Exploring Cheese from A to ZZest

0013From the gooey goodness of melted mozzarella to the sharpness of aged cheddar, cheese gives panache to everything from appetizers to desserts but also holds its own sitting on a cracker. Made from a variety of milks, in every consistency imaginable, cheese comes from every corner of the globe.

    But how much do we really know about this amazingly versatile food? What makes an artisan cheese? How do you know if it is a hard, semi-soft or soft cheese? And how many varieties can you find in Rochester? Recently, I explored area grocers, restaurants and the farmer’s market to find answers.

The art of cheese

Artisan cheeses are those “produced primarily by hand, in small batches, with particular attention paid to the tradition of the cheese maker’s art, and thus using as little mechanization as possible,” according to the American Cheese Society.

    The amount of moisture present in a cheese determines its texture. Hard cheeses tend to be gritty, sharp. A semi-hard cheese will be somewhat smooth in texture but have small granular particles from aging enzymes in the milk.

    Fresh mozzarella is an example of a semi-soft cheese—ones where the high moisture content keeps them soft and pliable with an easy, smooth texture and low melting point. A soft cheese is basically anything spreadable.

Local finds

What constitutes a “local” cheese varies greatly, depending on who you ask. For ZZest Market owner LeAnn Zubay, this means anything domestically produced. LeAnn’s knowledge of cheese is enviable, and her passion for it is evident in the abundant offerings at ZZest.

    The cafe/market carries cheese boards for in-dining enjoyment, as well as an incredible variety of artisan cheeses in the refrigerated case for take-home, including the national award-winning sheep milk cheeses of Shephard’s Way Farms in Northfield.

    SÖntes, a downtown restaurant and wine bar, also offers a delicious array of cheeses on its menu, sold individually or in flights of three. Though SÖntes’ menu changes periodically, it often includes local and Midwest cheeses, including selections from farms within 100 miles of Rochester.

    For a wide selection of Midwest cheeses at the grocery, People’s Co-op in Rochester, is one of the best one-stop shopping places. You can pick up cheese curds from Kappers’ Big Red Barn of Chatfield, numerous cheeses under the Organic Valley label (a southwestern Wisconsin farmers’ co-op in the Coulee Region) and even raw milk cheeses—cheese made from unpasteurized milk.

    It doesn’t get any more local than the cheeses offered at the Rochester Downtown Farmers Market. Don’t miss the cheeses of Prairie Hollow Farms in Elgin. Owner Pam Benike produces cheeses, primarily mozzarella and cheddar, from the milk of her own organic grass-fed cows.

    In Fairbault, Caves of Fairbault (f/k/a Fairbault Dairy Company, Inc.), makes AmaBlu, an internationally acclaimed blue cheese and the first American-made blue cheese. All the Cheeses at Caves of Fairbault are made with rBST-free, raw cow’s milk.  

Creating a great cheese board

If you’d like to try making your own cheese board at home:
•    Allow for 1-1½ oz. of cheese per guest.
•    Provide a selection of 3-7 cheeses with varying textures, flavors and colors. Balance soft and mild to hard and sharp. Or offer cheeses from a certain region/country or multiple cheeses in a given style, such as semi-soft.
•    Aged cheese, like cheddar, should be removed from the refrigerator an hour ahead; fresh cheeses, like chevre, should be kept cold until serving.
•    Remove the wrapper from the cheeses but leave the rind.
•    Accompany with fresh grapes, dried fruits, nuts, jams, cured meats or olives.
•    Provide a separate knife or spreader for each cheese and jam selection. Firmer cheese requires a sharp knife. Choose a wider blade for spreadable cheeses.
•    Serve with warm, crusty bread or crackers and wine or beer.*

*Wine and cheese often are served side by side, but which varieties taste best together? For some guidelines, see Seasons of the Vine, pg. 46.

Cooking and Baking with Cheese

Whether crusted with nuts and served on bread or baked into a cake, cheese can be found in all kinds of recipes. Two of the recipes here showcase the respective cheeses’ flavor, while the carrot cake recipe nearly conceals it, except for the subtle ricotta in the frosting of this unique dessert.

Margo Stich is food editor for Rochester Women magazine.