It's hard to take a cheese seriously when it shares its name with both a subatomic particle and a computer application. Or, perhaps, it's hard to take the subatomic particle or the application seriously since they share their name with a cheese. But however you look at it, quark, the cheese, has always deserved both more respect and its own identity.
And finally, in New York City restaurants, at least, it is getting it. In fact, in the past year there's been a quiet yet persuasive trend of quark appearing on menus. Perhaps it's due to the proliferation of Austrian restaurants around the city (quark has Austro-Germanic roots). Or maybe it's the near ubiquity of the cheese plate, which introduces chefs to an array of different cheeses. Whatever the reason, lately, quark has been front and center and on everyone's menu.
If you haven't yet come across it, quark is a fresh, soft white cow's milk cheese with a tart, tangy, milky flavor that's reminiscent of yogurt or fromage blanc, but with a richer, denser texture almost like crme fraiche. It's thick enough to be a substitute for cream cheese on a bagel or in a dip, yet light enough to whip and dollop over sugared berries or a slice of fruit pie.
I had my first taste of quark at the Danube restaurant, where chef Mario Lohninger uses it in spatzle, as a filling (along with plum jam) for crepes, and churned into ice cream.
"In Austria and Germany everyone eats it all the time," said Mr. Lohninger, who grew up near Salzburg. "It's very common there and people make it at home. In Austria, we call it topfen. Here you have to explain what it is to everyone. But once they try it they usually like it."
Part of the appeal for some people, other than the compelling flavor and texture, is quark's low fat content, since most brands available here in the United States are made from skimmed or low-fat milk.
"In Austria or Germany the fat content can vary from 5 to 40 percent, but here it's usually around 10 percent fat," said Kurt Gutenbrunner, the chef at Wallse, an Austrian restaurant in the West Village, and at Caf Sabarsky in the Neue Museum. "it depends upon how much cream they leave in when they make it."
He goes though 10 cases a week, using it in a dough for apricot dumplings, in the Viennese version of cheesecake, in strudel, in sandwiches with speck, the Austrian ham, and as a spread for black bread.
"There's no real recipe for that spread because it's too easy," he said, "you just spoon the cheese onto the bread, and top it with chives and radishes or whatever herbs you have, and some sea salt. We eat it at jause, a snack at 4:00 in the afternoon, but it would be good as a canap or an amuse with wine."
Thomas Ferlesch, the chef of Thomas Beisl, an Austrian restaurant in Fort Greene, Brooklyn loves quark's versatility.
"There are so many things to do with topfen," he said, "My great aunt even made a cheese out of it by mixing it with caraway seeds and salt and letting it sit covered in a cloth for a few days in a dark, warm place. It fermented and was incredible tasting. She liked it because she was always on a diet and it was lean."
Of course, you dont need to either be Austrian or German or on a diet to love quark. Deborah Racicot, the pastry chef at Gotham Bar and Grill, has been using quark for years, ever since she first encountered it on the cheese board at Picholine where she used to work. At Gotham, she whips it into a cloud-like mousse and pairs it with summer fruits such as apricots, plums and berries.
Bill Yosses, the pastry chef at Citarella, also likes quark as a foil to fruit. Last spring he served a quark souffl with rhubarb compote. "Quark's got an ethereal, cheesy flavor with a bit of a goat cheese tang, but it's not fatty. It's a got a great texture that holds up well when you bake with it, and adds to the lightness of a souffle."
Yvan Lemoine, the pastry chef at Fleur de Sel stumbled across quark in the dairy aisle of a local gourmet market, where he was looking for Devonshire cream. Now he mounds it on blinis that are topped with berries and served next to a honey flan.
Being able to stumble over a tub of quark in the dairy section of large supermarkets and specialty shops is part of the reason its popularity has grown in the last few years. Vermont Butter & Cheese Company makes the most visible brand, and the one that most of the chefs I spoke to rely upon. Allison Hooper, the co-founder, modeled the cheese on fromage blanc.
"Essentially fromage blanc and quark are the same thing, a fresh, mild cow's milk cheese. But our fromage blanc has zero percent fat, and the quark has 11 percent. I found that chefs wanted a little more fat since it's better for cooking."
This is a key difference; fromage blanc will curdle instantly when heated. Quark won't, making it much more practical in the kitchen.
One of Ms. Hooper's first quark customers TK years ago, not surprisingly, was Danube restaurant. Since then, quark sales have grown by 10 percent a year.
Murray's Cheese shop has also noticed the upswing. "It reminds me of creme fraiche a few years ago," said Nancy DeVita, one of the managers. "Back then, nobody really knew what crme fraiche was. Now everyone does. I think that's what's going to happen with quark. People see it, pun on the name, and become fascinated. And once they try it, they come back for more."
Caramelized Onion and Quark Dip
Time: 1 hour, plus 20 minutes cooling
2 medium onions, 2 tablespoons minced, remainder thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 1/2 cups quark
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
1. Place minced onion in a small bowl. Add the lemon juice and set aside.
2. Place a large heavy skillet over medium heat and add olive oil. Toss in sliced onions, thyme, salt and sugar, reduce the heat to medium-low, and saute until the onions are dark brown and caramelized, about 45 minutes. Remove thyme sprigs and let cool to room temperature. Chop coarsely.
3. Place quark and sour cream in a serving bowl. Stir in caramelized onions, raw onion mixture, chives and paprika.
Yield: 2 3/4 cups
Quark Mousse with Summer Berries
Adapted from Gotham Bar and Grill
Time; 45 minutes, plus 3 hours chilling
For the mousse:
2 1/2 teaspoons powdered unflavored gelatin
2 2/3 cups heavy cream
5 large egg yolks
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 1/2 cups quark
For the berries:
2 pints raspberries
1 pint strawberries, sliced
1 pint blueberries
1 lemon, zested and juiced
1 1/2 tablespoons honey
Raspberry sorbet, for serving (optional)
1. Place gelatin in a cup and add 1 tablespoon cold water. Let soften for 5 minutes.
2. Place cream in a mixing bowl and whip until medium peaks form.
3. Place egg yolks in another mixing bowl and whip until ribbons form, 3 to 5 minutes.
4. Place a small saucepan over high heat. Add the sugar and 3 1/2 tablespoons water and bring to a boil. Once the sugar is dissolved, take off heat and stir in gelatin until dissolved. With the mixer on, slowly pass the sugar mixture through a sieve into the egg yolks. Let the mixture whip until it cools to room temperature, 4 to 5 minutes.
5. Gently fold the quark into the yolks in 3 additions. Gently fold in the whipped cream in 3 additions. Spoon the mousse into nine 8-ounce ramekins or a large serving bowl and chill for at least 3 hours.
6. Place 1/4 of the raspberries in a bowl. Add the lemon juice and honey and mash together. Stir in the remaining raspberries, strawberries, blueberries and the lemon zest. Set aside for at least 15 minutes.
7. Place 1/4 of the berry mixture in a blender and puree. Pass the mixture through a fine sieve and set aside.
8. To serve, unmold each mousse onto a plate or spoon into bowls, garnish with some of the berries and drizzle with berry sauce. Top with sorbet if desired.
Yield: 9 servings
Quark Spaetzle with Crisp Shallots and Chives
Adapted from Danube
Time: 1 1/4 hours
1 cup quark, plus additional for serving
4 large eggs
3 large egg yolks
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt, plus additional to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg, plus additional to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup chopped onion
Freshly ground black pepper
2 garlic cloves, chopped
3 shallots, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons chopped chives, for garnish
1. For the spaetzle, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Whisk the quark, eggs and yolks together in a large bowl. Use a rubber spatula or wooden spoon to stir in the flour until smooth. Season with the salt, nutmeg, and freshly ground white pepper.
2. Using half of the spaetzle dough at a time and working quickly, push the dough through the holes of a colander (or spatzle maker) into the boiling water. Stir the spaetzle and cook until the water returns to a simmer, about 1 to 3 minutes. As the spaetzle float to the surface, use a skimmer or large slotted spoon to transfer them to a colander. Run cold water over them to stop the cooking. When the water returns to a boil, make the rest of the spaetzle. This can be done a day ahead; keep them refrigerated.
3. Heat a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add 3 tablespoons of the butter and then the onions. Season with salt and black pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and light brown, about 15 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until tender, another 2 minutes. Raise the heat to high and add the spaetzle. Fry, stirring frequently until the spaetzle begins to turn golden on the bottom, about 10 minutes. Season with nutmeg, salt, and pepper.
5. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan over medium high heat, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons of butter and add the shallots. Season with salt and pepper and fry until the shallots are brown and slightly crisp, 3 to 5 minutes.
6. Serve immediately, garnished with the fried shallots, a dollop of quark, and chives.
Yield: 6 servings