Wisconsin may be the land of cheese, but even local cheeseheads would likely draw a blank at the mention of a "cheese dinner."
A cheese dinner is just what it sounds like: a dinner focused on cheese – lots and lots of locally sourced, artisan cheese. The cheese stands center, but it doesn’t stand alone.
It’s not one of those stuff all the cubes of cheese into your mouth with only a few bites of crackers in between. While you do get to taste samples, it’s not a cheese-out. Instead, the cheeses get incorporated into decadent, melt-in-your mouth masterpieces in unexpected and delightful ways.
Take, for example, a cheese dinner at Milwaukee's La Merenda restaurant. During this event, Chef Pete Sandroni expertly pairs a first course spinach salad with a cheesy vinaigrette (alongside a Purple Feet Wine's Italian Fiulano).
The first cheese, Marieke Zachte Boerenkaas, is an American original, meaning there are no European counterparts. It is described as a Gouda that became a Brie, but without the rindy white stuff. As an oozy, meltable cheese, it would probably make a mean grilled cheese. But in this case, Chef Pete doesn't just add the cheese to the salad – he blends it right into the vinaigrette so that it's almost creamy.
Diners also get a taste of epicurian history as they start digging into their spinach mounds, courtesy of this cheese’s namesake maker, Marieke Penterman of Hollands Family Farm based in Thorp, Wis.
"In Holland we are called 'cheeseheads,' by the way, too," the Netherlands native says. "A little story behind the 'cheesehead': Goudas are made in molds, round molds, and in the early days in Holland, they were made from wood. And when we would go to war, we would take the wooden mold and we would put it on our head and that's the reason we are called 'cheeseheads.'"
Penterman's cheeses are already turning heads in dairy circles, as her foenegreek gouda took first place in its category at the U.S. Cheese Championship. Two years ago, she topped all of her bests, taking first place at that same championship with her aged gouda.
Another featured cheesemaker at the dinner is Katie Hedrich of LaClare Farms in Malone, Wis. A newlywed and only in her 20s, the cheerful wunderkind Hedrich is already a cheese force to be reckoned with, and she shows no signs of slowing down.
"(In) 2011, about a year and a half after we started making, we won the U.S. Cheese Championship, which was something we never thought would happen," she says. "Then we actually bought another 200 goats to continue producing the milk, and we actually have the opportunity this year that we will be opening our on-the-farm retail store. We'll be milking the goats, making the cheese, and then have the on-the-farm retail store."
Hedrich’s signature Evalon, a nutty aged goat cheese with a hint of an Italian finish to it, stars in a pork loin rouladen with spaetzel and a Pinot Noir sauce. That's followed by Penterman’s award-winning aged gouda with a pomme dauphien and lamb loin.
But it's Hedrich’s Chandoka cheese that takes many diners by surprise - and not just because of its unusual name.
"Chandoka is actually the name of my grandparents' farm, which is where we are building our new creamery," Hedrich says. "So Chandoka is stands for Charmaine, Ann, Donna and Kathy, which is my grandma and her three sisters. That cheese is a brandnew cheese I've been working on."
Chef Pete's Chandoka Cheese Bisque is creamy and wonderful, but the real stand-out is Rocket Baby Bakery's Chandoka cheese bread that accompanied the soup. It's a buttery, springy brioche-like creation.
Diners, like Edible Milwaukee magazine's Jen Ede, say the dinner features a lot of versatility, and there's no worry of getting bored of cheese.
"It's kind of hard to choose what I'm enjoying most," Ede says. "On the one hand, there are so many great stories behind the cheese that we're eating, and the other thing is just eating them. I'm a Wisconsinite at heart; when you do a dinner that's exclusively focused on cheese, you're hitting the right mark."
Of course, no good cheese dinner ends without dessert, which features the creation of Ron Henningfeld, the cheesemaker at Clock Shadow Creamery, one of the only urban cheese plants in the country.
Clock Shadow’s known for its sweet curds and fresh cheeses, and perhaps the most interesting of those cheeses is Quark. Quark is sort of like a cross between ricotta and crème fraiche. It’s a spreadable, creamy cheese with a little bit of a tart kick - like a cream cheese for grown ups.
"Quark is a European-style cheese, most popular in central Europe," Henningfeld says. "It's a fresh cheese, so the sooner you eat the cheese the better it is. It's a versatile cheese, good for the cooking, the baking, but also good just to eat it plain on crackers or a toasted bagel or roll it up in crepes."
That's why it works so well in Chef Pete's cocoa-dusted cheese soufflé, topped with just a daub of balsamic-laced strawberries. It's light and fluffy and sweet, and at the risk of sounding cheesy, this tart Quark soufflé makes for a sweet end to the evening.
Lake Effect’s "Good Fermentations" cheese contributor Jeanette Hurt is the author of eight books, including The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Gluten Free Eating and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Wine and Food Pairing.
.Hurt will sign copies of her book The Cheeses of Wisconsin: A Culinary Travel Guide this Sunday at the Elegant Farmer in Mukwonago.