Cheese (and bread), has always been my downfall. I have always thought that if it wasn’t for cheese I would be thin. I have little to no control about this complete protein. I’m sure we can all remember those yummy grilled cheese sandwiches or mac and cheese from the box growing up. I’m sure we all realize that these dishes were made with processed cheese. I’m not above eating processed cheese (nachos come to mind), but I prefer medium cheddar cheese. Let’s face it, processed cheese is great for melting, it liquefies, and maintains its stretch. Unfortunately, a lot of cheeses are not meant to be warmed and they can become drier and stiffer. The amount of moisture, salt and acidity will determine how the cheese will melt when it is heated. Cheese is always made from milk. The texture of a cheese depends on water content. The fat content in a cheese can range from as little as 1% to 75%. The terroir of the milk, the time of year the animal grazed and, believe it or not, the time of day the animal is milked (this is starting to sound a lot like wine making) will affect the flavor of a cheese. That is just the tip of the iceberg. Other factors have to be taken into account as well—is the milk pasteurized or raw, the culture, aging process used, etc. I have read that there are 7 steps in making a basic cheese, which reminded me of stock making. The steps are:

  • Coagulation
  • Cutting the Curd: The solid element of the milk
  • Cooking the Curd
  • Draining
  • Salting
  • Molding and Pressing
  • Ripening: This has to happen naturally to form a rind, cloth or leaf bound, wax rind and/or brine cured

We should all appreciate how lucky we all are for living in an area where there are all kinds of artisan cheese makers (Cowgirl Creamery comes to mind). I remember this cheese store we paid a visit to during culinary school in Beverly Hills named, of all things, The Cheese Store. An odd location for cheese, but this place was well known, had been there for years (1967) and was known by many in the industry. The owners of the store are just a wealth of information, not to mention the 200 or so types of cheese they have. Every time I’m asked to make a cheese platter I try to add a new cheese and make sure there is an assortment of semisoft cheese, hard cheese and maybe a blue cheese with drizzled honey. I try to school myself, and maybe my guest, on the assortment. This could be classified as a cheese course. When serving cheese remember to allow it to come to room temperature. Cold cheese has only a fraction of the flavor. Also, avoid cheese that is vacuum-sealed in plastic. With all the varieties available, getting to know all the types can be never ending. New varieties of cheese have been developed ever since the process was discovered—by accident. Yes, by accident! As with all fermented products it is believed the curdling action was noticed when a herdsman poured milk into a pouch made of an animal’s stomach and some form of cheese was created. So the question is, where do you begin? I recommend starting with what you like. I prefer soft ripened cheese. My personal favorites are: brie, double creams and the best triple creams. Double and triple creams have been enriched with the addition of, well, cream! This style was created in Normandy, France in the early 1900’s. They were first known as the “cheese of affluence” because the added cream was a luxury. Double creams contain a minimum of 60% butterfat; triple contain 72%. Another one of my favorites is cheddar, medium to sharp. Sharp is a little too intense for my husband so I tend to buy medium. The term “sharp” indicates the cheese has been allowed to age longer which creates a sharper flavor. Currently I have been using an Irish cheddar that has a great flavor. Cheddar refers to cheese in which curds have been cut, stacked, drained, restacked, milled, salted and pressed. There’s something to note about another favorite of mine, Parmigiano-Reggiano and plain Parmesan cheese. Parmigiano-Reggiano is made only in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy. The milk used comes from cows that graze in grassy meadows. Each wheel is aged for at least 12 months before it is stamped and shipped to market. This cheese is one of the most copied cheeses on the market, which is found to be salt laden and mass-produced from cows that are penned in and grain fed. Also, rather than buying the pre-grated—which loses moisture and flavor—buy a chunk and grate it yourself, you will notice a difference. I would be remiss if I did not mention Gruyere, which is a Swiss cheese from the western hills of Switzerland that no French onion soup would be complete without. Go out now and try a new cheese, but just remember to wrap up any leftovers and refrigerate them since after 4 hours they tend to dry out and deteriorate. By Chef K. Marie Paulk