Here & Now resident chef Kathy Gunst has been exploring her favorite American cheeses from the East (Vermont) and West (California.) She and host Jeremy Hobson taste a few of the standouts.
American cheese has had a bad reputation for decades — orange, pregrated, rubbery, tasteless.
But much like the American wine industry, the American cheese scene has shifted. Our cheddars are every bit as good — or better — than British cheddars; our goudas can compete with those from Holland; our goat cheeses and soft, gooey triple cremes are giving French and Italian cheeses a run for their money.
How To Get Ready For A Cheese Tasting
What's the best way to sample the finest cheese the country has to offer? Here are a few tips:
- Don't try to taste more than six cheeses or so at a time — you'll get overwhelmed and very full.
- Select an assortment of soft, semi-hard and hard cheeses, as well as cheese made from goat, sheep and cow milk. Serve them with crackers, bread, nuts, fruit and condiments if you like. Start with the mildest and work your way to the most pungent and strong — like a blue cheese.
- Always remove cheese from the refrigerator at least an hour or two before serving. Cheese should be at room temperature for best tasting.
- Before you taste, smell the cheese. You actually learn a lot by studying the aroma of a cheese before eating it. Does it smell grassy? Earthy? Pungent? Sweet? Mushroomy? Foresty? Herbaceous? Fruity?
A Few Of My Favorite Cheeses
Look for these cheeses and other American cheeses in your local cheese shop or online.
A 1,400-acre working farm in Shelburne, Vermont, near Burlington, Shelburne Farms produces around 170,000 pounds of cheddar a year. They use milk from their herd of prized Brown Swiss cows, which are famous for their high butterfat content.
Shelburne Farms is home to the Vermont Cheese Festival, a great way to spend an August day sampling Vermont's best cheeses and locally made food products.
6-Month Cheddar is the youngest, mildest cheese Shelburne makes. The cheese is buttery and would be ideal for a grilled cheese sandwich or on top of breakfast toast.
The 2-Year Cheddar is outstanding, sweet, slightly granular with a big cheddar flavor. This is an excellent cooking and eating cheese.
We went to the West Coast to taste the outstanding cheeses made by Cowgirl Creamery. Cowgirl is made in Northern California in Tomales Bay, where the foggy coastline produces some of the richest milk and best cheeses in the country.
Although Cowgirl is best known for their triple creme cheeses like Mt. Tam and Red Hawk (made with the rich milk from Strauss Family Dairy's Organic milk), we tasted the Cowgirl Creamery Wagon Wheel. This cheese was made for the late chef Judy Rogers of the beloved San Francisco restaurant Zuni Café when she wanted an organic, local melting cheese for her pizzas.
I love the salty, creamy, grassy, full-flavored Wagon Wheel for eating raw or melting on toast or pizza dough.
Back East, we tried the outstanding cheese from Jasper Hill Farm in Greensboro, Vermont. Winnimere is made from raw winter milk of the Ayrshires at Jasper Hill. This rich creamy round is wrapped in strips of Vermont spruce cambium (the tree's inner bark) and is spoon soft.
The idea is to cut the very top rind off the cheese and eat the inside with a spoon. This cheese has big, bold flavors like mushrooms or bacon. It's slightly tangy and super earthy, and makes me think about walking through a gorgeous green Vermont hillside with cows in the distance.
Also superb is their Harbison cheese, a soft, ripened cheese with a bloomy rind. It's also wrapped in spruce, and is milder and sweet, with almost lemony flavors.
Cypress Grove's Ms. Natural is made from goat milk, but doesn't have an overly goaty, strong flavor. It's super creamy with notes of citrus and grape. It's tangy and tart and would be fabulous sprinkled over salads, roasted vegetables, toast, pizza, polenta or nearly anything.
Humboldt Fog is a truly unique, outstanding cheese. Owner Mary Keehn is said to have dreamed about the recipe for this blue-tinged cheese. Made from buttermilk and fresh cream, the cheese has an edible vegetable ash running through it. As it matures, the creaminess intensifies and develops. The ash feels reminiscent of the fog so prevalent in Humboldt County.
Ultimate Cheesy Mac 'N' Cheese
This is super rich and super cheesy — everything a good mac 'n' cheese should be. The casserole can be made ahead of time and baked about 45 minutes before serving.
- 1 pound penne, macaroni, farfelle or your favorite small-shaped pasta
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 tablespoons flour
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh rosemary, or 1 teaspoon dried and crumbled
- 1 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme or teaspoon dried and crumbled
- 3 cups milk
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 8 ounce ball fresh mozzarella (cut the ball in half and thinly slice half, and then grate the other half)
- 1/2 packed cup grated Parmesan
- 3/4 packed cup grated sharp cheddar, gruyere or your favorite hard cheese
- 3 tablespoons panko or breadcrumbs
- Dash sweet paprika
- Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook the pasta according to directions, being careful not to overcook it; the pasta should be slightly al dente. Drain well.
- Meanwhile, make the cheese sauce: Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter and 1 tablespoon of the oil over moderate heat in a medium saucepan. When the butter is sizzling, add the flour and stir to create a paste. Cook 3 minutes.
- Slowly whisk in the milk, and cook about 10 minutes, or until simmering and thickened. Season with salt, pepper, the rosemary and thyme. Remove from the heat and add the grated mozzarella (not the slices), half the Parmesan and 1/2 cup of the cheddar or other cheese. The sauce should be thick and gooey.
- Grease the bottom of 9-by-13-inch baking dish with the remaining tablespoon of oil. Add half of the drained cooked pasta. Top with the mozzarella slices and then top the mozzarella with the remaining pasta. Pour the cheese sauce on top.
- In a small bowl, combine the remaining Parmesan and cheddar, the panko and the dash of paprika. Sprinkle on top of the macaroni and dot with the remaining butter, cut into small cubes. The dish can be made a day ahead of time; cover with foil and refrigerate until ready to bake.
- Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Cover with foil. Bake on the middle shelf for 20 minutes. Remove the foil; bake for another 15 to 20 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling hot, the cheese is melted and the top is golden brown.
This segment aired on April 2, 2019.