Cheese is a world unto its own, popular around the world and a staple food for countless generations.
It is impossible in this small space to do it justice, but we can at least touch on the basics of how it is made, various types and a few simple rules to follow.
Cheese can be made from the milk of any mammal, but cow, goat, buffalo and sheep are the most popular. Buffalo you say? Yes, the world-renowned Italian mozzarella di bufala is made from the milk of the buffalo.
The first step in making cheese is to collect the milk, warm it and then add a culture. When the pH is just right rennet is added.
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The magic that makes cheese work, meaning to turn milk into cheese, is rennet, a substance once taken from the stomach of the same kind of animal as the milk came from. That causes the milk to curdle and from that point on the type of cheese being made will determine the next step. Those steps can include cutting, pressing, milling and salting. Today most cheeses are crafted from rennet that is made from vegetables.
Fresh cheeses are not cooked and are not aged significantly, like mozzarella or ricotta. Soft-ripened cheeses are only slightly aged or ripened and include Brie and Camembert. Some cheeses are washed in a brine which creates flavor based on the type of brine or other liquid used that includes the fabulous Italian Taleggio (try it with fresh tomatoes), which is perhaps Italy's No. 2 cheese.
Natural rind cheeses are made with no additives, but blue-veined cheeses have a mold culture added that creates a sharp and wonderful flavor. Examples include Maytag, Stilton and Gorgonzola. Some cheeses are cooked and pressed and that process produces Gouda, Gruyere and the king of cheese -- Parmigiano-Reggiano.
A last category, according to Steven Jenkins' "Cheese Primer," and a sad category indeed, is processed cheese. This is not really a cheese and is almost devoid of flavor. It is cheap and has a long shelf life but a true lover of cheese should avoid it like the plague.
A purest enjoys cheese almost unadorned, or with a cracker or crusty bread and a glass of wine. Paring wine and cheese
is a subject of intense debate and some serious consideration should be given to it. A cheese platter can be a thing of great wonder, if the cheeses are compatible. Try paring three or four cheeses from the same country or origin. Jenkins suggests Italian mozzarella, Pecorino and Taleggio or an American selection of Maytag Blue, Vella Dry Jack and Grafton cheddar.
Whatever cheeses you try, make sure to bring them to room temperature first and to use separate knives to cut each. A separate plate can be used for each or put them all on a decorative platter, garnish with fresh fruit and a sprig of rosemary.
Cheese can be used as an ingredient in a recipe to some grand effect. As always the quality of the cheese you select will have a big impact on results. Fondue, French onion soup and gratins are great examples of how cheese can be a major player in cooking.
Some caution should be used in selecting a shop to buy your cheese. Most of the major grocery chains have started carrying a better selection of cheeses, but a local independent shop whose proprietor has some expertise is the best choice.
A great benefit of using a local shop is the option of tasting a cheese before you buy it. Make sure the cheese you buy was made where it is supposed to be made; if the Parmigiano-Reggiano you select was made in Canada it is not your best choice.
Cheese makes a great lunch-time snack, a delicious appetizer for a multiple course meal and a wonderful way to end a meal with friends. Below are a few simple ways to incorporate cheese into a recipe that your family will enjoy that won't break the bank.
BRIE AND JAM
This makes a great dessert course and can be served with coffee or a glass of dessert wine
1 small wheel of brie
1/2 cup locally made fig preserves
Bring the Brie to room temperature, plate and top with the fig preserves. Serve with crusty bread. Other jams or preserves will do nicely as well; try cherry, blackberry or blueberry.
MORTADELLA AND CHEESE SANDWICH
Mortadella is fresh sausage first made in the Italian city of Bologna, and hence its American name. It can be found in any specialty shop that has a charcuterie selection. It is always studded with pistachio nuts. Use Gruyere cheese in this recipe as it is the most flavorful of the best melting cheeses available.
1 thick slice of Mortadella per person
2 slices locally made multi grain or whole wheat bread per person
1 slice Gruyere cheese (slice it as thick as you like)
1-2 toes of crushed garlic
3-4 tablespoons olive oil
Mayonnaise as needed
Butter as needed
Sauté the garlic in olive oil just to season the oil, but be sure not to burn it. Remove and discard the garlic. Add the garlic oil to the mayonnaise and mix thoroughly. Sauté the Mortadella in the remnants of the oil until just starting to brown, then place a slice of Mortadella and a slice of cheese on a slice of bread, add the garlic mayonnaise to the other slice and combine. Drop a pad of butter in a medium hot sauté pan and brown the sandwich on both sides until the cheese has melted. Serve with sliced tomato and baby spinach leaves and while still hot.
STEVE BORDELON'S STUFFED CHEESE BREAD
1 large round loaf of bread
1 cup yellow cheddar cheese
1 cup sharp white cheddar
2/3 cup mayonnaise
1 small chopped onion
3-4 chopped toes of garlic
A pinch of red pepper flakes and a pinch of black pepper
Cut the top of the bread off and then remove the soft white bread inside, leaving an empty shell. Combine all of the other ingredients, stuff the bread with the cheese mixture, replace the top and bake at 325 degrees for 45 minutes or until the cheese has melted and the bread is toasted. Pinch off pieces of the bread to dip the hot cheese with.