Friends, everyone I know has been glued to the Olympics, so let’s take a moment to look at Gold Medal hopefuls in the, ahem, cheese category. For those of you with a competitive streak, here are a few dairy-related challenges that will keep your eyeballs and tastebuds engaged during all of those commercial breaks.
American Cheese Society Competition
Earlier this month, American cheesemakers from around the country sent their best wheels in for the annual American Cheese Society (ACS) judging held in Des Moines, Iowa. You can read about the Best of Show winners in The New York Times. My home state of Pennsylvania tied for 2nd place with St. Malachi from Doe Run Farm — huge congrats to cheesemakers Sam Kennedy and Matt Hettlinger. If you want to see how cheesemakers in your state fared, check out the list of ACS winners. Better yet, sprint to your local cheese shop between sporting events and ask for an ACS winners cheese plate.
The Saveur Blog Awards
Yours Truly is pushing hard in the “Food Obsessives” category of Saveur Magazine’s annual Food Blogger Awards. This may be the first time a cheese blog has made it into the finals, friends, so please, please consider voting. The competition ends August 31. Note: there were 30,000 nominations, and the finalists in all of the many categories will give you awe-inspiring glimpses into food blogs from around the country. Please vote here — you’ll see my photo of Parish Hill Creamery cheeses (above) as you scroll through the finalists. If you want to hear more about this match, watch the short interview I did with health writer Babs Hogan on her new series Cheese Hangouts.
The 5 Best New Sandwiches in America
Bon Appetit Magazine released its latest lusty listicle this week — are you living in Chicago, Pittsburgh, New York, City, Dallas or Philadelphia? If you are, you just hit the sandwich jackpot! I almost don’t want to tell you that the biggest winner of all — which features cream cheese, thank you very much — is 2 blocks from my house. It’s sick. If you like bagels, the Classic Lox Bagel at Philly Style Bagels is a glorious thing. Come over and eat one on my stoop, why don’tcha?
The United States of Cheese Quest
Finally, here’s an all-American cheese competition everyone can get behind: artist Mike Geno is trying to paint a cheese from every state in America. Take a look at his interactive map and see if he has painted a cheese from your state yet — if not, recommend one? He’s 38 states down and counting, and his paintings and prints are spell-binding. If your favorite Olympic hopeful doesn’t win a medal, console yourself with a stunning cheese portrait.
Feeling competitive? Tell me where you have eaten the best cheese board so far this year. Maybe we need a Best Cheese Board in America award. Nudge, nudge, Bon Appetit!
August is ugly. It’s all sweat and flies. Here in Philadelphia, everyone related to anyone with a shore house has packed up and fled. As a midwestern transplant, I console myself with cheese boards instead of crab claws and spend most evenings drinking cocktails on the stoop instead of on sandy beaches. No complaints. August is a good time to surf local cheese shops (business tends to be slow), linger by the coolers enjoying samples, and invite old friends over for epic snack plates.
Since fixing a cheese board doens’t require an oven, it’s the perfect cold supper. Quick to fix. A delight to eat. As you know, I love a cheese board that seduces the eye, offering a bit of drama — a little dinner theater. Like “Shakespeare in the Park,” a great cheese board is all about the stage and a well-chosen cast of garnishes.
May the cheese boards below, pulled from the MF archives, inspire you to create a cheese-themed soirée, an antidote to August’s bleating hotness.
1. Goat Cheese & Citrus Board
- Pick out 3 to 5 goat cheeses of different textures (goat milk is the lightest of milks and, thus, ideal for summer)
- Play off the the acidity in goat cheese with lemon curd or marmalade — I love Yuzu marmalade, which is both citrusy and slightly floral. You can also set out honey.
- Fill in around the board with pistachios or walnuts, plus light crackers (any cracker with rosemary or thyme will be fab)
- To drink: a light, bright wine (like Sauvignon Blanc), wheat beer or saison, a citrusy cocktail with an herbaceous edge (like a French 75 or a Gin & Tonic)
2. Exploring-One-Style-of-Cheese Board
- Decide on a single style, like fresh cheeses, triple-cremes, cheddars, Alpines, stinkers, or blues
- Ask friends to bring one cheese in that style (call it a Mozzarella Potluck, say!) or pick out the cheeses yourself, then assign friends to bring accompaniments
- Build a big, beautiful board with lots of accompaniments so people can mix and match — don’t sweat the pairings, let people go wild. As long as you have nuts, fruit, pickles, jams, bread, and booze, everyone will be happy.
- At the end of the night, ask everyone to describe their best bite
3. Road Trip Cheese Board
- Pick a country or region you hope to visit
- Visit a good cheese shop with helpful mongers and ask them to recommend several cheeses from that place (Italy, France, England, Spain, Switzerland, Portugal are all good bets)
- Try picking wines or beers from the same place — there’s a theory that terroir matches terroir. The theory doesn’t always work, but it’s still fun to try cheese and drink from the same region
- You can also focus on artisan cheeses from a region of the U.S. — this is a great way to begin planning a road trip
4. Single Artisan Cheese Board
- Pick out 3 to 5 cheeses created by the same maker (in this case, Allison Hooper of Vermont Creamery — her line of goat cheese is readily available and wonderful)
- Offer simple pairings so that the cheeses remain in focus. Notice how the same milk expresses itself through different cheeses. So interesting.
- Choose a drink pairing from the maker’s region, in this case Barr Hill Gin from Vermont
5. Farm & Garden Cheese Board
- Pluck whatever is ripe or available at the farmers’ market — I like to steam veggies, especially green beans, carrots, pototatoes
- At your cheese shop, ask for cheeses with herbaceous flavors (like mountain cheeses or Alpines) and at least one aged Gouda for something sweet
- Add one earthy element, like sautéed mushrooms or something truffled
- Play with natural and/or earthy wines or beers
Next up: I’m exploring the theme of “cheese boards” this month, from composing cheese boards like the ones here, to finding actual boards that are good for entertaining. Join me as I visit a unique company that is working to re-invent the cheese board.
Uhhh…the cheese pictured at the top of this post? It’s Taupiniere, a gorgeous mushroom cloud of goat cheese rolled in ash, from California. I should have mentioned: you can always build a board around a single glorious cheese. Just add berries, dramatic flowers, and call it Ikebana.
Summer started with sheep’s milk, and I am determined to end it with sheep’s milk. On Sunday, August 28, 2016 I invite you to join me for a ricotta + rosé dinner at a charming restaurant near my house in the Fishtown neighborhood of Philadelphia, The Pickled Heron. The dinner will include a 4-course meal, featuring homemade ricotta in each dish, plus specially chosen rosé pairings from Moore Brothers Wine. As a highlight, we’ll be using some extraordinary grass-fed sheep’s milk from a new local company called Perrystead.
Let me tell you why I am over the moon — picture a moon made of sheep’s milk — about this dinner.
Synchronicity is at the heart of this meal. In late May, I sprinted off to Sicily in pursuit of ricotta, and thanks to a pair of glorious grrrl guides who invited me to contribute to a project called Due South. In Sicily, I was introduced to the ricotta of my dreams — the island’s ricotta is especially delicious (and famous) because of the fertile pastures where the sheep graze.
The best ricotta, as any Sicilian will tell you, must be made from grass-fed sheep’s milk.
When I returned to Philadelphia, a chef reached out to me on Instagram to say, “Psssssttt! Your pictures are making me want to pig out on food and travel. Wanna do a cheese/book dinner?” It was Chef Daniela D’Ambrosio (you may remember her duking it out with Bobby Flay on the Food Network?) at The Pickled Heron. We’d never met in person, but when we did, it was a mutual cheese love affair. We flipped through a Sicilian cookbook together, and I described to her the various ways Sicilians used ricotta, in particular: baking it in clay to create Ricotta Infornata.
My only question was this: how would we source great sheep’s milk?
Synchronicity struck again! An urban cheese guru named Yoav Perry (a.k.a. Artisan Geek) texted me to say that he had left New York and bought a house in my neighborhood. When we met for coffee, he told me he had formed a relationship with some pasture-raised sheep farmers in New York and was preparing to become their chief distributor. Can you imagine? The archangel of grass-fed sheep’s milk right before my eyes?
And so, on August 28, we will celebrate sheep’s milk and synchronicity. I hope you can come! Details and menu are below…
Ricotta + Rosé Dinner Party, Sunday, August 28, 7 p.m. at The Pickled Heron, 2218 Frankford Ave., Philadelphia, $85 (does not include tax +tip). Reservations: 215-634-5666. Note: Seating is limited. Vegetarian and gluten-free alternatives are available – please mention these preferences when you reserve.
4-Course Menu with 4 Rosés
Grilled Octopus with Preserved Lemon, Chickpeas, Chilies, Oregano, Ricotta Salata
Jaume Rose Côtes du Rhône 2015
Ricotta Gnudi with Chanterelles, Housemade Pancetta, Basil
Corte Gardoni Chiaretto 2015
Grilled Quail with Ricotta Infornata, Balsamic Cherries, Broccoli Raab, Pine Nuts
Turcaud Clairet 2015
Fig Tart with Ricotta, Honey, Pistachio Gelato
Magellan Defendu ROSE 2015
More August Cheese Events: My pals at Di Bruno Bros. just announced a series of cheese and beer pairing classes at the new Di Bruno Bros. Bottle Shop. For tickets and details, check out the Di Bruno Bros. Culture Club.
Returning from Sicily to Philadelphia’s simmering pot of hot weather has thrown me into a jag of yogurt making. Thanks to Cheryl Sternman Rule’s recent book, Yogurt Culture, I’ve made batch after perfect batch — a feat, since I have tried yogurt recipes in the past with mixed results. Cheryl’s instructions are exacting. And her recipe (below) works well for whole milk or 2%. I like to start a batch in the morning, and by mid-afternoon it’s ready to slide into the fridge, good for a snack at sundown.
My Swiss grandmother used to greet us with a large blue salad bowl full of homemade yogurt when we visited her home in Cleveland, back when I was a kid. She’d set it out on her kitchen table (always covered in a thick plastic tablecloth to preserve the wood finish) along with homemade preserves and muesli, and we’d dish ourselves big helpings of yogurt and toppings. So cool, so refreshing after the long drive across the Midwest.
Later, as an exchange student in Munich, my host family liked to gather around their kitchen table on weekend afternoons for a quarkspeise — a dairy-centric ritual involving a buffet of berries, preserves, honey, muesli, and quark or yogurt.
As you can see, my yogurt affiliations run deep.
How I love pattering into my own kitchen now, knowing there is a big blue salad bowl full of homemade yogurt. Out comes the jam, the berries, the buckwheat honey and granola.
And I’ve been playing with other uses, thanks to Yogurt Culture. For a recent stoop party, I made Cheryl’s recipe for Cold Yogurt Soup with Cucumber, Herbs, and Rose Petals (page 144). Before that, I fell hard for Pomegranate Doogh (page 138), a yogurt soda that I maybe spiked with a little Creme de Cassis?
This week, Cheryl has a story in the food section of The Washington Post for yogurt cocktails — full disclosure: she included a yogurt cocktail from my recent book with André Darlington, The New Cocktail Hour.
We’ve bonded, you see, Cheryl and I. Over dairy. It happens, as you well know. When Cheryl and I spoke by phone recently — after discovering each other on Instagram (look for @sternmanrule)– she confessed that since she had written a yogurt book, it had taken over her life. She launched a website, called Team Yogurt, and now all she wants to do is profess the magic of probiotic dairy to everyone she meets.
I told her I understood completely.
This recipe is lightly adapted from Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food, by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Cheryl’s recipe makes a half-gallon of yogurt, but I prefer to make a smaller batch for our two-person household. Check out her book for loads more information on yogurt-making, including how to make Greek-style yogurt and Labneh (yogurt cheese).
- 4 cups milk (whole milk or 2%)
- 1 tablespoon yogurt (the starter)
Step 1: Heat the Milk to 180 degrees F. Rub an ice cube around the inside of a stainless steel pot or saucepan to prevent the milk from sticking to it as it heats. Then affix your candy thermometer to the side of the pot and add the milk. Warm the milk slowly over medium-high heat. This may take up to 20 minutes, so be patient and do some dishes as you wait. When the temperature reaches 180, turn the heat way down but maintain the temperature for 5 minutes (this will create naturally thicker yogurt). Remove the pot from the heat and remove any skin that has formed on top of the milk.
Step 2: Cool the milk to 115 degrees F. Pour the hot milk into a large bowl (I use a big ceramic salad bowl) and let the milk cool, stirring occasionally, until it reaches 115 degrees. This will take another 20 to 30 minutes.
Step 3: Add the starter culture. When the milk has reached 115 degrees, ladle about a cup of it into a mug and whisk a tablespoon of the yogurt starter into it. (This is called tempering.) Then, pour the tempered yogurt back into the large bowl of milk and cover it with a plate.
Step 4: Incubate. Your innocculated milk needs to be kept warm (between 100 and 112 degrees). Find a warm spot in your house, or use the “proofing” setting on your oven — which is what I do. Let the yogurt rest undisturbed for 6 to 12 hours. (I check it at hour six, and if it has set, I put it into the refrigerator. It should wobble a little. If it needs more time, wait another two hours and check it again.)
By now, you know that I am smitten with cheese travel. Of all the places I’ve visited, Sicily ranks #1 in my mind for having the most cheese-enthused citizens. (Sorry, Vermont.) The Sicilians I met during my two week cheese trek in June didn’t just love waxing poetic about their neighbor’s ricotta, they wanted to grab your hand and take you next door straightaway so you could eat it warm.
Even more impressive: locals know Sicily’s dozen or so traditional cheeses by heart and are eager to chat about their favorite styles, perfect pairings, and must-try regional dishes. Suffice it to say: Sicily is one big cheese party. I loved it, and I can’t wait to go back.
For those of you interested in traveling to Sicily in pursuit of delicious dairy, let me pass along highlights from our itinerary. Full credit for trip-planning goes to artist and curator Marianne Bernstein, who invited me to chronicle Sicily’s cheese culture as part of her volcanic-island-based project, Due South, and to Sicilian native and professional travel planner Karen La Rosa. Check out her site for loads more tips.
Castle Di Tusa
Our journey starts here, in Castle di Tusa, a tiny beach town not far from Palermo — a terrific spot for adjusting to island life (seafood, siestas) and exploring the northern part of the island by car. It’s also an easy town to explore on foot, full of winding corridors, lemon trees, and sultry sea air.
We stayed at The Tus’ Hotel for 4 nights. Think: gorgeous pool overlooking the ocean and clean, affordable rooms. Head to Ristorante Grotta Marina for freshly caught seafood, grilled vegetables, and plentiful pitchers of wine. Don’t miss the older, even quainter part of the city — a short but steep drive up the mountain — where you’ll find some of the island’s best ricotta at the local caseficio and one of Sicily’s best scenic views at The Belvedere, a bar stocked with Italian craft beers.
Day trips: Dart over to the tiny mountain town of Mirto to pick up the best picnic fare you’ll ever find at La Paisanella, a pristine meat and cheese shop that is renowned for its black boar sausage, clay-baked ricotta, and Provola di Nebrodie (the local mountain cheese). Owners Luisa and Agostino don’t speak English, but they happily offered us a glorious tasting of the cheeses in their case. At nearby shops, we stocked up on cherries, apricots, fresh bread for the road. The local pastry shop, La Cometa, has great gelato and fabulous butter cookies topped with jam and pistachios, which I munched while meandering through hillside olive trees, snapping photos of stray cats and ancient Byzantine steeples.
Near the charming town of Gangi in the Madonie Mountatins, there’s a rustic cooking school in a 14th century Benedictine abbey. It’s run by noted cookbook author Giovanna Tornabene, a kind and proud native who speaks English and supports a local shepherd who makes beautiful cacciocavallo (a gourd-shaped cheese). We stopped in for a delicious lunch and toured the grounds, which look like something from a Merchant Ivory film — there’s a courtyard full of antique roses, fruit trees, and flowering vines.
Giovanna’s seven small rescue dogs were sleeping in the sun, and a pair of sheep stood grazing in a corner next to a pair of crumbling pillars. Book a few nights at the inn, and ask Giovanna to teach you how to make traditional Sicilian dishes, like the wonderful ricotta, eggplant, and mint frittata she served us or the digestif she described made with bay leaves from her trees.
A bustling city known for its open-air food markets, Catania is full of creatives, crumbling splendor, and colorful graffiti. We loved staying at BAD, an inexpensive art hotel with a glorious rooftop terrace (ask for the top floor apartment; it has a kitchen). The market unraveled right outside the front door, and there were plenty of spooling market streets to explore. Cheese vendors are especially plentiful, and you can spend an entire morning wandering amid bins of snails, whole swordfish, garlic braids, and fresh peaches.
Breakfast on fresh blood-orange juice, lunch on wine and oysters, and then make yourself a fabulous market cheese board of Piacentinu (a sheep’s milk cheese laced with saffron and peppercorns), sun-dried tomatoes, and toasted pistachios.
If you want to splurge on a great dinner, head to Wine Bar and order a bottle of Etna Rosso and swordfish risotto with capers and smoked scamorza; Wine Bar also offers a terrific Sicilian cheese board with local honey. Also, be sure to visit the city’s oldest bar, which has a hidden grotto in the basement with a trickling stream that passes almost unnoticed by diners in fashionable shoes. To atone for so much goodness, tour the cathedral of Saint Agatha, with its marble and lava rock interior, in the morning before the tourists descend, then treat yourself to life-changing cannoli studded with pistachios at Prestipino Cafe on the piazza.
My favorite cheese city! Ragusa is a beach town, agrarian paradise, and dairy hub. Here, you’ll find one of Sicily’s most stunning cheese shops, Dipasquale’s, plus a traditional-cheese research center (CoRFiLaC) which offers a terrific tour and tasting of Sicilian cheeses paired with wine (well worth the 35 EU). We loved staying in a country inn outside the city, Casina di Grotta di Ferro, where host Massimo Brullo shared all of his cheese connections, including a visit to his cheesemaker neighbor who provided us with fresh ricotta every morning. The inn and its grounds are stunning, with a stone courtyard, a glistening pool, and a communal kitchen that includes a wood-fired oven.
Massimo, our host, spoke perfect English and plied us with espresso throughout the day, answering questions and making recommendations for unusual restaurants, including a buffalo farm within a few kilometers where we feasted on two kinds of buffalo cheese made on site, along with buffalo prosciutto. Plan a beach day, a day or two in town, and at least one day to simply relax under the magenta bougainvillea by the pool. It’s hard to imagine a more divine place on earth. For those who like wine in their gelato, make sure to hit Ragusa’s Gelato Divini for a spiked scoop. Nearby, the town of Modica is chocolate central. It’s a little sick.
For my final night, I dropped my bags at the Artemisia Palace, an affordable boutique hotel in the heart of the city and walked a few short blocks to the historic opera house (Teatro Massimo) to score last-minute tickets to the ballet. People-watching from a velvet-lined box seat in this opulent music hall was a highlight, so was a Sunday morning stroll to the Palermo cathedral, where I happened to catch a beautiful, incense-drenched mass. To eat: great street food, terrific pastries, granita, and gelato everywhere you look.
Sicily Travel Tips
- Look for cheap flights through Meridiana Airlines
- June is a great time to visit, right before the tourist season
- Festivals, religious and otherwise, abound in Sicily — check dates in advance
- Consider renting a car and staying in small towns along the coast — they’re manageable and full of friendly locals who will happily tell you about regional specialties.
Sicily Posts From This Series