From time to time we come across a highfalutin recipe with an ingredients list that strikes us as a hair on the costly side. And when we do, we're gonna run those ingredients through the checkout aisle at Whole Foods on the Bowery to see how it adds up.
Oh ho ho, lookee here, "A Tangy Pub Cheese" recipe in the New York Times. Well yes, I certainly would be interested, thank you for asking! Never met a pub cheese I didn't love, and with holiday entertaining season coming 'round the mountain, a gussied up version of the classic might be just the thing to make in a large batch and trot out as a hostess gift when navigating the festive cocktail party circuit. Because it's fun to have people fuss over something homemade, and now you know my secret: I cook for the praise, oh yes I do.
Pub cheese is a traditional bar snack. Alder, a newish restaurant by the modernist chef Wylie Dufresne, is hardly a traditional kind of place.
So it was no surprise to see that Alder’s version of pub cheese — served as a purple, painterly swath across a piece of slate for a plate — takes a number of liberties with the usual recipe.
Emphasis mine. Here's the list of ingredients that Adler's Pub Cheese calls for:
- 1 (750 ml) bottle red wine
- 5 cloves garlic, peeled
- 2 large shallots, peeled
- 2 thyme branches
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 whole clove
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon red miso paste
- 2/3 cup whole milk
- 6 ounces cream cheese (2/3 cup), at room temperature
- 10 ounces aged cheddar, coarsely grated (2 1/4 cups)
- Pistachio nuts, chopped, for sprinkling (optional)
Hoo boy. This is gonna cost a pretty penny.
I should have known something was terribly, terribly wrong when I read that the recipe called for "two thyme branches." Branches are never good news. Those two thyme branches, by the by, will run you $2.69. Actually, I should have known something was terribly, terribly wrong when the recipe and related article failed to specify what sort of red wine to use. I mean … yes? Am I being the crazy one here? There are different kinds of red wine that vary quite dramatically in terms of flavor; surely the New York Times is vaguely aware of this fact. Instead of spinning the wheel of fortune and pricing out any old red I thought looked promising, I went to a local wine shop for an assist. It should be noted that the local wine shop in question, September Wines & Spirits, is my local wine shop. As in, they know me. Well. So they were totally not put out that I asked for their help with this project before buying my usual bottle of cheap chardonnay. The wine we chose, after talking through what we'd be looking for—not overly tannin-y, not overly full "but with stuffing to it," something "robust and fruit-forward"—was a 2011 Tenuta Delleterre Nere Etna Rosso that retails for $18.99.
The alliums weren't too bad; a medium-sized head of garlic was about a quarter pound in weight and, at $3.49/lb. rung in at $0.87. The two large shallots, just about a half pound's worth, were $2.00—and here we shall break to bellow, "I WANT MY TWO DOLLARS" at one another because it is required by law that we do so whenever mention of two dollars is made in mixed company.
Ritual bellowing complete, the next stop was the spice aisle for the bay leaves and cloves. Cloves plural because you cannot buy a single clove, it's just not a thing that's done. (I do actually have whole cloves in my home, for reasons that I'll eventually get into, but it's not all that common for people to have whole cloves just hanging around waiting to be put to use in pub cheese unless you're real big into mulled wine or pomanders, I suppose.) So in the interest of accurately pricing out what it would cost to make this cheese, whole cloves needed to be sourced.
(I should mention that right there in the spice aisle I started having a panic attack at the cost of this flipping cheese even though I wasn't actually buying any of this stuff. I just want to put in perspective for you how insanely expensive this bar snack is to produce. I'm a thrifty person by nature; I practically broke out in hives from the research portion of this assignment, so strongly did it offend my sense of practicality.)
To be somewhat fair to the recipe, I opted to price the spices from Whole Foods' in-house brand, 365, rather than the much costlier premium-brand offerings. The bay leaves were $2.99 and the whole cloves $4.99. Ouch. That last one hurt. Five bucks just to be able to add one measly clove to the world's most absurd cheese spread.
As a reward for being so utterly fair about pricing the spices, when it came to the dijon mustard I metaphorically splurged on a mid-range jar of Atkins & Potts brand dijon instead of the lower priced Grey Poupon or Maille options, both of which came in at four dollars and change. At $7.69 the Atkins & Potts was nowhere near the most expensive option the store carried but it was touted by Whole Foods as being "For The Foodie" and that was good enough for me, deciding-factor-wise.
I bombed out on the red miso paste—couldn't even find the stuff. And the stockist I consulted was really very sure I wanted peanut butter, which made for a frustrating detour around the store with me hissing, "Miso paste, not peanut butter. MEEEEE SOOOOOOO PAAAAAAASSSSSSTE." The closest I came to the right stuff was Hikari Minute Miso, which is described as "miso liquid" on the package and costs $7.49. Once home, I Googled about to see if I could locate it online, and oh yes, there it is right there on Asian Food Grocer dot com. For $6.58. Done and done, $6.58 it is. Also, I would like to sincerely thank Asian Food Grocer dot com for saving me the trip back down six flights of stairs to the Asian grocery behind my house, because six flights down mean six flights back up.
Whole milk proved much easier to find, as you might imagine. $0.99. Boom. The cream cheese was similarly a breeze to source, at $1.69. I spent some time considering the organic cream cheese offerings (yes, there was more than one brand of organic cream cheese for sale because Whole Foods) but at $3.39, which incidentally was also the price of the Philadelphia cream cheese, it seemed an unnecessary expense for something that was going to be pulverized anyway. The $1.69 option would do just fine.
The aged cheddar was the one thing I was hellbent and determined not to skimp on, given that it's the heart of the recipe and this is meant to be a super fancy pub cheese. The cheesemonger suggested the Cabot Clothbound, which was indeed a delicious cheese (he gave me a slice, which was so nice of him! Especially because I told him up front why I was asking, so it wasn't as if he thought he was actually going to sell me a giant hunk of it. Do cheesemongers work on commission?) The cheese was priced by the quarter pound. Which was a neat trick I thought! The price per pound is $23, YES YOU READ THAT RIGHT TWENTY THREE DOLLARS A FREAKING POUND FOR CHEESE FROM VERMONT. At that price, the ten ounces the recipe calls for costs $14.38. Wowsers.
The final ingredient, the pistachios for scattering, were optional but at that stage in the game I think we can all agree that an extra $4.25—which is what a quarter pound of shelled, unsalted pistachios will run you at Whole Foods—was a drop in the bucket compared to what we've theoretically spent on this pub cheese.
- 1 (750 ml) bottle red wine, $18.99
- 5 cloves garlic, peeled, $0.87
- 2 large shallots, peeled, $2.00
- 2 thyme branches, $2.69
- 1 bay leaf, $2.99
- 1 whole clove, $4.99
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, $7.69
- 1 tablespoon red miso paste, $6.58
- 2/3 cup whole milk, $0.99
- 6 ounces cream cheese (2/3 cup), at room temperature, $1.69
- 10 ounces aged cheddar, coarsely grated (2 1/4 cups), $14.38
- Pistachio nuts, chopped, for sprinkling (optional), $4.25
For a grand total of $68.11. SIXTY EIGHT DOLLARS AND ELEVEN CENTS. Somehow that eleven cents is the most insulting part of the experience.
And that, my friends, is how you can spend 8+ hours and $68.11 to make 2½ cups of pub cheese. So who wants to try it?
Jolie Kerr is the author of the upcoming book My Boyfriend Barfed In My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume, February 25, 2014); more of her natterings about food and cleaning can be found on Twitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.