New artisan cheeses bringing flavor and color to the notion of 'American Cheese'

October was National American Cheese Month. If you missed it, a slim volume by cheese writer Kirstin Jackson, "It's Not You, It's Brie: Unwrapping America's Unique Culture of Cheese," offers an anecdotal and open-ended celebration of this country's artisan cheesemakers.

Ms. Jackson, whose work appears in the Los Angeles Times and NPR, charts her path via 48 profiles of cheese makers chosen for career paths as memorable as their cheeses.

Her culinary credentials inform recipes meant to bring out the best in each idiosyncratic cheese. Ditto her wine/beer credentials, with beer receiving a refreshing amount of attention in the match ups.

The movement--"now giving big processors a run for their money" -- took off only about 30 years ago, Ms. Jackson says, "when a handful of skilled people, mainly female in the beginning, began earning back America's artisan cheese credo."

Her own passion for cheese was precocious, beginning when she was a California teen, and nurtured by her parents on family vacations. The Oakland, California-based cheese writer/blogger/wine bar manager focuses here on cheese makers she has hunkered down with across the country.

All cheeses selected are artisanal, "made by craftspeople and artisans who respect the specific cheese's process and tradition and understand their impact on it."

Profiles range from honors-wreathed American classics like Wisconsin's Uplands alpine-style Pleasant Ridge, Rogue River Blue in Oregon and Capriole Wabash Cannonball in Indiana -- all cheeses you are likely to find at a serious cheese market anywhere in the country -- to cheeses made in tiny amounts in West Virginia or Tennessee that are lucky to be known in their own states.

Lucky us: one of the book's under-the-radar picks, Meadow Creek Grayson, a "sweet stinker" of a farmstead cow cheese, is at Whole Foods Market.

Grayson is made by Helen and Rick Feete, a banjo and classical guitar-playing couple Ms. Jackson visited in Meadow Creek, Virginia.

"The first thing that hits you when unwrapping Grayson is the scent. It goes from light, airy and a little pungent when young, to downright funky after it's been sitting on a store shelf for a couple weeks, like that box of dusty James Brown LPs in Uncle Larry's basement. Its taste, however, is a lot subtler than its aroma suggests. Same goes for most washed rinds. A Grayson bite reveals flavors of caramelized onions and chives, beef, fresh cream and sweet butter."

Helen Feete loves it room temperature with Virginia country ham, bacon, dates or dried figs. The author would toss in pickled vegetables: "I also like the cheese warmed," Ms. Jackson says. "It becomes a sweet, creamy, saucy cheese when heated. It's great melted over pizza, polenta or in a panini with mustard and arugula."

What to drink with this amiable cheese? "It's a little pickier with alcohol. Go with something with a hint of sweetness -- such as a Kabinett or Spatlese level riesling, a Gewurztraminer, or a Belgian tripel."

Ms. Jackson is a champion of "strong-smelling but always sweet-tasting washed-rind cheese" for dessert. Check out Crisped Rice Treats (marshmallows, brown butter and lemon rind) with Grayson or another favorite stinky cheese. It should boost cheese-as-dessert into territory where you don't feel that anybody will pout.

The book opens with the young and soft "prepubescents," such as ricottas and chevres, and the "stretchy" cheeses, like mozzarella and burrata. Pittsburghers are blessed to have Brooklyn's Lioni and Vermont's Maple Brook ricotta (also Maple Brook mozzarella) at Whole Foods and Maplebrook ricotta at the East End Food Co-op. These creamy artisan ricottas, a world away from their watery mass-produced counterparts, are delicious on their own with herbs and olive oil or honey.

Profiles proceed through creamery traditions including UK-influenced clothbound cheddars; Spanish and Italian aged sheep; the "crumblies" -- introducing various Mexican fresh cheeses just beginning to come our way; the blues, the goudas, and of course the stinky cheese chapter, titled "Washed and Smeared Rinds: What the Hell Is Going On in the Kitchen?"

Pennsylvania gets a nod

Because the majority of the small-scale cheesemakers' products seldom get far from their home counties, Ms. Jackson includes alternatives. Four of these are Pennsylvanian creameries, two from the east, two from our region. All are represented in specialty markets here.

Wild Purveyors carries both winning Eastern Pennsylvania cheese makers, including a slew of the nationally recognized Keswick Creamery in Eastern Pennsylvania, rarely found here at all. A recent selection: Dragons Breath, Lesher, Calverly, Dillicious, Have a Party Havarti, Cheddar, Blue Suede Moo, and Mad Tomme. Wild Purveyors also has the up-and-coming Birchrun Hills Farm. Look for Fat Cat, Bleu and sometimes Red Cat, the pungent washed-rind cited in the book.

Ms. Jackson does not include Eastern Pennsylvania's nationally recognized Calkins Creamery, near Philadelphia, a favorite of mine; however you can find their herb-laced Vampire Slayer and beer-washed Cow Tipper at Whole Foods Market.

Ms. Jackson gives a shout to two Western Pennsylvania cheesemakers that at this point suffer from such limited distribution that their cheeses can be found mostly by people determined to seek them out. Here is where to find them:

Hidden Hills: You will not find the cited cheeses, Boltenfeat feta and Dairy Old Gold gouda, but plenty of others abound hereabouts, all made from the rich milk of Bedford County cheesemaker Lori Sollenberger's Jersey herd. At Wild Purveyors, find Buttercup (used on Legume's burgers), Ivory Lace and Allegheny Asiago. At David Lagnese's PA Made counter at the Farmers' Market Cooperative of East Liberty, find Buttercup, Goudagold, Allegheny and Temptation.

Clover Creek: A super-gutsy, natural-rind blue called Pirate Blue gets a salute. Dry, funky and pungent, it is made at Dave and Terri Rice's Blair County creamery. The East End Co-op carries it, along with other Clover Creek favorites, including the rustic Uncle Joe's, a wine-washed firm and nutty cheese with a following as robust as that for Pirate Blue. Check out the Co-op's dramatically improved cheese display, overseen by cheese buyer Caldwell Linker. It is now particularly rich in regional cheeses. At PA Made find Galen's Good Old, Honduran Harvest and Bruschedda. Wild Purveyors carries Clover Creek's Cheddar, Tussy Mountain, Wild Mushroom and Galan's Good Old. Uncle Joe's is sold at Pennsylvania Macaroni.

Hidden Hills was a scholarship winner in the 2012 Western Pennsylvania Cheesemakers Competition. Clover Creek was the runner up. Keswick Creamery's Melanie Cochran was a judge. Amy Thompson, another judge, is a cheesemonger at Lucy's Whey in Manhattan, cited among the author's favorite cheese shops.

Mayor of Nye Beach Crisped Rice Treats

PG tested

These light, crunchy squares prove the author's thesis: "Sometimes strong-smelling, but always sweet-tasting washed rind cheeses are perfect dessert material." These are a take on the classic crisped rice and marshmallow treat, given a bit of vamp with browned butter and lemon zest. They serve as pillows underneath a mini-slice of an unusual goat's milk stinky cheese, Mayor of Nye Beach, named after the Mayor of Nye Beach, Ore., and made by Rivers Edge Chevre.

-- Virginia Phillips

  • 3 tablespoons butter

  • 20 regular-sized marshmallows

  • 3 cups crisped brown rice cereal (if you can't find brown rice cereal, just go with the normal variety)

  • Zest of one lemon

  • 10 ounces Mayor of Nye Beach or other washed rind cheese, at room temperature

Place the butter in a large saucepan and bring to medium heat. Shake the pan to melt the butter evenly. Once the butter melts, it will start to foam. At this point, stir the butter constantly with a wooden spoon for about 2 minutes until the butter deposits on the bottom of the pan are light hazelnut brown.

Add the marshmallows to the pan and stir until melted and free from lumps. Turn off the heat. Pour the crisped rice cereal and lemon zest into the saucepan and stir until all is the same consistency.

Pour into a buttered pan and press the mixture down evenly either with lightly buttered hands, a spatula, or wax paper. After cooling, cut into squares. Top each square with a 1-ounce slice of Mayor of Nye Beach.

-- "It's Not You, It's Brie: Unwrapping America's Unique Culture of Cheese" by Kirstin Jackson (Perigee, Nov. 2012, $19)

Landaff and Celery Root Beer Soup

PG tested

As a Californian, author Kirstin Jackson was curious about Midwestern beer-cheese soups, thickened with potatoes. Here she puts to work a Caerphilly-style cheese made by Landaff in New Hampshire, with leeks -- beloved to Wales like the original Caerphilly cheese -- and celery root and potatoes. When I could not score Caerphilly, Carol "Dear Heart" Pascuzzi at Pennsylvania Macaroni suggested Wensleydale. The British Yorkshire proved an inspired stand-in, and not far from the Landaff Caerphilly described as "a cross between a lively, less tangy, young cheddar and a milky and approachable Savoie tome, but with a crumblier texture." You could also substitute a bandage-wrapped cheddar, Ms. Jackson suggests. Partial pureeing with a stick blender made for a luxury chowder, so fragrant my family said it smelled like Thanksgiving.

-- Virginia Phillips

  • 2 leeks with white stems 4 to 5 inches long

  • 1 pound celery root

  • 3 pieces bacon, small diced

  • 2 celery ribs, medium diced

  • 1 bottle light beer

  • 1 pound potatoes, peeled, large dice

  • 3 1/2 cups chicken broth

  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme, chopped

  • 1 bay leaf

  • 3/4 pound Landaff, shredded, without rind

  • Salt and pepper to taste

Slice off the bottoms of the leeks so that the vegetable's rings are revealed. Then cut off the top dark green part, about 4 or 5 inches from the bottom. Dispose of both parts. Slice the remaining leek lengthwise, then into half-rings about a half-inch thick. Wash well under running water to rid the leek of any sand. Set aside to drain.

Wash the celery root then cut off the top and bottom and trim off its rough outer peel to reveal the white inner root. Cut into large cubes. Set aside.

Put the bacon in a medium-sized soup pot with a heavy bottom. Turn on the heat to low to render the fat. Cook for 10 minutes. Add the leeks to the bacon and its fat. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook until the leeks start to turn translucent, or for about 10 minutes. Raise the heat to medium, add the celery, and cook for 5 minutes. Deglaze the mixture by pouring one-fifth of the beer into the pan and scrapping any stuck bits from the bottom of the pan.

Add the celery root and potatoes to the pot. Stir, then add the rest of the beer and the chicken stock. Add the thyme and bay leaf. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer. Cook for 30 minutes or until potatoes mash against the side of the pot with the back of the spoon.

Cool for 10 minutes, then blend until somewhat smooth in a blender. If you don't have a blender, mash the soup with a potato masher in the pot. Return to the pot, bring to low heat, and add the shredded cheese. Stir until melted. Salt and pepper to taste and serve.

Serves 4 to 6.

-- "It's Not You, It's Brie: Unwrapping America's Unique Culture of Cheese" by Kirstin Jackson (Perigee, Nov. 2012, $19)

food - recipes

Virginia Phillips: First Published December 27, 2012 5:00 AM


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