I was in Vermont this past May, prepping at Carey’s apartment for our Cape Cod First We Eat workshop. We drove from Vermont to Massachusetts with all our supplies piled tetris-style in the back of Carey’s Subaru, but the day before we left we made a special visit to Vermont farm country to visit Ayers Brook Goat Dairy and Vermont Creamery. At the creamery, we had an amazing tour of all the cheese making action, led by Betsy and Joey. One of my favorite parts of the visit was tasting the fresh whey that was draining off the different cheeses. If you’re unfamiliar with whey, it is the liquid that drains off of cheese curds when you’re making cheese. You can replace water with whey to make very flavorful bread, and it can also be used to make very tasty salad dressings. At the creamery, they give all their whey to local pig farmers, because apparently pigs love whey and its full of healthy probiotics for the pigs’ tummies. We tasted whey that was draining off of the feta cheese, which was a more tart and tangy flavor, and the whey that was draining off the bijou, which had a very mild, slightly sweet, almost grassy flavor to it. The difference in flavor was due to the different cultures used to make the different types of goat cheese, it was really interesting to taste the flavor difference that early on in the cheese making process.
We were able to take a peek at the cheese aging rooms, which require incredibly detailed monitoring of the humidity and temperature of the room to ensure that the cheese ages properly, and got to enjoy staring at racks and racks of beautiful tiny goat cheeses, some deliciously wrinkly and some not quite wrinkled enough yet. We also got to learn about milk seasonality, which was something I’d never heard of before. Basically, there’s a couple factors that go into milk seasonality. 1) The plants that are available to goats in the summer versus the winter will have an affect on the flavor of the milk, and 2) During the winter months, baby goats need more fat to keep them warm, so the fat content of the mother’s milk goes up during the cooler times of the year. This is why many craft creameries offer seasonal cheeses that they only make at certain times of the year, because that specific bacterial culture does best when paired with the fat content and enzymes of that particular season of milk. So fascinating!
After that, FM took us to Ayers Brook Goat Dairy, which is one of the farms that supplies Vermont Creamery with their goat’s milk. We just so happened to visit in spring during baby goat season, so we got to see so, soooo many baby goats. We were also led around the farm by Miles, the farm director and son of one of Vermont Creamery founders, Allison. He took our ‘oooohs’ and ‘ahhhhhhs’ over the baby goats in good stride. They grow over 95% of the goats’ feed right there on the farm, and they ferment the various grasses before feeding them to the goats to help extract more nutrients from the grass and make them easier for the goats to digest. We got to take a peek at some of the fermented grass and it smelled kind of light a very sweet, mild, and grassy sauerkraut. To be honest, it smelled really tasty and if I had not known it was food for goats, I definitely would have tried some.
We also stopped by the nursery that had the most recently born baby goats, a few of which were underweight and so, *so* small. Miles jokingly asked me if I wanted to take one home, but that is a very dangerous question to ask a woman with two dogs, a cat, eight chickens, hundreds of plants, who does not live on a farm, and has a deep nurturing instinct. Someday, baby goat, someday…
After that we had dinner at Allison and Don’s house. Allison and her friend Bob started Vermont Creamery back in the day by delivering homemade goat’s cheeses from a cooler in the back of their car. She and her husband made us an incredible farm to table dinner and we couldn’t have asked for a more enjoyable and relaxing night before heading out for workshop preparations.
So, for this recipe I wanted to put their delicious fresh goat’s cheese to good use in a savory tart. Fennel has slowly become one of my favorite vegetables to cook with, its lightly licorice flavor has a unique brightness to it, and its firmness and moisture content make it hold up very well to caramelizing while still retaining its lovely shape. So, I decided to marry the two in a wonderfully buttery and flakey rosemary garlic tart crust. The filling is very simple, just goat’s cheese melted down in hot milk until smooth, whisked with some eggs, fresh fennel fronds, and seasonings.
I very lightly caramelized the fennel bulbs in some melted butter before transferring them to the tart filling. As you bake the tart they continue to caramelize further and become a wonderful golden brown color. To get the tart to look extra golden and shiny, I popped it out of the oven 20 minutes before it finished and did a light and quick brushing over the top with an egg wash, then popped it back in. This gives it a really nice shine and an extra-golden color, but doesn’t affect the flavor at all so it’s definitely an optional step. In the end, the goat’s cheese, fennel, and rosemary married in the most delicious, sweet, tangy, and savory way. I wish I could eat this tart at every meal, and since it has a slightly brunch-y feel to it because of the eggs in the filling, I may just be able to make that happen…
For the savory rosemary tart crust, mix together the flour, rosemary, salt, and garlic powder in a large bowl. Grate the frozen butter over the bowl, pausing to mix in the butter shards every 30 seconds so they don’t just form a large butter clump on the top of the bowl. Add the cold milk and then the water, 1 tablespoon at a time, stirring the dough with a wooden spoon and then working it slightly with your hands to incorporate all the flour. If it doesn’t come together, add another tablespoon of cold water and mix, repeat if necessary until a solid dough forms. Wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes before rolling it out until it is about 1/4 inch thick, making a circular shape that is at least 11 inches in diameter.
Transfer the rolled up dough onto a well-greased and lightly floured 9-inch tart pan. Press the dough into the pan, trimming off the excess, and prick it all over with a fork. Cover it and place it in the freezer for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a sheet of tin foil and gently press it into the crust, forming the sheet of tin foil to the shape of the crust. Place it in the oven and pre-bake the crust for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until it is still very pale but begins to look more crust-like than dough-like. Remove and allow to cool for 5 minutes before removing and discarding the foil.
For the caramelized fennel and goat’s cheese filling, cut the fronds off of the fennel bulbs and cut the bottom 1/4-inch off the bulb. Slice the bulb vertically into about 5 slices. Mince the fronds for the minced fennel fronds listed in the ingredients, set aside. Melt the butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the sliced fennel bulbs and sauté until transparent on both sides and softened, about 15 to 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk over medium low heat until hot but not boiling, stirring every couple minutes to keep the milk from scalding. Add the crumbled goat’s cheese and continue stirring until it is completely melted and smooth. Remove the pan from the heat and ladle a scoop of the milk mixture into the bowl of whisked eggs, whisking constantly. Repeat until half of the milk mixture is in the egg bowl. Empty the custard mixture into the pan and place it back over the heat, stirring every minute for 3 to 5 minutes until it thickens. Remove from heat and stir in the salt, pepper, garlic powder, and fresh fennel fronds.
Pour the goat’s cheese mixture into the tart pan so that it is half full, then arrange the fennel bulbs in the pan. Add a bit more goat cheese filling if necessary, taking care to pour around and not over the bulbs. Place the pan in the oven and bake for 45 to 50 minutes, taking the tart out at the 30 minute mark to lightly brush the top of it with an egg wash and then placing it back in. When the filling and fennel bulbs are deeply golden and the filling is set, it is ready. Remove and allow it to cool for 10 minutes before serving.