork.

Today the process is almost embarrassingly simple—put cheese in a food processor with wine, a few garlic cloves, and black pepper; blend. But you do need to cue up your common sense. If there are any rinds that look waxen or suspect (or taste too funky for you), scrape them off. And while a whole wheel of molten Camembert could whip right in, no problem, any harder, aged cheeses like Parmesan should be chopped or grated first. You’ll know.

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If nothing else, as Pépin points out, “If there’s enough garlic and wine, everything is fine,”

His wife Gloria likes to make a big batch, keeping a couple crocks in the fridge, and the rest in the freezer, defrosting them the day before she needs them, for an hors d’oeuvre or otherwise. And beyond the two instant appetizers you see here, Pépin considers fromage fort a seasoning.

“You could use the cheese in cream puff dough to make gougères, or in béchamel to make a cheese soufflé,” he told me. I found myself wanting to thin it into a spicy dressing for slaw, or melt it onto pizza with bacon and olives. Fromage fort is the fromage that keeps on giving.

In a beautiful circularity, the holiday season’s gratins and stratas and half-finished cheese plates will continue leaving you with a bounty of odd-shaped cheese nubs—and now you’ll know just where to put them.

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Jacques Pépin's Fromage Fort

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Makes enough for about 50 pieces of toast
  • 3 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 1 pound leftover pieces of cheese, a combination of as many hard and soft varieties as you desire (like Brie, cheddar, Swiss, bleu, mozzarella or goat), trimmed to remove surface dryness and mold (see notes)
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine or vegetable broth or a mixture of both
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Salt, if needed

Photos by James Ransom

Got a genius recipe to share—from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].