What better way to celebrate Planet Cheese’s fifth birthday than with a cake? Cheesecake, of course. My favorite recipe (see blog) comes from a food-stylist friend; the surface never cracks or sinks, and the texture is dreamy. Serve with a strawberry-rhubarb sauce and just try to stop at one slice.
Cheese has been good to me. To pay it forward, I’ll be marking Planet Cheese’s birthday by donating to five non-profits doing important work in the cheese or dairy realm. Please join me in supporting them if you can.
My recent class on “Best Buys at the Cheese Counter” reminded me—and my students—that a superb dinner-party cheese platter doesn’t have to set you back more than the lamb chops. You can spend $35 to $40 a pound on cheese today, or you can spend half that if you know where the values are. I assembled the seven selections for this class without shopping at a big-box store or chain. I was a little surprised by the class favorite but almost all the cheeses got some votes.
My dad made my mother breakfast in bed every Sunday. It wasn’t fancy—Bisquick biscuits, scrambled eggs and canned orange juice—but she wasn’t picky. She got to lie in bed for a quiet hour or two with a tray over her lap and the Sunday paper and her coffee. I’m pretty sure it was the highlight of her week. If you’re within cooking distance of your own Mom, or your kids’ Mom, consider pampering her on Mother’s Day with a warm, cheesy frittata. Whether served in bed or at the table, it’s a treat.
Can you name America’s top five milk-producing states by volume? Let me help you: California, Wisconsin, New York, Idaho and Texas. Are these also the top five states for artisan cheese? Not if you ask me. Considering not only the quality of what’s produced in the state but also how enlightened its retailers are, I’ve compiled a different list. See if you agree with me.
Where should you live if you’re a cheese lover? Maybe it’s not as important as great weather, but availability of great cheese is one reason I love where I live. Artisan cheesemaking is happening well beyond the leading dairy states, and it has been exciting to see the activity push into new territory. Weighing a couple of factors, I’ve compiled a (totally subjective) list of the Top Ten Cheese States.
Ever since my husband, home baker extraordinaire, made a star bread with raspberry jam—gorgeous on the first try—I’ve wanted to make one with cheese. It took a few attempts to transition the sweet recipe to a savory one, but the shaping technique is easier than it looks. I got some whole-grain flour into the dough, which made me happy, while still maintaining a soft texture, like pull-apart dinner rolls. The filling is feta mixed with ricotta and a pinch of dried spearmint. If you want to impress the heck out of people at your Easter table, here’s your recipe.
The most persistent defenders of raw-milk cheese are, in my view, the cheesemakers of Switzerland. “They see pasteurizing milk as a risk,” says Joe Salonia, a U.S. marketer of fine cheeses from Switzerland. “Why would you do that? Why would you hurt the most precious part of your milk?” With Raw-Milk Cheese Appreciation Day approaching (on April 20), I’ve been thinking about why it’s so critical to defend the right of cheesemakers to work with raw milk. Making the argument for me are the phenomenal cheeses from Gourmino, a Swiss marketing co-op that represents exclusively raw-milk cheeses. You don’t need to know the name Gourmino, but you do need to know its cheeses.
Steve Jones is one of the cheese world’s wise men, proprietor of Cheese Bar and Chizu in Portland, Oregon, and a cheesemonger everybody respects. He has been telling me for years that he is going to write a book, and now he has done it, with co-author Adam Lindsley. Cheese Beer Wine Cider: A Field Guide to 75 Perfect Pairings(W. W. Norton) takes us on a tasting journey that upends some conventional wisdom. You might be surprised to learn which beverage he would choose for cheese if he could have only one.
I have long thought that feta was the most useful cheese you could have in your fridge, and a recent trip to Greece convinced me of it. I ate feta from morning to night, in salads (of course), breads, bruschetta, risotto, dips, and pies both sweet and savory. I had squid stuffed with feta; cooked greens topped with feta; and fried feta with sesame seeds and honey. Here’s the highlight reel plus a recipe for one of my favorite dishes from the trip.
Spring. Not a moment too soon. I’m dreaming of fresh cheese and fava beans, those first-of-the-season moist favas that hardly need cooking. I slather the cheese on toast and spoon the warm favas on top. Herbs of choice. As long as favas are in season, this is the go-to app at my house. (Asparagus works, too). The recipe is from my beautiful new book, Wine Country Kitchen.
One of a kind. Unique. Those words are tossed around a lot but are rarely accurate when it comes to cheese. If it’s a good idea, someone has probably done it. But as far as I know, this splendid, scoopable bark-wrapped goat cheese occupies a category of one. Chef José Andrés nudged the creamery to create it, so we can add that to his long list of good works.
The European immigrants who settled in the U.S. more than a century ago and began reproducing the cheeses of their homeland couldn’t have imagined we would be arguing about their creations today. These newcomers, not surprisingly, marketed their cheeses with the names they knew: asiago, romano, brie, parmesan, feta. Today, the EU protests that American cheesemakers have no right to these names and insists we stop using them. And the American producers tell the EU to take a hike. These are generic names now, the argument goes. They belong to no one.
Several years ago, I spent a day behind a busy cheese counter, just for enlightenment. My dad was a retail merchant, but I apparently did not inherit that gene. The cheese store’s customers drove me crazy. I left with renewed respect for the smiling cheese-counter people who put up with our annoying requests and quirky behavior. Today, it’s their turn. I’ve asked a few key retailers about the customers they like best.
Okay, curd nerds. How many clothbound goat Cheddars can you name? Several producers make goat Cheddar in rindless blocks. But a wheel aged in cheesecloth so it can breathe and develop a rind, like a traditional cow’s-milk Cheddar? That’s a rare thing. Thanks to Quicke’s, the English Cheddar specialist, we can taste the magic that happens when experts apply classic Cheddar techniques to goat’s milk. Quicke’s Goat’s Milk Clothbound is irresistible.
The number of American creameries making raw-milk cheese from their own grass-fed animals is minuscule and not likely to climb. It’s a risky business model given the unpredictability of the FDA and its rule-making around raw-milk cheese. Plus, there aren’t that many places in the U.S. where livestock can be outside, eating grass, all year. So you have to applaud those who still take this traditional path and (the “and” is important) consistently produce distinctive, well-made cheeses. In that light, it’s time for a shout-out to Georgia’s Sweet Grass Dairy and its newest creation, Griffin, a recent Good Food Award winner.
If you cook at home on Valentine’s Day, I have the dessert for you. Silky, sexy, surprising. What more do you want? I tasted it at a party at the Cheese School of San Francisco, where chef Jocelyn VanLandingham dreams up all sorts of creative ways to slip cheese into recipes. Crème brulée infused with Parmigiano-Reggiano and topped with black cherry jam…no, I never would have thought that up, but man, is it good.
Is “cashew cheese” cheese? Is “almond milk” milk? The FDA wanted our opinion but the public comment period just closed. Not to worry. More than twelve thousand people weighed in on whether plant-based foods like soy milk should be allowed to keep their dairy-referencing names. Cheese has a standard of identity—a government-policed definition—and cashew brie does not meet it. Is it time for the FDA to step in and insist that “milk” and “cheese” are dairy products? Or is the dairy industry overreaching in arguing that consumers are confused?
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Jill Zenoff, winner of the 2019 Cheesemonger Invitational. This semiannual competition is the Wimbledon of the retail cheese world, an opportunity for the people behindthe counter to strut their stuff. In a series of zany challenges, the contestants flaunt their skills at cutting, wrapping, pairing, plating and selling cheese. A combination of Jeopardy!, Top Chef and America’s Got Talent, the day-long battle ends with a winner crowned on stage before a frenzied audience. Despite the contest’s madcap nature, victory confers prestige. For the monger who prevails, doors can open.
Most of the time, I aim to create a balanced cheese board for guests. Something fresh with something aged. A creamy cheese and a firm one. A range of flavors from mild to strong. Cow, goat and sheep. But sometimes I take a page from the wine world. Wine people love comparative tastings. My first date with my winemaker husband was a dinner party and wine tasting, with Pinots from around the world tasted blind. (Nobody nailed them.) A cheese course featuring the same style from two or three different producers can be illuminating, or at least get a conversation going.
It has been raining here in Napa (hooray!) so I’ve had time for some rainy-day projects, like homemade cottage cheese. I had forgotten how easy it was, and how delicious. Twenty years ago, Sue Conley—the co-founder of Cowgirl Creamery —shared her stovetop recipe with me. I made it then, used it for a story in the San Francisco Chronicle and then forgot about it.
If today’s cheese plates are more beautiful than ever—and they are—major credit goes to importer Michele Buster. Her New York-based company, Forever Cheese, has launched dozens of European cheeses in the U.S. and introduced many of the cheese-board accompaniments we now can’t live without. Everything on the plate pictured above is a Forever Cheese find, including the Marcona almonds, Buster’s first breakout success.
Every week, merchants restock their counters with the cheeses they think you want. And then You the People get to choose. Often, you’re predictable (you do love those triple-creams), but sometimes you surprise retailers with your willingness to embrace the new. I’ve been showcasing my discoveries all year in Planet Cheese so thought I would ask some leading merchants what you have liked best. From coast to coast, here are some of your favorites, the breakout stars of 2018. Great choices, People!
Will 2019 be the Year of German Cheese? You read it here first. France, Italy, Spain and Switzerland keep U.S. cheese counters bountiful, yet German cheeses account for barely a blip. (Let’s put aside Cambozola, the supermarket staple.) But if the exquisite cheese pictured above is any indication, Germany’s cheesemakers have the milk, the know-how and the respect for tradition to create some real dazzlers.
A crusty mini-sandwich filled with oozy truffled cheese is my kind of appetizer. With sparkling wine it’s the happy hour of my dreams. But which truffled cheese? You may have noticed the soaring number of options in this category. Alas, they are not all dreamy. Some are too muted or heavy handed, with blatantly fake truffle aroma. With others, the base cheese is just not that interesting. Here are six I enjoy:
Antwerp wasn’t on my bucket list until I tasted this gorgeous Belgian Gouda. Now I must go. The cheese is made at a creamery about an hour away, then sent to Antwerp for aging. The family that matures the Gouda (and many other fine European cheeses) also runs a cheese shop in Antwerp that some say is the best in Europe. The shop stocks hundreds of cheeses and supplies Belgium’s finest restaurants. The famous De Koninck brewery is practically next door and provides the cheese-aging space. Field trip, anyone?
I was thinking that some of those wavy Southern cheese straws would be a nice addition to my Thanksgiving relish tray, but I can’t find my cookie press. (Maybe I never had one?) However, I did find my autumn-leaf cookie cutters so that’s what I’m using instead. My favorite recipe for the cheese straws comes from an honest-to-goodness Southern belle and good friend who grew up eating them. I think you’ll enjoy making them for Thanksgiving or any holiday parties to come.
A wedge of English Cheddar I purchased recently had a few threads of blue mold inside, the result of a breach in the rind. The blue didn’t deter me—the cheese tasted great—but I knew many shoppers would eye the piece and put it back. I asked the clerk how she talks to customers who flinch at the sight of blue veins in a Cheddar. “I tell them it’s been kissed by mold,” she said. I like that.
October is American Cheese Month, and to celebrate, I have invited some American cheese luminaries to take over Planet Cheese. Last up: Sue Conley (above left), co-founder, with Peggy Smith (above right), of California’s Cowgirl Creamery. This acclaimed company makes Mt. Tam, Red Hawk, Wagon Wheel, clabbered cottage cheese and several seasonal cheeses. I asked Sue to share a cheese-world issue that’s top of mind for her.