When we have people over for dinner we try to have something ready right away. Drinks for sure, but also something to eat. Mainly due to time constraints, we don't often have a lot of time for this part of the meal. So unless the evening involves a taco bar (in which case chips & guacamole are in order), we keep it easy by putting out a few cheeses, some bread or crackers, and maybe some olives. It doesn’t take much to please arriving people.
However, when there we want to go that extra mile, there’s one thing we like to make above all else: cheese toasts like the ones we encountered years ago at Chateau d’Uzer, a chambre d’hôte (B&B) in a tiny town in Ardèche, a hilly and gorge-dominated département in south-central France.
I like to imagine that Chateau d’Uzer’s proprietors extraordinaire ― Eric and Muriel Chevalier ― invented these toasts, but I really can’t be sure. I’m not an expert on French cooking and Eric and Muriel told me that neither had been a “professional” food person prior to their opening Chateau d’Uzer in 2001. (Based on the many times I've had their food, I of course find this hard to believe. But in France (like anywhere, I suppose) lack of professional training means nothing. Foods and preparations like these toasts, I’m sure, have been passed down and/or evolved through generations. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.)
But take it from a guy who likes toast a lot (I eat it almost every day for breakfast). These are some darn good toasts.
Toasts d’Uzer, as we should call them, are thin slices of baguette topped with gruyère, cream, chopped basil, salt, and pepper, and then baked. The cheese on top browns, the edges and bottoms turn crispy, flavors meld, and the cream ― well, it seems the cream disappears!
Just as with Jim Lahey’s onion pizza, where paper thin slices of onion are mixed with heavy cream, thyme, and salt before getting baked at 500 degrees F. for thirty minutes ― these toasts also emerge from the oven with no evidence of cream. I think the cream functions to first soften the tops and then it just cooks away.
Below is an approximate recipe for Toasts d'Uzer. Feel free to substitute a similar, meltable hard cheese for the gruyère and a different herb for the basil. But I encourage you to go with the standard recipe first (unless you can’t find gruyère or it’s too pricy ― in which case I suggest Danish fontina or aged asiago with basil or chives.
1 pound (454 g) gruyère, grated
8 ounces (250 ml) heavy cream
2 tablespoons (30 ml) finely chopped basil, and salt & pepper to taste
1 Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (215 degrees C).
2 Cut the baguettes into thin slices, at an angle for larger pieces if desired.
3 Lay slices onto a baking sheet in a single layer. You can use parchment paper for baking to make cleanup easier, but it may result in less crispy toast.
4 Combine cheese, cream, basil, salt, and pepper in a bowl. You don’t need to follow exact measurements: pour the cream in last, and when it begins to pool through the bottommost shreds of cheese, stop pouring (see above photo).
5 Stir until cheese shreds are wet and the basil seems evenly distributed. (At this point, you can cover and refrigerate the cheese mixture until you're ready to make the toasts. You can also leave out the slices of bread, since slightly stale bread results in crisper toasts.)
6 Using a teaspoon, top bread slices with the cheese mixture. Press down slightly with back of spoon to ensure the mixture adheres. Avoid spillover for easier cleanup.
7 When all slices are covered, bake for approximately 13 minutes, or until tops are browned (see photo above). If necessary, rotate the pan or remove finished pieces to ensure even cooking.
8 Remove toasts with a hard spatula, digging underneath each one to protect the crunchy bottoms.
9 Serve hot.
There you have it: toasts d’Uzer. Perhaps because our fondest memories involve alternating bites of toast with sips of cool rosé (the French, at least in the south, are not averse to adding a single cube of ice to the wine), that’s what we do. Toasts, rosé, good conversation, and dinner.
I've posted to my photography website a series of captioned photos from Chateau d'Uzer. They tell the story of this amazing place and all the work its two owners do in order to keep it running. Here a link to that photo series.
(Here's a link to a printable pdf of the recipe.)