- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

In years past, I have hosted a fair share of New Year’s Eve celebrations, but for welcoming 2007, good friends have asked us to their house for a small dinner.

I love this festive night — definitely the most glamorous of the holiday season — and cannot bear not having a hand in the cooking, so I accepted the invitation with a request: “Can I bring an appetizer?” My host was delighted, and I knew exactly what I would make.

Earlier in the month, I gave a holiday cooking class featuring hors d’oeuvres, and one of the most popular offerings was a small Camembert baked with a topping of chopped pistachios, dried cranberries and orange zest.

This appetizer is simplicity itself, but it makes a striking impression, especially for an important occasion.

There is nothing new about baked rounds of Camembert and brie. Twenty years ago, they were all the rage, and then they seemed to appear less often. I decided to resurrect the idea but use an updated garnish. I cut the top rind off an 8-ounce Camembert, then mounded the nuts, fruit and zest on the cheese.

I follow several guidelines when baking creamy cheeses with rinds. First, I place the cheese with its topping on a foil-lined baking sheet. This makes it easier to transfer the cheese to a serving plate after it is baked.

Next, I always refrigerate the cheese 30 minutes or more before putting it in the oven. This seems to help keep the cheese from bursting.

If the cheese should burst while in the oven, and its creamy insides start to ooze out, don’t panic. Transfer the cheese (still oozing) on the foil to a serving plate, then surround it with crisp cracker or baguette slices. No one will notice the breaks.

This baked Camembert is quite versatile. You can use it as an opener or serve it as a cheese course just before dessert. It also makes a tempting dish to pass at a cocktail party.

It definitely is special enough to offer on New Year’s Eve, however you plan to celebrate.

Baked camembert with pistachios and dried cranberries

1 8-ounce round Camembert cheese, chilled (See note)

1/4 cup dried cranberries

1/4 cup shelled pistachios, coarsely chopped (See note)

1 teaspoon grated orange zest

Thin, crisp crackers; a sliced baguette; or sliced, crusty peasant bread

Slice the rind off the top of the cheese and save for another use. Combine the cranberries, pistachios and orange zest in a small bowl, then mound this mixture on top of the cheese.

Place the cheese on a foil-lined baking sheet and refrigerate 30 minutes or longer. (The cheese can be prepared 4 hours ahead; cover and refrigerate.)

When ready to bake cheese, arrange a rack at center position and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Bake the cheese until warm and just softened, about 6 to 8 minutes. Watch carefully. You can check to see if the cheese is soft by touching it with your fingers. It should be slightly soft when you press it lightly.

Remove and cool, about 3 to 4 minutes. Then transfer the cheese on the foil to a serving tray. Cut or tear away the excess foil.

Surround the warm cheese with crisp, thin crackers or slices of a crusty baguette or crusty peasant bread. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

Note: You can substitute an 8-ounce brie or try a chevre du Poitou, a 6.3-ounce round of creamy goat cheese with a rind, that comes packaged in a wooden box. Both work well with the pistachio-cranberry topping.

Note: I like to use roasted, unsalted pistachios, which are available already shelled at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.

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