Thursday, November 26, 2009

I am Thankful for American Cheese!

What is the first thing that pops into your mind when you hear American cheese? Do you think about American cheese slices, Kraft singles, and Velveeta? These cheeses give American cheese a bad name. As a child my favorite cheese was, government welfare cheese. I used to love these enormous orange blocks of cheese that would come in a cardboard box. Sometimes I wish I could still get this cheese but I am happy to longer need this cheese. America has done so many awful things to cheese, we have even put cheese in a can which you can spray directly onto a cracker. Growing up in Philly, home of the cheesesteak, you would have to choose between cheese whiz, American cheese, and provolone at Pat’s steaks.

Cheese has been apart of American since the beginning, as soon as British colonists arrived in America they started making cheddar. American cheddars were being exported to England by 1790. The British called these cheddars “American cheese” or “Yankee cheese”. In 1878, The New York Times gave the total amount of cheese being exported to be 355 million pounds a year with the potential to reach 1,420 million pounds. American cheese was considered by the British to be inferior but cheap and therefore popular. This is where the idea of American cheese being inferior originated. An article from 1878 mentions that exceptional American cheeses were often relabeled under European names after export leaving the low grade cheeses to be labeled as American.

The term “American cheese” was first used in 1804 and appeared again in The Uncommercial Traveller by Charles Dickens in 1860. Americans have called their cheddars “yellow cheese” or “store cheese” or “apple pie cheese”. With the increase of cheese factories in the 1890’s, these cheeses were called “factory cheese”. In the 1920’s these cheeses were often called “rattrap cheese” or “rat cheese”. That does not sound tasty; no wonder cheese had a bad reputation for so long.

The legal definition in America for “American cheese” is a kind of pasteurized processed cheese. Today there is a new term for cheese, American Artisanal cheese which is cheese made by hand in small batches. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, American artisanal cheese began to grow in popularity. Factory made cheese manufactured by large companies dominated the market but there were a few small cheesemakers. The Vella Cheese Company started in 1931 and Maytag Dairy started in 1941. Both of these companies are still making excellent cheese.

In the summer of 1942, the US imposed restrictions on cheese consumption because of the war. This conservation measure allowed American cheese to be the only type of cheese to be legally consumed. This was to encourage wartime patriotism and due to the surplus of American cheese and lack of European cheeses. The ban took effect May 4, 1942 and was quickly repealed on August 1, 1942 due to public response and complaints from British exporters that it damaged morale and solidarity between the US and Britain.

Growing up, cheese was a major part of every family gathering. I can remember my mother making special trips to Trader Joe’s in the early 90’s just for cheese. Saint Andre became a family favorite along with fresh chevre that was often drizzled in olive oil and coated in spices. Pate, pumpernickel, and cornichons always had space on our table. I can remember teasing my aunt about cornichons just being little pickles. I was lucky to grow up in Philly because I can always remember there being Claudio King of cheese, DiBruno, and the Reading Terminal, with wonderful cheese selections. Even the small mom and Pop delis had some pretty great cheeses. I first fell in love with Prima Donna when I was living next door to a small family deli on Passyunk Avenue.

Cheese has come a long way in the United States. The American Cheese Society was founded in 1983 to promote American made cheese. The American consumer is more interested in cheese these days and more interesting cheeses are being imported into America. There has been an increase in the number of cheese specialty shops in America and an increase in cheeses available in supermarkets. The American cheese palette is growing beyond cow’s milk cheeses to include sheep and goat cheese.

America is the world’s largest cheese producer making 30% of the world’s cheese. Germany is the second largest producer followed by France, Italy, and the Netherlands. The largest exporter of cheese is France and then Germany based on monetary value. 95% of the cheese produced in Ireland is for exporting, 90% in New Zealand, 72% in the Netherlands and 65% in Australia. The largest importer of cheese is Germany followed by the UK and Italy. The largest consumer of cheese per capitia is Greece followed by France then Italy. As of 2003, Americans ate an average of 31 lbs of cheese per person with Mozzarella accounting for about 1/3 of this consumption.

America is producing some amazing cheese, many of which are being recognized in Europe. American made cheeses won 140 International awards in 2006. Some popular American cheeses being imported to Europe are made by Marin French, Cypress Grove, Vermont Shepherd, and Fiscalini. In 2003, Rogue River Blue won the best blue cheese award at the World Cheese Awards. In 2007, Rogue River Blue became the fist raw milk cheese made in America to be approved for exporting into Europe. American made cheeses are extremely expensive in Europe. Rogue River Blue costs about 65 GBP (Great Britain Pounds) per kilo (which is over 2.2 lbs). This high price tag has not stopped Rogue River Blue from being a popular cheese in Europe.

Stephane Blohorn is the owner of Androuet, a chain of cheese shops in France whose website lists over 30 different American made cheeses. But they would not stock these cheeses because “The French go first to French cheese”. A new idea is beginning to change this mentality and that is terrior. This term has been common in the wine industry to describe a climate, soil, and location of a certain region which imparts unique qualities into the wine. This notion is becoming popular in the cheese world. Laure Dubouloz, manager of Maison Mons, an affineur near Lyon says “U.S. terrior is as good as the French”. He goes on to state that French cheesemakers are very traditional whereas American cheese makers attempt to create something new and different.

Thanksgiving is an American holiday which calls for American artisanal cheese. Some of my favorite American cheese and cheesemakers are:

Cypress Grove, makers of Purple Haze, Midnight Moon, Lamb Chopper, and Humboldt Fog.
Dante is an aged sheep’s milk cheese from Wisconsin.
Roth Kase Grand Cru Gruyere Surchoix
Rouge Creamery makers of Smokey Blue and Lavender cheddar.
Kenny’s farmhouse makers of Awe Brie
Tumalo farms makers of Pondhopper and Tumalo Classico
BeeHive Dairy in Utah makers of Sea Hive and Barely Buzzed

What is your favorite American cheese? Happy Thanksgiving and thank you for reading!!

Friday, November 20, 2009

"Cheese from the ewe, milk from the goat, butter from the cow."

Cheese is made from milk and milk comes from many different mammals. The most popular milk types for cheese making are cow, goat, sheep, and Water Buffalo. There are cheeses made from Yak and even reindeer milk. Today I will focus on the more common types of milk being cow, goat, and sheep.

In most countries around the world, goat milk is preferred making it the most consumed type of milk. Goat milk is pure white and naturally homogenized. The fat in cow’s milk will rise to the surface whereas the fat globules in goat milk are much smaller and will remain suspended. Goat milk is lower in lactose and is easier to digest than cow’s milk. People who have issues with cow’s milk will often find goat’s milk to be a wonderful alternative. Goat milk is a great source of protein, calcium, phosphorus, vitamin B2, potassium, and the amino acid tryptophan. Goat’s milk also has anti-inflammatory compounds called oligosaccharides and can enhance the metabolism of iron and copper. Goat’s milk can be frozen and stored for up to 30 days. Freezing goat’s milk and using it for cheese making will result in a more delicate curd.

Goats lactate for ten months and their milk will become scarce as they move into their breeding season. For this reason, goat’s milk is harder to come by in winter but the milk will have a higher butterfat content. Goats are milked twice a day and can produce between 3-5 quarts of milk per day. Milk from the Nubian breed has larger fat globules and is great for making soft and semi-firm cheeses. The Toggenburg breed of goat will produce milk with smaller globules which is great for making sharp aged cheese.

Goat milk can taste sweet with a salty undertone. Goat’s milk cheese can have a tangy flavor that will mellow with age. There are many different kinds of cheeses made from goat’s milk ranging from fresh and soft to aged and hard. There are also yogurts, ice creams, and butters made from goat’s milk. People often tell me they do not like goat cheese but I argue they have not met the right goat cheese yet.

We have been milking sheep longer than we have been milking cows but there are only 100 sheep dairies in the United States. Sheep milk is rich, concentrated and has the highest amount of fat and protein when compared to cow and goat milk. Sheep’s milk is also higher in nutrients than cow or goat milk. Sheep milk is rich in Calcium, Potassium, Phosphorus, Magnesium, Sodium, Folate, Vitamin A and C. It also provides Iron, Zinc, Selenium, Riboflavin, Thiamin, Niacin, Panthothenic acid, Vitamin B6 and B12. Sheep’s milk can help reduce cholesterol as its primary fats are heart healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Sheep’s milk contains medium chain triglycerides which may reduce cholesterol.
Sheep’s milk also has high levels of conjugated linoleic acid which can fight cancer and reduce fat. The fat globules in sheep milk are small and people who cannot tolerate cow or goat milk can often enjoy sheep milk.

Lactating ewes of any breed can be milked. There are more than a dozen sheep breeds that specialized in dairy producers. Only a few of these breeds are available in the United States, the East Friesian and Lacaune. These breeds will produce 400-1,100 pounds of milk per lactation as compared to the 100-200 pounds of milk per lactation for conventional sheep.

Sheep milk is sweet, nutty, and creamy. Sheep have the shortest lactation period and can produce milk for up to eight months. Sheep are milked twice a day and can produce about a quart per day. Sheep milk has more solids than goat or cow milk which means more cheese can be made from one gallon of sheep milk. Goat and cow milk will yield 9-10% cheese where sheep milk will yield 18-25%. Sheep produce less milk than cows and goats making it four times as expensive. Freezing does not alter the cheesemaking ability of sheep’s milk which can be frozen and stored for up to 30 days

Cow’s milk is 88% water, 5% lactose, 3.5-5% protein, 3-5% fat and minerals and enzymes make up the remaining percentage. Cow’s milk has the highest amount of carotene which makes the milk look yellow. Cow’s milk can taste earthy and grassy but taste will depend on season. Cows have a longer lactation period than goats and sheep. If the breeding is staggered for a herd of cows, they can be milked year round. Cows are milked twice a day and can produce between 8-20 quarts of milk per day. One gallon of milk will produce about a pound of cheese. Cow’s milk cannot be frozen and used for cheese making. Milk from Jersey and Guernsey breeds of cow have the largest fat globules making their milk wonderful for making soft and semi soft cheeses. Ayrshire milk has the smallest fat globules and is great for making sharp Italian cheese and long aged Cheddar.

Cow’s milk is a great source of iodine, calcium, Vitamin D, tryptophan, riboflavin, phosphorus. Cow's milk is also a good source of protein, potassium and Vitamin B12, K, and A. Grass fed cows produce milk with conjugated linoleic acid which can prevent cancer, lower cholesterol, and prevent atherosclerosis.

Many people will argue that the best way to enjoy cow’s milk is to drink it raw. When milk is referred to as raw, it means the milk has not been pasteurized. Raw milk contains components that assist in killing pathogens, preventing pathogen absorption, and strengthen the immune system. Many of these immune enhancing and antimicrobial components are greatly reduce by pasteurization and destroyed by ultra-pasteurization. Raw milk is safe only if it comes from a safe producer. Do you know where your milk comes from?

Raw milk can be legally sold in 28 states within the United States. Many cheeses are made using raw milk. In the United States, raw milk cheeses must be aged for a minimum of sixty days before they can legally be sold. After sixty days, the acids in the cheese have killed any harmful pathogen. Raw milk cheeses are legal and widely available in Europe. A recent report issued by the Australian government argues that producers can make raw milk cheese equivalent to pasteurized cheese in safety.

Don’t judge a cheese by its milk type unless you have allergies or lactose issues. You might be surprised by how much you enjoy a Goat Gouda or Sheep’s milk brie. There is also a variety of cheeses made using two or more milk types. Try a mixed milk cheese like Menage and taste what you have been missing. "Cheese from the ewe, milk from the goat, butter from the cow" is an old Spainsh Proverb that seems to say the best milk comes from goats, butter from cows, and cheese from sheep. There might be some truth to that but I love cheese made from all of them.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Tools of the Trade

This past Friday I was in Fredericksburg and found what I had been missing, a really big cheese knife. I bought myself a 14 inch Lamson Sharp two handle cheese knife. This thing is like a machete, when I washed it for the first time and again on the second time, I sliced that sponge like butter. This knife is sharp and wonderful for cutting into big wheels of hard aged cheese like Gouda or Montasio. This knife isn’t necessary for the average cheese enthusiast but is a must have for any serious cheesemonger. There are a few tools on the market that will help the home cheese lover enjoy their cheese more.

If you love cheese, you should have a cheese plane. These are often called Norwegian cheese planes because they were invented in Norway and patented in 1925 by Thor Bjorklund who was a carpenter. He designed the cheese plane based on a carpenter’s plane to give thin and uniform slices of cheese. Cheese planes are excellent for hard cheeses and are great at removing mold from the surface of cheese. If a cheese is moldy, just shave it off and it is good as new. The cheese plane can also be used to slice vegetable like cucumbers.

Cheese wires are great for cutting softer cheese like mozzarella or a Colby style cheese. They can also be great for younger cheddars but the wires can break and will need to be replaced. You can also use a classic hard boiled egg slicer to cut uniform pieces of mozzarella with one slice. There are some nice cheese boards that have this style of cutter built in which is great for party convenience. If I am hosting a party, I do not like to cube the cheese ahead of time as the cheese will dry out. I like my guests to hack away at chunks of cheese and the cheese wire and board all in one makes this very easy.

There are also cheese knives which have a ticker handle and the blade is thinner at the top and gradually widens towards the tip. This can look like a cleaver as it is often square and is wonderful for cutting cheddars. This knife can also have holes in the blade as this prevents the cheese from sticking to the knife. Stainless steel is the best choice for a cheese knife as it is easier for the cheese to be removed from the knife without sticking. This knife is great for cutting cake, butter, hard boiled eggs, and anything that would stick to the knife.

This knife also comes in another style that does not look like a cleaver. The blade has large cut out sections to prevent sticking and crumbling and is serrated. These are sometimes called tomato knife. This knife is great for cutting soft to semi firm cheeses and is one of my favorite knives. I got a set on eBay that says cheese down the blade in cut out letters. These often have a forked tip to pick up and serve the slice of cheese.

There is also a fine knife for soft cheese that has a rather dull blade and is very slim. This knife is wonderful for blue cheese as well as soft cheeses. Soft cheese can also be cut with a spreader. You can use the edge of the spreader to get a bit of cheese and then spread it on a cracker. I am not much for spreading and squishing cheese on to delivery systems as this makes the rind distribution uneven. A spreader is great for chevre and soft cheeses when you cut open the top and dive into the delicious goo. Butter knives work just as good as cheese spreaders.

There is also the Girolle cheese shaver which was first used in Switzerland for Tete de Moin or Monk’s Head cheese. This is a firm full fat cheese when cut with the Girolle forms rosettes. This cheese is never supposed to be cut, you should slice off the top rind and shave away. An entire wheel of Tete de Moin would be placed onto the spindle then slide on the handle and crank away. Wheels of this cheese average about 1 ½ - 2 pounds. Shaving the cheese this way brings out the aroma and flavor of the cheese. This cheese has been made for the past 800 years but the Girolle was not invented until 1982. Tete de Moin has become more popular sine the invention of the Girolle. They used to have to shave this cheese the hard way. If you love gadgets, this is a cheese tool for you but I hear Alton Brown’s voice in my head bemoaning uni-taskers. You could also use a box grater or microplane which is also useful for grating Parmigiano Reggiano and other hard aged cheeses.

This brings us to cheese boards and how best to serve the cheese now that you have the cutlery. Cheese boards should be durable and easy to clean. Marble cheese boards are heavenly during the heat of the summer as the marble will help the cheese stay cool. There are some great cheese boards out there that also provide a home for your cheese knives. Bamboo is great for cheese boards as they absorb less moisture, are harder than maple and very durable. Knife marks are not easily visible on bamboo boards. Bamboo is a renewable resource and environmentally friendly.

There are some nice slate boards on the market that provide a stunning visual display and the ability to write the name of the cheese on the board in chalk. There seems to be some debate about weather these are appropriate surfaces for cutting cheese. Artisanal’s website says there are not useable as cutting boards but this information was nowhere else to be found. Slate scratches easily and is made from compacted shale and clay which is basically mud. I am not able to recommend or discourage slate cheese boards.

It isn’t necessary to buy a bunch of new kitchen toys to enjoy cheese but some will make it a bit easier. You can use a decent chef’s knife to cut hard cheese and a pairing knife for softer cheese and a standard wooden cutting board to serve them on. The most important thing is to enjoy your cheese at room temperature. There is a great picture of cheese knives at See if you can pick out from the photo which is what kind of knife.


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Wheat Hates Me

Wheat, oh how I love the things you can do with flour. Bread is such a staple of life. Crusty baguette with cheese, croissant, bagel, muffin, cookie, and even sweeter, cake, pie, tarts, brownies, then there is breakfast, toast with butter and jam, waffles, pancakes, strata, and breakfast for dinner was always a special night. And how about dinner, pasta, pizza, anything breaded, and for lunch there is no sandwich without two slices of bread and there are so many sandwiches and very few substitutes for them. How I have been craving a sandwich. Crisp golden crust that crumbles to flake when you bite it and the center is so soft and chewy.

I used to live a block away from two of the best bakeries in South Philadelphia, a French boulangerie that did a wonderful baguette and a version with chocolate, as well as cheesy bread and croissants and the other was a wood fired Italian bakery. We could stand in our tiny bricked backyard or even just standing in the kitchen and smell burning wood and baking bread. But bringing any of these things into the house was just asking for it. Hot fresh bread, how could I stop myself from consuming all of it? It would be eaten way quicker than a loaf of sandwich bread would ever go.

When I was backpacking through Europe for four and a half months I lost a fair amount of weight. My mother was so shocked when she laid eyes on me upon my arrival home. Eventually I gained it all back by eating bagels. I find bread and carbs to be so comforting and delicious. I was never into the Atkins low-carb crazy. Honestly, I am a wheat junkie. I shouldn’t touch the stuff but it’s all I ever want and if I get some I only want more. And there is no substitute for flour. I have tried many imitators but I want the real thing. How can it be so bad for me?

Well how bad is it? I have arthritis everywhere and wheat is inflammatory so it causes my already painful joints to feel even worse. There is a magazine for Celiac disease called Living Without. How sad is that? So please do not tempt, offer, or give me wheat. There will be a few occasions between now and 1/2/10 when I will indulge but after that so much will be a no.

At least I do not need crackers when it comes to cheese but it does make eating some soft cheeses easier. And yes that includes beer. But I shouldn’t be drinking alcohol anyway which is also on the chopping block. My last meal would be fresh hot bread basket with butter and jelly and can I also have a sandwich with cheese or a grilled cheese or a Panini. Oh to dream…

Monday, November 2, 2009

The running of the cheese

This time of year is very special when it comes to cheese. As the weather turns cold, my appetite moves toward richer, heartier flavors. The time for fresh goat’s milk cheese has been replaced by a craving for fondue and raclette. This time of year is wonderful for cow’s milk cheeses that have matured for 12 or 24 months and the best surface ripened cheeses of the year. Surface ripened cheese will soon start to ooze their delicious creaminess. I like to think of this time of year as the running of the cheese.

Surface ripened cheeses are called surface ripened cheese because they ripen from the outside into the center of the paste. They can also be called soft ripened cheese as they are soft when ripe. The soft ripened family includes double and triple crème cheese. Double crème cheeses contain over 60% fat in the solid matter and triple crème is over 70% fat in the solid matter. Saint Andre is a triple crème and Chaource is a double crème cheese. These rich creamy cheeses may seem like a sinful indulgence but are no worse than any other cheese. One ounce of brie has 8 grams of fat and one ounce of cheddar has 9 ½ grams of fat.

So why is this the best time of year for soft ripened cheese? The answer is in the milk and what the animals were eating. A chunk of Brie you buy today may have been made in September. What were the cows doing in September? They were out grazing on lush summer pastures and eating some of the best grasses and wildflowers of the season. The animal’s diet will affect the flavors of the cheese.

Toward the end of summer, the animals reach the end of their lactation cycle and prepare for a new breeding season. The animals will produce less milk but this milk is more concentrated in protein and butterfat. Milk is composed of water, butterfat, lactose and proteins. The butterfat and protein are very important to cheese making as they give flavor. The butterfat content of milk will be higher towards the end of an animal’s lactation period. This means excellent milk to make cheese. Summer milk has been found to have higher amounts of beneficial antioxidants, fatty acids, and vitamins.

I personally drive out to a farm every week to pick up milk. I notice my milk will stay fresh longer in the summer and in winter it can go bad before my next weekly trip to the farm. Summer milk also tastes better and some cheeses are made only using summer milk. A French study of Alpine Gruyere found more flavor compounds in the cheese made with summer milk. Summer may be over but we can still enjoy the flavors of summer in soft ripened cheeses.

To make a surface ripened cheese, the milk is inoculated with bacteria or the curds are placed into a mold and then sprayed with bacteria. These bacteria will develop a soft downy mold on the outside of the cheese. It can take a few weeks for the rind to develop a nice downy sweater of mold. These cheeses are usually available a few weeks after they are made and will continue to ripen as they age.

Mold is a wonderful and important part of the cheese making process. The mold on soft-ripened cheeses will help the cheese ripen from the outside in. The bacteria in the mold will break down the fat and protein within the cheese. This is what makes cheese alive, the fact that there are bacteria digesting the cheese to help the cheese achieve its optimal taste and texture. The mold forms a natural edible rind and imparts flavor to the cheese. You can eat the rind of any cheese as long as it is not wax, wood, or leaves. Weather you enjoy the taste of the rind is up to you.

When you look at a soft ripened cheese, notice the area between the rind and the paste. This area is called the creamline and shows the breakdown of fat and protein. Once the creamline becomes darker and starts to ooze, you know that cheese is ripe and ready to eat at its peak. Surface ripened cheese will be ripe when there is no flaky center and they are soft and moist. If you press the rind, the mark will slowly spring back.

Soft ripened cheeses can be enjoyed on their own, on a cracker or bread but they can also be used in a salad and you can also cook with these cheeses. They compliment meat and poultry and impart a rich smoothness to sauces. They can top a pizza and melt well. Their flavors can be enhanced by the proper beverage. The richness of soft ripened cheeses requires a good amount of acidity to cut the fat. Champagne and sparkling wines have a nice acidity but even better than acidity, they have bubbles. These bubbles act as scrubbers and will clean away the richness from the cheese and cleanse the palate. These cheeses will also pair well with a hard cider, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay.