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Think Cheese? Think Fresh!

Think Cheese? Think Fresh!

Trendy paninis (above) enclose everything from artisan cheese to aged meat, herb bean spread to eggplant caponata. Photo from Aramark.

Cheese loves fruit, whether it is for a savory or sweet menu application."-–David Leon Hardy, WMMB

It seems that everywhere you look these days—restaurants, grocery stores, cooking magazines, at-home dining—cheese has taken on a more prominent role on the menu. And old standbys like cheddar, Swiss and Monterey jack have been joined, if not surpassed in popularity, by decidedly more upscale cheese varieties like brie, blues and ethnic varieties.

Stats to Munch On
Total U.S. cheese production hit another record high in 2006, reaching 9.5 billion pounds and exceeding last year's record of 9.1 billion pounds, according to the most recent IDFA (International Dairy Foods Association) Cheese Market Research Project Report.

Cheese consumption per person has dramatically increased in the past 30 years, jumping from 11.3 pounds per person in 1970 to a forecasted 37.5 pounds by the year 2009, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Increased consumption of specialty cheese is helping to drive this growth.

Healthfully Sustainable
With the recent consumer and chef movement to support organic, local and sustainable food producers and farmers, cheese—particularly artisan fresh and aged cheese—is a natural fit, helping to shed its high fat negative perception (see sidebar). Even some large manufacturers are on board and offer "organic" cheese products.

The common denominator of specialty cheeses and their value to onsite chefs and FSD's is their perceived image as a high quality ingredient, whether incorporated in a recipe or as a stand-alone appetizer or dessert choice.

Greg Girard, executive chef at Evans Park at Newton Corner, a senior living facility in Newton, MA, favors goat cheese for it's tangy flavor and ease of use. He has recently added a hands-on cheese demo for his customers which involves exploring different types of cheese and helping them to pair wines with those cheeses.

In addition to appetizer applications, Girard incorporates fresh cheese on salads, in soup and starches, in entrées and in desserts. For example, his Pan Seared Beef Filet with Goat Cheese, Wild Mushrooms and Madeira features the cheese not only in a creamy sauce but as a savory garnish, too.

Chef Francesco Esposito, director of culinary development for Philadelphia-PA based-Aramark, deftly uses fresh cheese to maintain authentic recipe credibility.

He stresses the importance of strategically modifying ingredients and recipes to best capitalize on the particular strength of that ingredient. For example, as the interest in Latin cuisine becomes more mainstream, Esposito and his chefs have seamlessly added Queso Fresco to tacos, burritos and even soup, capitalizing on the national trend.

Other cheese like mascarpone, an Italian classic, is incorporated into traditional desserts but is also whipped and used in savory applications like dips and lasagana.

"We blend both domestic and imported cheese in our premium and executive cheese trays as those clients are more brand driven when it comes to their food choices," Esposito says.

"We are also taking the downsizing trend seen in commercial restaurants (think grazing menus and cookies for dessert) to other areas besides appetizers, and we offer individual mini desserts, almost tapas style, for lunch," he adds.

Where's the cheese?
Resources for general cheese information, cheese making, and recipes.

American Dairy Association

The American Cheese Society

Dairy Network

International Dairy Foods Association

National Dairy Council

The Cheese Reporter

Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

*Check specific states/countries for regional associations, manufacturers and artisans. For everything cheese, log onto and specify cheese in the search bar.

Smoked Ricotta with Chestnut Honey

Chicken Souvlaki with Feta

Chocolate Coffee Cake with Mascarpone

Mediterranean Grilled Mozzarella Skewers

Mexican-Style Chicken Soup with Queso Fresco

Lemon Blueberry Cheese Tart

Pan Seared Filet Mignon with Goat Cheese, Wild Mushrooms, and Madeira

Feta Spread

Onion Fondue Cheesecake

Chipotle Cheesecake

Lasagna Bolognese with Creamy Gorgonzola, Fresh Mozzarella & Oven Roasted Tomatoes

Fresh cheese tips
For tips on handling fresh cheese, FM spoke with David Leonhardi, director of Cheese Education and Events at the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Inc.


  1. Do not order in large quantities. "Operators need to take care because the shelf life of fresh cheese is short—one week to two months."
  2. Order from a reliable source.
  3. Domestic may be the freshest—in some cases. "Inquire as to the time imported cheese has been in transit."


  1. Remember the three C's: keep it in a clean container (on a clean shelf), keep it cold and keep it covered. Leonhardi notes that fresh cheeses are one of the most fragile commodities operators store.
  2. Do not store cheese in direct light.


  1. When creating recipes, keep in mind that fresh cheeses can add creaminess and textures in everything from appetizers to garnishes.
  2. Cheese loves fruit, whether it's for a savory or sweet application. Think breaded and sautéed goat's cheese with roasted red peppers and walnuts on crisp greens, or cheesecake with a tropical fruit salsa.
  3. Experiment with a menu classic—grilled cheese. Combine a trio of fresh cheeses or pair fresh cheese with hard/aged cheeses. Add some pickled onions and/or mustard and customers will be clamoring for your new lunch staple!
  4. Use the newer Hispanic cheeses in unusual ways. Crumbling queso blanco on salads or soup is very trendy but consider using it as a cheese crouton—fry it, cool it off and toss it on soup or salad for a great presentation and taste sensation.

Cheese trends
There are many reasons cheese continues to grow in popularity as an ingredient. Here are some of the more significant ones.

Artisan approach. In the last few years the U.S. cheese industry has enjoyed a renaissance of specialty cheese making. Over 400 varieties, types and styles of cheese, including one-of-a-kind artisan cheeses, are available from U.S. cheese makers. This plays to consumers' renewed interest in buying and supporting local artisans and farmers. interest in Latin-inspired cuisine. Hispanics, the fastest growing U.S. population segment, are fueling this growth, and their styles of cuisine are going mainstream. Cheeses, from Hispanic to Spanish, are gracing menus from casual to upscale (Think: Chihuahua, Cotija, Queso Blanco, Queso Fresco, to name a few).

Commercial restaurants' influence. Experimentation with flexible dayparts, such as late lunches, late suppers and breakfast items round the clock, create opportunities for cheese. The stylish "healthy" salads by fast food chains more often than not incorporate cheese as does "hot" cheese-friendly cuisine such as lounge and casual chic food. And more restaurants are offering interesting and unique cheese courses either as an appetizer or dessert option.

Supermarkets cashing in on sales. They're offering more interactive marketing techniques, educational classes and demonstrations, including cheese pairings and ethnic cheese uses. A look in the deli case reveals artisan, fresh and other unique cheeses alongside traditional favorites like cheddar, Parmesan and Swiss.

Manufacturer innovation. Manufacturers are offering increased cheese convenience with shredded blends diversifying to include not only ethnic-driven blends, but very specific combinations such as "taco" or "bistro" blends.

Rethinking cheese as a health food. Recently, some dairy industry funded studies have shown a correlation between dairy consumption and weight loss with diet experts saying that dairy products may contribute to a greater sense of satiety, helping us feel less hungry and better able to stick to a diet or healthful portions. Also, a recent fad diet championed cheese, in particular, as a low-carb snack alternative. And perhaps most important at this juncture, amid the most current concerns about fat, cheese contains essentially no transfats!

In fact, the fat in cheese is based on dry matter. Soft, rich, gooey cheeses are mainly water and even though they taste rich, ounce for ounce you're eating less fat than if you ate hard cheese, according to Rob Kaufelt, in his book The Murray's Cheese Handbook (see resource sidebar).

But, of course, as with any food, moderation and/or restraint is still the key to healthful eating!

In the Mix
Never afraid to get her hands dirty, Executive Chef Dena Peterson, at Café Modern in the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, TX, recently collaborated with Paula Lambert, also known as the Mozzarella Lady,* in a company (Bon Appetit) sponsored "Star Chef" event.

Chef Peterson joined Lambert at her Mozzarella Company in Dallas, TX, and literally dug in with both hands to help make—and learn about—the hand-crafted cheeses Lambert is famous for.

"I have always been a big fan of cheese, especially the local Texas goat cheese," Peterson says. "When strawberries are in season, I love to incorporate them into a salad with mixed greens, toasted nuts and crumbled goat cheese. And fresh mozzarella is great to use as the star ingredient in a toasted vegetarian panini--stuff it inside a baguette with oven roasted tomatoes, kalamata olives and a slathering of basil pesto," says Peterson.

Peterson says that she was surprised at how easy it is to make cheese. "With the right tools and ingredients, anyone can make their own craft cheese with minimal effort," she says.

After the event, Peterson incorporated some recipes using those same cheeses for the Café Modern menu: "This past March we served Chilled Pea Soup with Minted Mascarpone Cheese, Pork Tenderloin with Smoked Cheddar-Tortilla Stuffing, and a Honey Ricotta Napoleon with Espresso," says Peterson.

Peterson says she is only beginning to capitalize on the artisan angle and customers interest in local and organic products (the restaurant is known for serving cuisine that is not only artful and delicious, but also ecologically sustainable). "On my spring menu this year, I‘m featuring some of Paula's Queso Fresco with Chilies and Epazote in a Squash Blossom Quesadilla and Tender Squash Blossoms with Caramelized Onions and Queso Fresco in a Jalapeno Tortilla Topped with Roasted Corn-Poblano Salad and Cilantro-Lime Cream," she says.

Peterson shares her own Hispanic-inspired recipe, Chipotle Cheesecake appetizer (see recipe), which marries cream and goat cheeses with piquant chipotle peppers all tucked into a pumpkin seed/tortilla crust.

*(Visit for more information on Lambert's cheeses and recipe ideas.)

Fresh cheese
Fresh cheeses are non-aged cheeses which depend solely on lactic fermentation for their character—tangy yet mild flavor and refreshing moist texture. Cow's, goat's or sheep's milk is heated to encourage curd formation, excess whey is drained off and the curds are molded or whipped to smoothness, according to the type of cheese.

Here is a partial list of fresh cheese easily found in markets and through distributors.

BURRATA. Derived from the Italian word for butter, Burrata is made with cows milk, and has a creamy, soft center and rich flavor. It was first created in the Puglia region of Southern Italy in the 1920s.

COTTAGE CHEESE. Bright, creamy white cheese with small or large curds. Has a fresh milk, slightly acidic, creamy flavor.

CREAM & NEUFCHÂTEL CHEESE. Creamy white cheese with a smooth, creamy texture. Neufchâtel is a bit firmer than cream cheese. Rich, nutty, slightly sweet flavor. Both blend well with and carry other flavors.

FETA CHEESE. Chalky white cheese with a crumbly texture. Has a distinctive sharp, salty flavor. Feta is packed in brine (salt and water) that preserves the cheese for approximately six months, longer than most fresh cheeses. When Feta is sautéed, it browns without melting.

FROMAGE BLANC. French rennet-curded cheese made from skimmed or whole cow's milk whipped to achieve a smooth thick consistency. Can be used as a substitute for yogurt or cream in cooking. It is also available flavored with fruit such as strawberry and apricot (Fromage Frais).

GOAT CHEESE (CHEVRE). Goat's milk cheese run the gamut of flavor (from mild to goaty), texture (creamy to crumbly) and types (plain, flavored, with rind, coated) depending on where it is made and if it has been aged or not.

HALLOUMI. A rather rubbery little block of off-white cheese originating from Cyprus. The firm salty cheese is most often sliced, grilled and finished with olive oil and pine nuts. The crunchy crust yields to a soft and tangy center.

MASCARPONE CHEESE. Creamy white cheese with a smooth, thick, soft texture. Has a rich, buttery, slightly sweet flavor. When making frostings, dips or spreads, do not over-whip or over process mascarpone—the cheese can actually churn into a lumpy texture like butter.

PANELA. Creamy white cheese with a crumbly texture. Has a mild, milky flavor that resembles curd. Slices and crumbles well. Holds its shape when heated, does not melt, but browns easily.

PANEER. A traditional Indian cheese. After coagulation, the strained curds are pressed into small, fairly firm blocks. Generally not eaten in its natural state, but is used in the preparation of Indian sweets or grilled or sautéed and added to vegetable curries.

PETIT SUISSE. A rich cream cheese from France, it is made from pasteurized cow's milk enriched with cream to give a fat content of 60-70%. Unsalted and bland in flavor, it has a very soft, almost liquid consistency. It is made in small cylindrical shapes, sold paper-wrapped or in containers. It can be used in the same way as Fromage blanc or served with fresh fruit. It is also available flavored with fruit.

QUARK. Made in Germany, Holland, Great Britain and various other countries and the spelling changes accordingly. Virtually identical to Fromage Blanc but with a higher fat content. In Germany it accounts for almost half the total cheese production.

QUESO BLANCO/QUESO BLANCO CON FRUTAS. Creamy white cheese with a crumbly texture. Has a mild, fresh flavor. Holds its shape when heated, does not melt, but browns easily. Great cheese for frying. Queso Blanco con Frutas contains pieces of real mango and pineapple.

QUESO FRESCO. White cheese with a granular, curdy texture. Has a very mild, fresh milk flavor, with a slight saltiness. Great cheese for frying as it holds its shape when heated, does not melt, but browns easily.

REQUESON: a Mexican-style cheese, similar to ricotta, soft and spreadable with a fresh milky taste. Use as a filling for enchiladas and pasta or flavor and use as a spread.

RICOTTA CHEESE. White cheese with a creamy, yet slightly grainy appearance. Has a mild flavor with a hint of sweetness. Whey and part-skim ricotta provide a firm texture for fillings in dishes. Whole milk ricotta is well suited for stuffing pasta such as ravioli.

ROBIOLA. A small fresh square of cheese from Italy with an appealing mild saltiness. Similar to cream cheese but without thickeners.

SAINTE-MARIE. A squat, cone-shaped cow's milk cheese from the Burgundy province of France. It can be either salted or unsalted but should be creamy and supple rather than firm and crumbly. Pure white in appearance with a sharp nose, this mild cheese is best eaten alone.

Source: Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and Beliogioso Cheese, Inc., The Cheese Primer, The Murray's Cheese Handbook.

And a few good books:

Cheese, Glorious Cheese: More Than 75 Tempting Recipes for Cheese lovers everywhere, by Paula Lambert, $26.95, Simon and Schuster, 2007.

Cheese Primer, by Steven Jenkins, $16.95, Workman Publishing, 1996.

The Cheese lover's Companion: The ultimate A-to-Z Cheese Guide with More Than 1,000 listings for Cheeses and Cheese-Related Terms, by Sharon T. Herbst, $16.95, Harper Collins Publishers, available July 31, 2007.

The Murry's Cheese Handbook, by Rob Kaufelt, $12.95, Broadway Books, 2006.

Tomatoes &Mozzarella, 100 Ways to enjoy this Tantalizing Twosome All Year long, by Halle Harron and Shelley Sikora, $19.95, The Harvard Common Press, 2006.

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