When the Pilgrims sailed from England in the early 1600s, they brought cheddar cheese with them.
Originally made in Cheddar, a village in southwest England, this semihard cow's milk cheese has grown over the centuries into the world's most-copied cheese style.
Because it's so widely available, you might think you know cheddar; you're familiar with the shreds that top tacos, the slices sandwiched between grilled bread and the cubes on an appetizer tray. But a growing number of American artisanal cheese makers are showing there are many sides to cheddar.
"It's not just a big orange log that you pick up at the grocery store," says Jeanette Hurt, Villa Park native and author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cheeses of the World" (2008, Alpha, $18.95). "Good cheddar doesn't have to be that color."
In the beginning
Cheddar cheese didn't just get its name from a town, it gets its name from the process. Cheddar cheese is made, Hurt explains, by cutting the cheese into curds, then pushing the curds together into slabs; slabs are piled on top of one another and the pressure extracts the whey (a watery, high-protein liquid that now ends up in protein drinks).
Many modern varieties get a dose of annatto, the ground seed of a South American achiote tree, to give the cheese color.
"When cattle graze on grass during the summer, the cheese would get a nice yellow color from the natural beta carotene," says Bill Wendorff, dairy professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and cheddar judge for the American Cheese Society. "When the cows are on winter feed, that color would disappear."
Wendorff says it became a tradition in the Midwest to add annatto year-round to keep the product consistent. Vermont's familiar white cheddar, on the other hand, is made without the natural coloring agent.
The regional differences go beyond color, Wendorff says. Just as climate and soil determine a wine's flavor, so do the environment and feed influence cheese. Midwestern mild cheddars, he says, tend to have a clean, slightly acidic flavor, while New York and Vermont varieties are generally more intense and slightly sulfury.
The American Cheese Society recognizes nine categories of cheddar cheese at its annual competition: mild and medium cheddars aged less than 12 months; sharp cheddars aged 12 to 24 months; cheddars with sweet and savory flavorings (herbs, alcohol, jalapenos); cheeses aged 25 to 48 months; those aged longer than 48 months; as well as "bandaged wrapped" (those wrapped in cloth, linen) aged up to 12 months and aged more than 12 months.
"Bandage-wrapped cheddar is a special type of cheese," Hurt says. "It actually gets kids of moldy; they tend to have more of a musty, more pronounced taste."
That mold is scrubbed off before it hits the store.
At The Winery Restaurant at the American Club in Kohler, Wis., chef Ulrich Koberstein offers diners a unique opportunity to sample a spectrum of cheddars.
"Wisconsin has such a strong cheese-making heritage; I wanted to give people an opportunity to get an appreciation of how complex cheddar can be," Koberstein says.
(By the way, of the 45 cheeses in his cheese cave, 41 are from Wisconsin.)
His evolution of cheddar tasting starts with fresh curds - "they come to us the day they are made" - then moves onto cheddar aged 90 days and then 12 months.
"At one year, you start to see the complexity you don't get in packaged supermarket cheese," Koberstein says.
The tasting continues with three-, five-, seven-, 10- and 12-year-old cheeses. At five years, mineral notes come in and at seven salt crystals develop.
"The salt crystals bring unique flavors. I wouldn't recommend a 12-year cheddar for a grilled cheese or burger," Koberstein says. Rather, the cheese should be appreciated on its own.
When judging cheese, Wendorff says he looks for cheese that holds together nicely, breaks down easily in the mouth and has balanced flavor with a bit of nutty notes. He said great cheddar (any cheese, really) makes you say, "Gosh, that was good. I want another piece."
Wendorff cautions that home cooks shouldn't be tempted to try to age cheddar at home.
Cheddars designed for "long hold" are drier and higher in acid and are made with bacteria cultures that react to temperature fluctuations.
"Natural cheese is a living piece of tissue," Wendorff says. "If you picked up a mild cheddar today, what you would end up with would be pasty."
Artisan cheeses for sampling, sale
It's a good time to be a cheese lover in Chicago.
Later this month the city plays host to the American Cheese Society and its 25th Annual Conference and Cheese Competition. While the event, July 23-26, is a chance for cheese makers from across the nation to share dairy knowledge, learn about new markets and emerging styles and put their cheddars, blues and bries on the judging block, it also offers two opportunities for the general public to take a bite of the big cheese.
At the Festival of Cheese, 5:30 to 9 p.m. July 26 at the Hilton Chicago, 720 S. Michigan Ave., cheese lovers will have the opportunity to taste more than 1,200 cow, goat and sheep cheeses, including the award winners of this year's cheese competition. Tickets cost $85 and can be purchased at the door or ordered online at www.cheesesociety.org or ACS headquarters, (502) 583-3783.
If you like what you taste Saturday, head to Kendall College for Sunday morning's cheese sale. From 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., shoppers will have the chance to buy specialty cheeses at rock-bottom prices in the parking lot at Kendall College at 900 N. North Branch St., Chicago. Admission is free.
"The Festival of Cheese and Cheese Sale are rare opportunities for cheese lovers to peruse, sample and purchase the top cheeses in North America all in one weekend," said Marci Wilson, executive director of the American Cheese Society. "Chicago was chosen as the host city this year because it is a top-tier city that provides a big stage for our anniversary, and chefs and consumers in the area have a huge interest in cheese."
Cheddar cheese by the numbers
• Consumers ate 13.1 pounds of American-style cheese (of which cheddar is included) in 2006.
• Supermarkets sold 540 million pounds of cheddar in 2006.
• Wisconsin has 57 cheese plants that make cheddar.
• In 2007, Wisconsin produced 626.6 million pounds of cheddar - more than any other state.
• For a Fourth of July celebration in Madison, Wis., Sarah "The Cheese Lady" Kaufmann carved patriotic scenes into a 5,000-pound block of cheddar.
Sources: Wisconsin Dairy Producers, International Association of Dairy Foods, Dailty Herald interviews
Duck, Wild Mushroom and Cheddar Cheese Strudel
pound assorted wild mushrooms (such as crimini, shiitake, morel)
¼ pound confit and shredded duck meat
½ pound butter
¼ cup chopped, peeled shallots
1 teaspoon peeled, chopped garlic
2 teaspoons stemmed, chopped rosemary
1 teaspoon stemmed, chopped fresh thyme
4 cups baby spinach
1 box phyllo dough
3 cups finely shredded cheddar cheese
Salt to taste
Black pepper to taste
Wash any dirt from the mushrooms and dry quickly, sliced into 1/8-inch slices.
Melt the butter in a pan and saute the mushrooms, shallots, garlic, rosemary and thyme, 2 to 3 minutes until the mushrooms render their liquid and reserve.
In another pan, saute the spinach until wilted and combine with the mushrooms and confit duck.
Heat oven to 350 degrees. Open the phyllo package and unroll the dough. Cover the phyllo with a moist cloth while using to prevent it from drying.
Remove 1 sheet and place on a cutting board, brush with clarified butter sprinkle with cheddar cheese and top with another phyllo layer. Use about half of the cheddar cheese and keep the rest for the filling. Repeat until four layers are used.
Drain the mushrooms, spinach and duck and mix in the remaining cheese. Place the filling on the edge of the phyllo dough in a straight line. Roll the phyllo into a uniform roll and fold the ends under. This phyllo roll should now resemble a large egg roll in size and shape.
Bake until golden brown, about 10 minutes. Allow to cool and slice into 4 slices and serve with a simple green salad dressed with your favorite dressing.
Chef Ulrich Koberstein, American Club, Kohler, Wis.
Cheddar cheese scones
1 cups flour
1 cups rolled oats
¼ cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cream of tartar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup (2 ounces) fine shredded cheddar cheese
½ cup butter, melted
½ cup milk
Heat oven to 425 degrees; lightly grease a baking sheet.
In a large bowl, stir together flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, cream of tartar and salt. Stir in cheese.
In a small bowl, beat butter with milk and egg; add to dry ingredients and stir just until mixed.
Shape dough into a ball and pat onto a lightly floured surface to form an 8-inch circle. Cut into 12 wedges and transfer pieces to baking sheet. Bake 12-15 minutes or until light golden brown.
Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
Double cheddar mac-n-cheese
1 cup chicken stock
2 ounces roux (1 ounce flour, 1 ounce butter)
1 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon dry mustard
4 ounces shredded cheddar
4 ounces shredded white cheddar
4 ounces American cheese, diced
¼ cup shredded parmesan
24 ounces cavatappi, cooked al dente
3 ounces fine bread crumbs
In a 2- to -3-quart sauce pan, bring chicken stock to a boil. Whisk in roux until smooth. Lower heat and add cream and dry mustard. Slowly add cheeses and stir consistently until smooth.
Set oven to broil.
In a large, heat-proof dish, toss pasta with cheese sauce until pasta is coated well. Sprinkle bread crumbs over top and place under boiler to brown the crumbs.
Serves four to six.
Chef John Ayaleanos, Birch River Grill, Rolling Meadows
Southwestern Corn Cheddar Soup
2 ears corn, husked and silks removed
8 flour tortillas cut into ¼-inch strips
Canola oil for frying
¼ cup unsalted butter
¼ cup onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
¼ cup flour
3 cups chicken stock
2 cups half and half
1 cup Mexican beer
¾ teaspoon ground cumin
¾ teaspoon dried oregano
1 can (4 ounces) diced green chile
1 pound extra sharp cheddar cheese, finely grated
1 teaspoon sauce from can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce
3 ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded and chopped
2 ripe avocados, pitted, peeled and chopped
½ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
1 lime cut into 6 wedges
Place corn ears on a hot oiled grill. Rotate corn until corn kernels have grill markings, about 8-10 minutes. Remove grilled corn and cool slightly.
While corn is cooling, fry tortilla strips in hot oil until golden. Drain strips on paper towels and set aside. Carefully cut off the corn kernels from corncob. Discard cob and set corn kernels aside.
In a large soup pot over medium-high heat, melt butter. Add onions and garlic and cook until tender; do not brown. Whisk in flour and stir until flour and onion/garlic mixture is combined. Whisking constantly, add chicken broth, half-and-half and beer to flour mixture. Add cumin, oregano and green chiles. Continue to cook and occasionally stir soup with a wooden spoon until thickened, about 20 minutes.
Remove soup from heat and whisk in cheddar cheese until melted. Add chipotle pepper sauce and reserved grilled corn kernels. Stir until all ingredients are combined.
To serve, ladle soup into 6 large soup bowls. Divide fried tortilla strips evenly and mound in center of bowl. Top tortilla strips with tomatoes, avocado and cilantro. Squeeze one lime wedge over top of garnishes.
Hot Broccoli Cheddar Dip
1 package (10 ounces) frozen chopped broccoli
8 ounces sharp or extra sharp cheddar, grated
4 ounces cream cheese
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon hot pepper sauce
½ teaspoon freshly grated black pepper
Place frozen broccoli in microwave-safe bowl; cover loosely with plastic wrap and microwave until hot and tender, about 9 minutes (do not add any water).
Uncover and add cheddar, cream cheese, hot sauce and pepper to bowl. Cover again and microwave just until cheeses are melted, 1 to 2 minutes longer. Stir until smooth. (If mixture seems thin, it will thicken upon cooling slightly.)
Serve with crackers and fresh vegetables.
Makes about 2 cups.
Cabot Creamery Cooperative