Formaggio Essex Pimento Cheese

pimento09They said it couldn’t be done, that yankees (read: non-Southerners) could make a good pimento cheese. But it has happened!

I am from Alabama. I love cheese. I love pimentos. And I hate mayonnaise. My hatred of mayonnaise – and it is truly a phobia—has severely impacted my ability to enjoy one of the most Southern of Southern treats, pimento cheese. For years I have been searching for alternatives to the requisite 2 Tablespoons to ¼ cup of mayo to make the spread creamy and…spreadable. I’ve used drained Greek yogurt, cream cheese, and per Paula Deen’s suggestion, chevre. They have all been good, but still there is a picnic and road trip aspect of the spread that can’t be reproduced without the dreaded mayonnaise.

After so many years, I have given up. If I can find or make a pimento-based cheese spread that tastes good, then so be it!

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Formaggio Essex’s Pimento Cheese is off-white to peach from the pimentos. The crostini in the background are green due to olive oil.

Yesterday at Fromaggio at Essex Market in NYC I found one. “No mayo!” the cheesemonger assured me.

I have since forgotten exactly which cheeses are in this pimento cheese, but it is delicious. It doesn’t look Southern. (My Southern memories of it are fluorescent orange squiggles with bright red pieces of peppers, served on white bread.) This pimento cheese’s color is more subtle. Neutral, even. But the taste is not.

It is based on various sized chunks of sharp white cheddar, stirred in with cream cheese and chopped up red pimentos and green peppers. It is cheesy, sharp, tangy, and also surprisingly hot! Pepper hot. There are also pockets of white cream cheese that smooth into the bread better than any mayo ever could. The pimentos provide a “juice” of their own.

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Photo from grubstreet.com.

Interruption to this blog post: I just found a review of Formaggio Essex’s Pimento Cheese on grubstreet.com where it’s listed as “Trashy Cheese.” The ingredients mentioned include mayonnaise, red pepper flakes, and also sriracha sauce.

I have used sriracha in my own. It is good.

I don’t know why anybody would call this “trashy cheese.” As a Southerner, I am offended!

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Ironbound Queijo

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Paõ de queijo means “bread of cheese” in Portuguese. I heard it pronounced “ponh (nasal o) day kage (soft g).

I found myself in a neighborhood of Newark called “Ironbound.” It is an area near the Newark Penn StatiIon terminal. I have not spent much time in Newark, and where I’ve been usually has been scary, with prostitutes, drug dealers, and cop cars roaming around.

I was dreading this non-cheese related outing, but was pleasantly surprised to see a regular shopping neighborhood, also with such a large number of signs for “paõ de queijo” (Brazilian cheese bread). South American cheese breads have been my obsession for the past few weeks. They can be made in a variety of ways: with grated cheese mixed in, with chunks of melted cheese at the center, with tapioca/cassava flour, wheat flour, corn flour, fried, baked, sweetened, with mozzarella, with queso fresco or queso blanco, rolled into croissants with guyaba, shaped into balls or rings…the list goes on. But the main ingredient remains the same—cheese!

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I was on Wilson Ave. near the train station.

Before I hit Ironbound, I had no idea how many types there really were, or that there could exist a neighborhood with so many bakeries. I had a very excited outburst on the bus going down Wilson Ave. “Paõ de queijo!” I screamed out in my best Brazilian accent, which comes off as French/Italian. Everybody on the bus, including the bus driver, had an opinion about the prime cheese bread.

“Go here, around the corner. The best!”

“No, she goes there….”

“Here! Get off here and go there!” Everybody was gesticulating. Either they were truly passionate about the paõ de queijo, as I was, or they just wanted the tourist to get off the bus.

PaoflyerFeeling overwhelmed, I simply went to the first bakery/restaurant I saw, which was appropriately named Paõ de Queijo. The logo even uses little rounds of cheese as the “O.” This menu is so cheese heavy, they got tired of writing the word “queijo,” so they just abbreviated any cheese-laden plate or sandwich to “X,” as in “X-Egg Bacon” or “X-Faminto” (the latter being sirloin steaks with mozzarella, egg, bacon, ham, corn, tomato…) This bakery was decidedly not kosher. It was heavy on the pork and meat combos with cheese, but there were vegetarian options.

paoNewark2The young guy at the counter was from Colombia, so I hammered him with questions about pan de queso colombiano and the Brasilian styles. I settled on four basic paõ de queijo balls for $1, and a $2 savory pastéis pastry called simply Queijo (mozzarella, e azeitona, meaning, mozzarella and olives). What was served to me was a flaky and very oily puffed pastry with nodules on the top that looked like toad skin.

This cheese pastry needed a tour guide, and I had my new Colombian friend to help me through. Although the description said “olives,” there was only one green olive inside the vault of melted cheese strands. I don’t know if this was intentional or if they just ran out of olives, but the Colombian explained it so well, I only wanted one olive.

paoNewark1 You see, the olive, it serves to, how do you say, make a different taste. The cheese is heavy, and then you bite the olive and it makes it different for the cheese.”

“Do you mean it cleanses the palate?”

“Yes, that’s it. The oil from the cheese, and the olive is sharp, you see.”

“Why only one olive?

“You only need one olive,” he replied.

I will be back to try some other pastry specialties (like puff pastry empanadas) that were sold out already, namely the 3 Queijos: Mozzarella, catupiry e parmezao or the Caroioquinha: milho, palmito catupiry e azeitona (corn, hearts of palm, Brazilian cream cheese & olives.)

131 Wilson Ave. Newark. Open 24 hours!!!

Elizabeth Bland, The Cheese Mistress
http://www.cheesemistress.com

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I’m nuttier – and cheesier – than a fruitcake!

Nutty, fruity, cheesy…how did these food words come to have less than positive meanings? Yes, a fruitcake is nutty, but why does nutty mean crazy? And cheese is…cheesy. Is that such a bad thing? And what’s wrong with fruits?

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Tins come in handy. In the South, everybody seems to have several Collins tins for various needs. And it’s no surprise to find a stick of Cracker Barrel in the fridge!

My cousin sent me a DeLuxe Fruitcake from Collins Street Bakery in Corsicana, Texas. (The president of the bakery is Bob McNutt, no joke!) Many Germans settled in Texas and brought their Old World recipes with them. Traditional Southern ingredients crept into the cooking, and voila–fusion cuisine, old school! Collins fruitcakes are covered in roasted pecans, a favorite all over the South. The cakes, which come in a round tin, are dense and heavy with candied fruit such as pineapple, cherries, golden raisins, papaya, and orange peel.

I eat more cheese than sweets, and when I do eat sweets, it usually involves cheese.

Fruitcake on Collins Bakery website

Fruitcake on Collins Bakery website

The first thing that came to mind was, “Which cheese would go with fruitcake?” I first thought of the Spanish tradition of pairing fig and almond nut cakes with Manchego or even blue cheese. Could I make an American version? The fruitcake is very sweet with over-the-top fruits like pineapple and papaya, unlike the more subtle, earthy sweetness of figs and dates. The sweetness was too much for a blue to handle, even with pecans which blues usually love.

So I tried an All-American stand-by, Cracker Barrel.

I like both nutty AND cheesy!

I like both nutty AND cheesy!

This Cracker Barrel is the award-winning Extra Sharp White Cheddar made with reduced fat milk. Its bright white color plays off the dark, luscious cake. The Cheddar is just salty and sharp enough to balance out this intense cake. I like to warm the cake up in the microwave, and then take a small bite of Cheddar with each forkful of cake. Although the cake is not outrageously sugary or fatty (15g of sugar, 5g fat per 1.5 oz 160 calorie slice), it does appreciate the savory reduced fat sidekick.

Elizabeth Bland, The Cheese Mistress
http://www.cheesemistress.com

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Point Reyes Toma – Cows “on point”

“They have real cows!” a guy in L.A. told me about the Point Reyes Farmstead Cheese Co. in Marin County. He had just been on a trip up the coast and, for some reason, was surprised to find real California cows making real California milk on a real California farm. He was really excited he saw a REAL cow!

I would be, too, especially one that made this luscious, buttery cheese. Toma is a gentle cow’s milk cheese that comes in a 10 lb.toma-style wheel (toma means “cheese that the farmer made himself” in Italian) with a natural rind. It has a few scattered, irregular holes that glisten like pockets of butterfat. The cheese is semi-soft and breaks off or slices with ease. Its aroma of pure butter matches its color and flavor, and true to the lush grasses, its tangy finish tastes of fresh fields. The butter seems to stretch for miles.

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A picture from my phone. This cheese is a gorgeous shade of butter yellow, sunny and beta carotene-rich from lush grazing grasses.

Toma is a “melts in your mouth” cheese; it hardly requires chewing. It’s a good thing. When I bought this, my friend’s toothless poodle was pawing away at the bag, hoping for a taste!

Toma has a bit of saltiness that would complement sweet fresh fruit. The website (www.pointreyescheese.com)  suggests using it in omelets, mac-n-cheese, casseroles, and grilled cheese sandwiches.

All of Point Reyes cheeses are “certified kosher,” according to the website. I contacted the farm about the exact certification, but I have yet to receive a response. It is likely under the KORC, as is the much celebrated Point Reyes Original Blue.

Elizabeth Bland, The Cheese Mistress
http://www.cheesemistress.com

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Rubbing Elbows with Cheese Celebrity! Consider Bardwell at Tops Hops

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Rust Glover, owner of Consider Bardwell Farm in VT

I often live in my own little cheese world, which includes me and my camera and laptop, random cheesemongers and cashiers, and fellow cheese aficionados on the internet. (We are very active on Facebook and Twitter.) Last night I got to break out of my proprionic cheese bubble and float into a sudsy beer bar called Tops Hops in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Rust Glover and his wife Angela, owners of Consider Bardwell Farm in Vermont, put on the event as a “holiday” party—in January. IMG_0714Rust, who is from London, is also an architect. He designed the bar to look like a cheese aging cavern with a long domed hallway.

Scattered around the area were platters of charcuterie and raw milk cheeses from Consider Bardwell: Dorset (a delicate, squishy washed rind, Jersey cow), Manchester (aged goat), and Rupert (an aged Alpine style Jersey cow).

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“Dorset is the new kale!” Peter from Consider Bardwell said, as he served Dorset/kale/caramelized onion grilled cheese sandwiches.

On occasion, Peter from Consider Bardwell would cook up a big batch of grilled cheese sandwiches with Dorset cheese, kale, and caramelized onions. “Dorset is the new kale,” he alerted.

It was nice being in a room of all-out cheese freaks and geeks. I could speak freely about my fascination with Colombian cheese and no one thought it was weird. One woman was designing miniature cheese aging caves for in-home use. Others were working on cheese apps, books, and media projects. I was star-struck by the cheese celebrity, and both inspired and intimidated by the much younger set of cheese people popping up in what used to be a very small world.

IMG_0732On the way out, Max McCalman, an author and mover-and-shaker in the cheese universe, was taking “fingers” (of cheese) from the trays plus a few squares of grilled cheese sandwiches and putting them in a napkin. I followed suit because it was cold outside and I might need a bite on the train. And sure enough I did! I ate the cheese on the Light Rail in New Jersey.

Elizabeth Bland, Cheese Mistress
http://www.cheesemistress.com

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Give me “The Rachel”

RachelcheesecutI feel a kinship with Rachel, a goat’s milk cheese from Somerset, England. According to Pete Humphries of White Lake Cheese, Rachel was named after a friend of his. Like the cheese, she is “sweet, curvy, and slightly nutty.” Perhaps I’m flattering myself, but I have been called all three of those things, especially slightly nutty.

I bought this cheese at Surfas market when I was in LA summer of 2014. Surfas is a restaurant supply store, but with a gourmet retail area, including a well-stocked cheese counter with knowledgeable staff. Attached to the building is a café and outdoor seating area. Instead of being served a cheese plate in a restaurant, you can simply buy some cheese at the counter and eat it in the dining area.

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$35.60 per lb.! My little slice was nearly $9. Surfas was my go-to cheese shop while I was in L.A., in Culver City. Wheel House Cheese had just opened not far away, but I never got to go there.

Rachel is a vegetarian beauty based on raw goat’s milk and is washed in a brine solution. It doesn’t come without a sacrifice, though. The price tag in LA was $35 lb. It was worth it, though. For one, I love goat cheeses, especially those off the beaten path of chèvre. I also am a huge fan of washed rind cheeses. This one is not ooey gooey, but rather, sliceable. It is bright white but gets darker right towards the grey rind. It can be sliced for a cheese platter—or pinched right off the wedge. The pieces break away easily.

The flavor is decidedly nutty and bright. It has the depth of a big serious cheese, but eats like a carefree type. Perhaps it’s the crisp goat milk flavor that makes it so entirely munchable. Each bite whets the appetite for more, and, like a big bowl of nuts, it’s hard to stop at just one.

Elizabeth Bland, The Cheese Mistress
http://www.cheesemistress.com

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Good Day Sunshine! Tomato Olive Cheese Brings the Warmth

NKtomolive92Tomato Olive Cheese invites the Mediterranean sun into your kitchen. Based on a creamy white Prairie Jack, it is dotted with bits of sun-dried tomatoes, black and green olives, oregano, basil, and garlic. While Tomato Olive Cheese contains several ingredients typical of a basic Italian herb cheese, it is far more. The spices do not overpower, instead adding a subtle backdrop to the roasted sweet the tomatoes and zingy olives. The herb mix is well-balanced, allowing the fruits to be the stars of the cheese.

Viva con passione! Tomato Olive Cheese is eager to entertain as a cheeseboard favorite with bites of grape tomatoes, olives, nuts, and crostini. It also loves to melt over your favorite Italian pasta dishes and pizza. Anywhere it goes, it adds rays of sunshine and intrigue.

NKtomolivepackSincerely, Brigitte™ is one of AI Foods’ kosher labels. This particular line reflects AI’s cheese maven Brigitte Mizrahi’s passion for creativity-inspired cheeses that deliver “an explosion of flavor in every bite of cheese.” With conversation-starters such as Jalapeño & Cilantro Cheese, Chipotle Cheese, Roasted Garlic & Chives Cheese, and Blue Marble, Brigitte hopes to bring cheese lovers together into a community of cheese expression.

Sincerely, Brigitte™ cheeses bear the Wisconsin Cheese label and the kosher certification symbol OK-D. These cheeses are cholov stam and vegetarian. They are available in select supermarkets and specialty stores.

Elizabeth Bland, The Cheese Mistress
http://www.cheesemistress.com

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