As any pizza-shop owner will cheerfully affirm, warm, gooey cheese is one of the most alluring foods. Kid-friendly grilled cheese sandwiches, homemade macaroni and cheese and mozzarella-laden lasagna all trade on that basic belief. For grownups, baked Brie provides a more elegant demonstration of that same principle. It can be presented with or without toppings and garnishes, plain or in a golden shell of puff pastry, intact or with the upper rind removed.
Some Brie Background
Brie cheese originated in the countryside near Paris, and the finest -- known as Brie de Meaux -- still comes from there. It's a type of cheese called rind ripened, because its flavor comes from the beneficial molds that produce its distinctively white, powdery-looking rind. The rind is edible, and some aficionados consider it the tastiest part of the cheese. Young Bries and mass-produced Bries have a bland, buttery richness that's pleasant and not assertive. Fine, aged Bries can be dramatically different, gaining a pungently aromatic funk. For baked Brie, young and mild-flavored wheels are best.
Baking It Bare
The plain rind of the cheese has little to recommend it esthetically, so if you're baking your Brie without a crust, it's usually best to remove the upper portion of the rind. This lets the cheese bubble freely and release pleasant aromas into your house. The sides and bottom must be left in place to keep the cheese intact as it bakes. Scatter any light garnishes, like herbs, across the top once the cheese has slightly cooled and is ready to serve. If you intend to cover the cheese with caramelized onions or other heavier garnishes, it's better to leave the rind intact. That prevents your garnishes from sinking into the cheese and disappearing.
Brie en Croute
For a showier presentation, hosts or hostesses can opt to wrap the cheese in an outer covering of dough. This version of the appetizer is usually called Brie en croute, which simply means "Brie in a crust." Like many culinary phrases, it sounds better in French. The golden crust -- usually puff pastry -- conceals the exterior of the cheese and hides its garnishes, so baking it with or without the rind is less a question of esthetics and more one of practicality and personal preference. If you dislike the rind, remove it. Garnishes will still sink into the rindless cheese, but this doesn't matter as much when the whole wheel is enrobed in its beautiful golden crust.
A small 1/2-pound wheel of Brie typically serves five to six people, and a large 1-pound wheel can serve up to 16. A single large wheel makes a spectacular impression at large gatherings, but using two to three small wheels allows you the luxury of preparing Bries with different toppings. For example, fresh herbs and caramelized onions are a classic savory option, while tart fruit preserves or dried fruit and toasted nuts are excellent sweet choices. With small Bries you can try all three, or any other combination that appeals to your imagination.