by Lacey Griebeler, Chef Magazine

This article is an online exclusive for Chef Magazine's September 2010 issue.

Chefs often turn to cheese when a menu item needs a flavor boost--which makes perfect sense. Aged varieties are rich with umami, such as a pungent and tongue-tingling cave-aged Stilton. International samples provide exotic allure and story, like the buttery, semifirm Mahón from the island of Menorca off the coast of Spain. Thanks to its universal palate-pleasing appeal, a mouth-watering cheese call-out on the menu will result in guests responding with their forks (think: "Lamb sugo topped with ricotta salata, served with creamy mascarpone polenta").

Sure, the world is full of cheeses that underwhelm. American author and broadcaster Clifton Faidman (1904-1999) put it best: "A cheese may disappoint. It may be dull, it may be naive, it may be oversophisticated. Yet it remains cheese--milk's leap toward immortality."

Helping you pinpoint the dairy products that are worth praise, Chef Magazine offers up the following award-winning cheeses that resonate with chefs and customers alike, as well as fall-inspired, cheese-centric recipes.

[Editor's note: In the Autumn 2010 issue of our sister publication, Chef Educator Today, we featured an article entitled, "An homage to fromage," by Dana Cox, a chef-instructor at Kendall College and a veteran of Chicago's fine-dining scene. Her tips on how to tell a cheese's story could assist in staff training as well. Read the article here.]

Goat cheese stands firm
When Cypress Grove introduced Midnight Moon firm goat's milk cheese in 2002, the company received a "Best New Product Award" from the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade. This year, the cheddar-like, nutty aged cheese received "Best of Class" honors at the 2010 World Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, Wis. Since its introduction, Midnight Moon has won over quite a few chef fans, too, including Erik Schuster of the historic Langham Hotel in Pasadena, Calif., who makes melt-in-your-mouth Midnight Moon chips, and Dan McHugh of Cafe Brio and F Street Cafe (now closed), who has used it to top a Mediterranean-inspired pizza with roasted peppers, olives and crispy shallots (recipe, below).

It's worth noting that several other goat cheeses in Cypress Grove's catalog took home honors at this year's American Cheese Society competition in Seattle. In the "Fresh Goat's Milk Cheeses (No Rind)" category, Cypress Grove Chevre Log was awarded first place, and the company's Natural, Fresh Chevre won second. Signature Humboldt Fog surface-ripened goat's milk cheese took third place in the "Soft Ripened Open Category for Cheeses Made from Goat's Milk." Truffle Tremor, a ripened cheese infused with truffle, was awarded second place in "Soft Ripened Flavor Added Goat Cheese."

The Goat Pizza with Crispy Shallots
Dan McHugh, chef, formerly of F Stop Café, Eureka, Calif.;
wine pairing by Marlene Rossman

Yield: 1 14" pizza

Chef McHugh says: "The longer you wait to eat the pizza, the more you risk the crust becoming soggy. It usually depends on what you put the finishing product on: Ceramic is the worst, and wood is the best."

1 package active dry or fresh yeast
1 t. honey
1 c. warm water, 105°-115°F
3 c. all-purpose flour (high-gluten flour also works well and promotes elasticity)
1 t. kosher salt
1 T. extra virgin olive oil, plus additional for brushing
1/3 c. grated Cypress Grove Midnight Moon cheese
1/3 c. Cypress Grove Fromage Blanc cheese
1/3 c. roasted peppers
1/3 c. Mediterranean olives mix
Crispy shallots (recipe follows)
Fresh thyme, for garnish

Method (1) In a small bowl, dissolve the yeast and honey in 1/4 c. warm water. In a food processor, combine the flour and the salt. Add the oil, the yeast mixture and the remaining 3/4 c. water, and process until the mixture forms a ball. (2) The pizza dough can also be made in a mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix on low speed until the mixture comes cleanly away from the sides of the bowl and starts to climb up the dough hook. Turn the dough out onto a clean work surface, and knead by hand 2-3 minutes longer. The dough should be smooth and firm. Cover the dough with a clean, damp towel, and let it rise in a cool spot for about 2 hours. (3) Divide the dough into even balls, and shape; let rest at least 1 hour before tossing. (This dough will keep in the refrigerator for 2 days if it is tightly wrapped.) (4) Preheat oven to 450°-475°F, and fit the oven with a pizza stone. Bring the dough to room temperature, and flour lightly to shape. Push the dough out from the center to make a circle. Once you have the shape and thickness you desire, place the dough on a cutting board or pizza peel dusted with semolina flour. Brush the edge of the pizza dough with olive oil. (5) Dress the pizza with goat cheeses, peppers and olives. Slide pizza onto the stone in the oven, and close the door. It is important that the pizza stone is hot to develop a nice crust. Depending on the oven, you may want to rotate the pizza on the stone to ensure even cooking. (6) Once the outer crust has achieved the desired color, remove pizza from the oven, garnish with generous amounts of Crispy Shallots and fresh thyme, and serve right away.

Crispy Shallots
5 large shallots
3 c. canola oil
Kosher or sea salt, to taste

Method (1) Slice shallots thin but not paper thin or they will burn. Spread them out in a single layer to dry out while the oil heats; this will result in a crisper shallot. Heat the oil in a heavy pot or Dutch oven to 325°-350°F. (2) Fry shallots in small batches until they turn from white to golden brown. Remove from the oil, and salt immediately. Once the shallots cool completely, they'll become crisp. They will keep for at least 24 hours covered tightly at room temperature.

Wine pairing: Casa Silva Sauvignon Blanc Reserva 2009 (Chile)

Cheddar like none other
Cabot Clothbound Cheddar--full of layers of nutty, buttery flavor--recently won the blue ribbon in the "Bandaged Cheddar, Sharp to Aged" class at the biennial World Championship Cheese Contest. Cabot Clothbound Cheddar has previously been awarded "Best of Show" at the American Cheese Society competition and a gold medal at London's World Cheese Awards. This bandaged cheddar ages on spruce boards and is hand-turned and brushed at the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Greensboro, Vt. While Cabot Clothbound Cheddar is fantastic on its own--try serving it with a nutty brown ale to boost its aged cheddar flavor--Cabot Sharp Cheddar is an excellent ingredient in appetizers, entrées and even desserts (recipe below). Cabot Creamery produces several varieties of cheddar and other cheeses with local milk from the herds of its Northeast dairy farmers cooperative.

Dried Cherry, Apple, Almond and Cabot Sharp Cheddar Turnovers
Stephanie Sokolove, chef/owner, Stephanie's on Newbury and Stephi's on Tremont, Boston;
wine pairing by Marlene Rossman

Chef Sokolove says: "Diners at the restaurant love the tang of the dried cherries, the sharp cheddar cheese and the sweetness of the apples combined with the flaky puff pastry as a delicious and delightful end to their sophisticated comfort food meals. ... I have to say, we love Cabot Cheddar cheese."

Yield: 8 turnovers

3/4 c. dried cherries
2 c. warm water
2 T. Cabot Unsalted Butter
About 3/4 c. sugar, divided
3/4 t. ground cinnamon, divided
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and cut into medium-small dice
3/4 c. sliced almonds, toasted
2 oz. (about 1/2 c.) Cabot Sharp Cheddar, grated, plus slices for garnish
Salt, as needed
2 McIntosh apples, peeled, cored and quartered
1 c. apple juice
1 large egg
1 T. heavy cream
1 package frozen puff pastry, thawed

Method (1) Soak cherries in warm water until soft, about 20 minutes. (2) Meanwhile, in large skillet over medium-high heat, combine butter, 2 T. sugar and 1/2 t. cinnamon; stir until butter is melted. (3) Add Granny Smith apples and cook, stirring, until golden brown; transfer to bowl, and set aside to cool. (4) Drain cherries, reserving liquid. Add cherries, almonds, grated cheese and pinch of salt to cooled apples; set aside. (5) In saucepan, combine McIntosh apples, apple juice, remaining 1/3 c. sugar, remaining 1/4 t. cinnamon and reserved liquid from cherries. Add enough water to cover apples if needed. Bring to simmer, and cook until apples are very tender, about 15 minutes. Cool and purée in food processor or food mill. Set applesauce aside. (6) Preheat oven to 375°F. In small bowl, whisk together egg and cream. Cut 8 5" by 5" squares from puff pastry. Brush each square with some of egg mixture. (7) Place small dollop of applesauce in center of each square, then top with 2-3 T. apple/cherry mixture. Bring two opposite corners of pastry together, pressing together to seal. Repeat with other two corners. (8) Place turnovers on baking sheet. Brush tops with more of egg mixture and sprinkle with sugar. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. (9) Bake puff pastry for 20-25 minutes or until puffed and golden brown. Serve with remaining applesauce and slices of Cabot Sharp Cheddar.

Wine pairing: Domaine Pinnacle Apple Ice Wine NV (Canada)

So Gouda
If you're searching for near-epic Gouda, look no further than Old Amsterdam--which scored 99.6 and won "Best of Class, Aged Gouda Category" at this year's World Championship Cheese Contest. Old Amsterdam, produced by Westland Kaasspecialiteiten BV, out-ranked nearly 40 other aged Goudas from around the world to win these honors. Smooth yet robust, this cheese is flecked with fine ripening crystals thanks to the master cheesemakers who carefully craft and monitor this family recipe for Gouda. Old Amsterdam is easy to slice and shred, making it not only a great addition to a cheese plate but also a stellar ingredient--such as an apple and aged Gouda dip (recipe, below).

Hudson Valley Apple and Old Amsterdam Gouda Dip
Michael Defonzo, executive chef, P.J. Clarke's, New York City;
wine pairing by Marlene Rossman

8 green apples
1/4 c. sweet butter
1 c. brown sugar
1 T. cinnamon
1 t. grated nutmeg
Pinch of ground cardamom
Pinch of salt
1 c. heavy cream (40% butterfat)
3 c. Old Amsterdam Gouda Cheese, grated and divided

Method (1) Peel, core and slice apples. Melt butter with sugar, spices and salt. Add apples, and cook for 10 minutes on low heat until apples are just tender. Let cool, then chop to desired size, 1/4" pieces are preferred. (2) In separate pot, heat 1 c. cream; add 2 c. Gouda, and turn off heat. Stir until cheese is melted. (3) Pour melted cheese sauce into apple mixture. Put apples and cheese into desired baking dish, and bake covered at 350°F for 15 minutes. Add remaining 1 c. Gouda on top, and bake for another 5 minutes, uncovered. Serve warm with choice of bread.

Wine pairing: Gonzalez Byass Jerez-Xérès-Sherry Oloroso Dulce Solera "1847" NV (Spain)

Farm charm
There is something inherently special about farmstead cheese. Perhaps it's that bucolic mental image of the herd animals happily munching on grass while the cheese, made from their rich milk, is brought to life in a separate barn overlooking the fields. Whatever it is, farmstead cheeses are indeed hand-crafted and delicious--and customers appreciate seeing them. Some farmstead cheesemakers find regional or national distribution routes for their products. For some ideas, check out the American Cheese Society's 2010 winners in the "Farmstead Cheese" category on its website. This year, Extra Aged Pleasant Ridge Reserve, produced by Uplands Cheese Co., Dodgeville, Wis., not only took first place in the Farmstead Hard Cow's Milk Cheese (Aged over 60 days) category, but it also won Best of Show.

But often, half of the draw of farmstead cheese is that it's made locally; thus, purchasing directly through the cheesemakers at local farmers' markets not only promotes area businesses, but also provides the freshest product out there. For instance, Josh Lanning, sous chef and pastry chef of June in Peoria Heights, Ill., swears by the fresh chèvre from Champaign-based Prairie Fruits Farm and Creamery, which sells to Chicago area farmers' markets. The chèvre's rich creaminess can be attributed in large part to Prairie Fruits Farm's herd of Nubian and La Mancha goats who forage on surrounding alfalfa and grass hay fields. After contemplating how to incorporate this cheese into the fall menu for June, Lanning says, "I'm going to make goat cheese ice cream and dip it in apple cider caramel and dip it in a little citric acid powder. It will sit on top of candied fennel, ... roasted apple layered with a fennel custard and strudel." (recipe, below)

Roasted Apple with Fennel Custard, Strudel, Caramel-Covered Goat Cheese Ice Cream and Sassafras
Josh Lanning, sous chef and pastry chef, June, Peoria Heights, Ill.;
wine pairing by Marlene Rossman;
photo courtesy of Jeffery Noble

Yield: 6-8 servings

Goat Cheese Ice Cream (recipe follows)
Apple Cider Caramel Sauce with Sassafras (recipe follows)
Strudel (recipe follows)
Fennel Custard (recipe follows)
Roasted Apples (recipe follows)
Candied Fennel (recipe follows)
1/2 t. citric acid
1 T. sugar
1 drop of apple extract (if available)

Method (1) Once Goat Cheese Ice Cream is frozen, scoop onto a sheet pan, and place a skewer in each scoop. Freeze until very hard. (2) Working quickly, dip each scoop of ice cream into the room-temperature Apple Cider Caramel Sauce with Sassafras, and immediately return to freezer. (3) Place the Strudel pastry round in the middle of the plate, and top with Fennel Custard. Take Roasted Apples and spoon on top of the Fennel Custard, allowing some juices to run over the side and to soak into the puff pastry. Place the Candied Fennel alongside and on top. (5) Mix together citric acid, sugar and apple extract to make citric powder. Plate a small dish of citric powder. Dip the Goat Cheese Ice Cream into remaining citric powder, and add on top of Roasted Apples.

Goat Cheese Ice Cream
2 1/3 c. milk
2 1/3 c. cream
2/3 c. honey, divided
6 oz. goat cheese (preferably Prairie Fruit Farms)
6 egg yolks

Method (1) Prepare an ice bath (fill a bowl with ice and place another bowl on top of the ice). (2) Warm the milk, cream and 1/3 c. honey together. (3) Meanwhile, place goat cheese in a bowl; in another bowl, whisk together the egg yolks and other 1/3 c. honey. Slowly whisk the warm milk mixture into the egg yolks. Place this mixture back into a pot over medium heat, stirring constantly. (4) Once the mixture coats the back of the spoon, pour over goat cheese and stir until smooth. Strain and place in ice bath; once cool, process in an ice-cream maker.

Apple Cider Caramel Sauce with Sassafras
4 c. apple cider
1/4 c. sassafras (found at specialty stores)
1/4 c. light brown sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
1 t. molasses
1/2 stick butter

Method (1) Combine cider, sassafras, sugar and vanilla bean, and bring to a boil; simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat, and let steep for 30 minutes. (2) Strain, and return to pot. Add molasses and butter; stir to combine, and cook over medium heat until the caramel thickens to coat the back of a spoon. Remove from heat, and reserve warm.

Fennel Custard
3 1/3 c. cream
1/2 c. toasted fennel seed
1 1/4 c. sugar
1/2 c. cold water
2.5 packets gelatin
5 c. plain yogurt

Method (1) Combine cream, toasted fennel and sugar, and bring to a boil; remove from heat, and let infuse for 30 minutes. (2) Stir together cold water and gelatin until gelatin dissolves; stir in yogurt. (3) Taste the cream, if the fennel flavor isn't strong enough, allow to infuse for another 15 minutes, or until desired flavor is reached. Strain infused cream into yogurt mixture, and then portion into cupcake molds sprayed with nonstick spray; fill to halfway and refrigerate. (4) Invert the Fennel Custards from the cupcake pan onto a sheet pan lined with parchment; cover and reserve.

1 package puff pastry or phyllo dough
Water, as needed
Brown sugar and cinnamon, as needed

Method (1) Cut frozen puff pastry or phyllo dough into rounds (the same diameter as the cupcakes). (2) Brush with water, sprinkle with a mix of brown sugar and cinnamon, and bake at 325°F for 10 minutes or until golden brown.

Roasted Apples
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cubed
1/2 stick butter
1/2 c. light brown sugar

Method (1) Stir together all ingredients in a pot over medium heat and cook, stirring occasionally, until apples are soft and glazed. Reserve.

Candied Fennel
1 head fennel
Butter, as needed
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. apple cider vinegar

Method (1) Julienne the fennel, and sauté until light brown; add sugar and vinegar. Cook until thickened and the fennel is glazed. Reserve.

Wine pairing: Solms-Astor Cape Jazz Shiraz (Sparkling) 2009 (South Africa)