(Il Porcellino The Bacon Sandwich with Cheddar Photo: Kim Long)
By JOHN LEHNDORFF
(Originally published in Cheese Connoisseur magazine)
By JOHN LEHNDORFF
Room temperature and naked.
That is how Cheddar lovers say they want their favorite aged cheese, perhaps paired with a cracker. Admittedly, a cheese like Montgomery’s Extra Mature Cheddar is a palate pleaser par excellence needing little garnishment.
However, crumble that English classic on great bread and run it under the broiler until it bubbles and toasts and the Cheddar blooms with all its nutty, sharp and peppery nuances. Heat releases Cheddar’s textures from crumbly to creamy and complex aromas.
Mozzarella may top national cheese polls but that popularity is entirely pizza-driven. Cheddar is our true national cheese although it has suffered some indignities along the way. It’s time to take Cheddar seriously again as an ingredient and replace the American slices, Velveeta and Cheez Whiz in those dishes that define American comfort food from grilled cheese to the iconic cheeseburger.
When it comes to Cheddar-ized classics the 800-pound curd in the room has to be macaroni and cheese, the dish famously popularized when Thomas Jefferson served it in the White House in 1802. Jefferson’s grated cheese of choice was Parmigiano-Reggiano. Cheddar (and florescent orange cheese sauce) came much later.
Since “Cheddar” can mean anything from milquetoast mild to an aged cheese with a bite, the challenge is finding the right Cheddar for mac n cheese and other recipes, said Joseph Widmer. He’s the owner and master cheesemaker at Theresa WI-based Widmer’s Cheese Cellars, producer of Cheddar since 1922. Their roster ranges from young orange and white Cheddars and those aged from 2 to 10 years.
A cheese like Widmer’s 10 Year Aged White Cheddar is for “the extreme artisan cheese lover,” he said. It’s similar to olive oils, where you save the special EVOOs for a drizzle atop a dish at the last second. Widmer said it was a waste to use it as the primary cheese in favorites like Wisconsin macaroni and cheese or Cheddar beer soup. He prefers creamier less aged Cheddars which combine more easily.
Reserve the old stuff to sprinkle on top in the last few minutes or add some to a grilled cheese sandwich or potato gratin. That way you get to appreciate the sharpness, the caramel notes and a great aroma. “That 10 year old Cheddar will spice up the dish and add some pizzazz,” Widmer said.
Gordon Edgar, a cheesemonger in San Francisco, fell back in love with Cheddar while researching “Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese,” (Chelsea Green). Edgar’s 2015 book sought to answer a simple question: “Why did we all grow up on Velveeta?” and traced the evolution of Cheddar into “American” cheese and the rebirth of artisan Cheddar cheesemaking in the U.S.
“I find Cheddar to be an incredibly versatile cooking cheese. A great thing I make are popovers at least twice a month. I will make the popover recipe using different Cheddars and get greatly varying results. I like a sharp – not extra sharp – Cheddar like Bleu Mont Dairy Bandaged Cheddar, Prairie Breeze or Tillamook 18-month,” he said.
Cheddar has also been a standard omelet filling for Edgar … but with a little help. “I think the perfect omelet cheese is a mixture of cream cheese and shredded sharp Cheddar. You get the creaminess and the meltability,” Edgar said.
That combination of qualities lies at the heart of what James Beard Award-winning chef Sean Brock calls “pâté de Sud,” the trinity of pimento, shredded Cheddar and mayonnaise revered in the South. Pimento cheese is warmly welcomed atop grilled burgers, fried green (or red) tomatoes, stuffed in quail and spread inside omelets, writes Brock, owner of Husk Restaurant in Nashville and Charleston. Pimento cheese warms and crusts over under a broiler or in an oven and becomes a satisfying Cheddar-y delight.
However, Brock rescues pimento cheese from its bland processed origins in his acclaimed debut cookbook, “Heritage” (Artisan Books). His recipe calls for smoked paprika, pickled ramps and Buttermilk Cheddar and Hickory Smoked Cheddar from Sweetwater Valley Farm in Philadelphia, Tenn.
At Denver’s Il Porcellino Salumi, cured meat artisan and owner Bill Miner cures and smokes Duroc pork belly for his deli’s The Bacon sandwich. He shaves the bacon thin, doesn’t overcook it and layers it with heirloom tomato and arugula on country bread spread with apple butter and jalapeño aioli.
Those components alone would make an exceptional sandwich but Miner took it to another level and won a swarm of awards when he added a dollop of thick, warm cheese sauce made with Cave Aged Cheddar from Vermont’s Cellars at Jasper Hill. It’s a mess of a sandwich and a highly satisfying one.
Cheddar has been underestimated as a mate for smoked meats and earthy salumi, Miner said. “I particularly like Carr Valley Cheddar for the rich, creamy texture and full flavor, and a farmhouse style cow’s milk Cheddar made at the Ugly Goat Milk Company in Colorado. They go great with our summer fermented and smoked sausage with mustard seed and coriander seed,” he said.
Part of the problem with cooking with Cheddar is eating said cheese before you have a chance to incorporate it into a recipe. San Francisco cheesemonger and author Gordon Edgar suggested a solution to this quandary. “I’ll bring home two Cheddars. I’ll have a cheaper one to cook with and a clothbound Cheddar to eat while I’m cooking and to add at the end … if there’s any left,” he said.
John Lehndorff is the former Chief Judge at the National Pie Championships and hosts Radio Nibbles weekly on KGNU-FM. Read his culinary blog at: johnlehndorff.wordpress.com.
“The Bacon” Sandwich with Cheddar Fondue
4 slices country bread, thick-sliced, toasted
1/3 pound artisan smoked bacon, thinly sliced or shaved
1 ripe heirloom tomato, sliced
Prepared apple butter
Aioli (or mayo) with finely minced jalapeno
Cheddar fondue (See recipe below)
Toast bread. Spread one slice thinly with apple butter and the other with aioli. Add tomato slices. Cook thinly shaved bacon in a frying pan just until done but NOT crisp. Top with a dollop of Cheddar fondue. Arugula can be added in the sandwich or on the side to add flavor contrast. Makes two sandwiches.
1½ quarts heavy cream
2 cups extra sharp Cheddar cheese, shredded
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Salt, fresh ground black pepper, to taste
Heat the cream in a medium sauce pan until it simmers. Mix the cornstarch with 1/3 cup of cold water and whisk into the cream. Continue to whisk and add the shredded cheese. Continue whisking until the cheese is incorporated and fully melted. Thin as needed with water or milk and season generously with salt and pepper to taste. Serve warm. Makes about 1½ quarts. Leftovers are ideal for making macaroni and cheese.
(Recipe from Il Porcellino Salumi, Denver)
Cheddar popovers (Photo: Kim Long)
Cheddar Cheese Popovers
1¼ cups whole milk
1 tablespoon melted butter (plus butter for muffin tins)
1¼ cups sifted flour
¼ teaspoon salt
about 1/3 pound Cheddar, grated
Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees. Ingredients should all be at room temperature. Mix together (by hand) milk, melted butter, sifted flour and salt. Beat eggs and add them slowly to batter. Do not overbeat! Heavily butter the insides of a muffin tin, preferably nonstick. Butter all the way to top. Fill ¼ of each tin with batter, ¼ with grated cheese, ¼ with the remaining batter and leave the last ¼ empty for the puff. Put in oven immediately.
After 20 minutes, turn heat down to 350 without ever opening the oven door! After 20 more minutes you can open the door. Remove from muffin tin immediately. While the cheese will prevent these popovers from puffing as much as non-cheese popovers, they should still have expanded nicely. Yield: Six big popovers.
(Recipe from Gordon Edgar, author of “Cheddar: A Journey to the Heart of America’s Most Iconic Cheese”)
12 ounces jarred whole pimentos
4 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
½ cup mayonnaise, preferably Duke’s
½ teaspoon hot sauce
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon sugar
⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper
⅛ teaspoon smoked paprika
¼ cup pickled ramps (or onions), chopped, plus ½ cup of the brine
½ pound sharp Cheddar, grated on the large holes of a box grater
Don’t use jarred chopped pimentos – they have no flavor.
Put the cream cheese in a medium bowl and beat it with a wooden spoon until softened. Add the mayonnaise and mix well. Add the hot sauce, salt, sugar, cayenne pepper, white pepper, and smoked paprika and stir to blend. Add the ramps (or onions), brine and Cheddar and stir again. Fold in the diced pimentos. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. Tightly covered, the pimento cheese will keep for up to 3 days in the refrigerator. Makes 2½ to 3 cups.
Note: For creamer pimento cheese, combine all of the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and beat on medium speed for 2 minutes.
(Recipe from “Heritage” (Artisan Books) by Sean Buck)