Ditch the Knives, Spoon Cheese is Here

December 7, 2016

Spoon cheese has a "soft-serve heart," which means buying it whole is the only way to go. Pictured is Harbison cheese from Jasper Hill Farms. Photos: Clay Williams

There’s a spoon in your kitchen drawer. A few, probably. You’ve used them for your morning cereal, your lentil soup, your pints of Ample Hills ice cream. But here’s another use: cheese. Rich and creamy spoonable cheeses that are so luscious, the texture resembles warm pudding. These are not slicing cheeses. Rather, the top rind is pierced and the cheese spooned onto crusty bread like an instant fondue.

“Spoonable cheeses are one of those categories of food that falls under the heading of ‘What’s there not to love,’ really,” says San Francisco–based cheese expert Laura Werlin, who has written six books on the subject. And if you’ve never heard of the term “spoon cheese” before, it’s probably because it isn’t technically a term. It’s shorthand coined by Tia Keenan, the New York City–based author of the newly released book The Art of the Cheese Plate, a culmination of a lifetime devoted to cheese.

Like all cheeses, spoon cheeses start off as milk, which is mixed with rennet so it coagulates and then gets sliced by wires into curds and whey. The curds are scooped out into molds and dried out overnight, then washed in brine and set out to ripen. As for what makes them so rich, it’s all about the milk. Most spoonable cheeses (sometimes called hunter’s cheeses) are made from cows’ rich winter milk. “When cows go from a summer diet of grass to a winter diet of hay, the milk composition changes. It gets much higher in fat so you have a richer cheese,” explains Keenan. That high-fat milk is far more delicate, making it ideal for these sorts of custard-like cheeses, such as Vacherin Mont d’Or from Switzerland, and domestic cheeses such as Winnimere, made in Vermont by Jasper Hill, St. Albans from Vermont Creamery, and Rush Creek Reserve from Uplands Cheese in Wisconsin.

While most spoon cheeses are made from winter milk, some, like France’s Epoisses, Jasper Hill’s Harbison, and Vermont Creamery’s brand-new cheese made in the style of St. Marseline, St. Albans, are made year round. The technique is the same, but the milk is harvested all year long instead of just when it’s at the peak of fattiness. “If the cows are on pasture in the summer, the milk will probably be leaner and more complex than if the cows are in a barn, eating stored feed, and the cheese will reflect that,” explains Andy Hatch, the cheesemaker at Uplands Cheese. “Some cows are kept inside year round so there’s not apt to be a big seasonal difference in the milk.”

Either way, you’re in for something utterly life-changing. Since spoon cheeses are so runny and gooey, they must be aged in a way that contains them. Some are boxed, some are stored in little crocks, and many are wrapped in tree bark like a girdle in the style of traditional winter cheeses from the Alps.

Their soft-serve heart also means that you must buy them whole, not in pieces. When committing to a whole spoonable cheese, Aaron Foster—a cheese expert who owns Foster Sundry, a cheese shop, whole-animal butcher, grocery and café in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn—has a few tips. “Don’t be afraid to ask your cheesemonger to give the cheese a pinch,” he says. “If it’s soft and has give, it’s going to be great,” he says. “If it bounces back at you, then you should run away from it.”

Shopping for Spoon Cheese

Tia Keenan, who coined the term “spoon cheese,” shops at Brooklyn’s Foster Sundry.

Also, don’t be alarmed by the mold that may have developed on the bark wrapping. “You want to see mold on the girdle; mold is good when it’s cheese,” Foster says. “The cheeses depend on the bark for their stability while aging, and they are going to get a little moldy.”

But that moldy bark is also quite striking and adds a rusticity to the cheese that makes it feel like something special. “There is a certain artistry about spoonable cheese that feels different than other cheeses,” says Werlin. “These girdles of bark are beautiful to look at.”

The Rush Creek Reserve, a winter cheese made by Andy Hatch of Uplands Cheese, is noteworthy because it is a raw milk cheese made in the style of Vacherin Mont d’Or, which cannot be exported to the United States because the FDA prohibits cheeses made from raw milk that have not been aged for at least 60 days. Hatch is one of a few cheesemakers who have worked to find a way to make a beautiful spoonable cheese that complies with stringent FDA rules.

“There’s been a lot of innovation on the part of cheesemakers like Andy Hatch and Mateo Kehler at Jasper Hill because it is difficult to make these cheeses under FDA rules,” says Foster. “They are attempting to bring European styles to the United States and make them accessible and affordable, but they are still quite rare.”

At Uplands, Hatch makes his Rush Creek Reserve not only from unpasteurized winter milk but from evening winter milk, which is even higher in fat content than morning milk. Once the cheese is shaped and brined, it is bound in spruce bark and then moved to the aging room, where the cheeses are regularly washed in brine and turned and left to ripen for two months. That ripening process is crucial to the cheese’s custardy consistency. “It starts off the texture of a kitchen sponge, but the proteins are metabolized as the cheese ripens, and they liquefy and become runny,” says Hatch. “The art of it is to get it at the perfect custardy texture.”

Once it reaches that just-runny-enough point, it’s shipped off to shops stocking artisanal cheeses, such as Murray’s in New York City and Stinky in Brooklyn. It’s most in demand between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when holiday entertaining is in full swing.

“A really important element behind the popularity of this cheese is that since it is only made from winter milk, it is produced at a time when people are coming together and sharing. It’s made for the holidays: a nice big indulgent cheese that you want to eat in one sitting.”

The communal nature of these cheeses also makes them quite special. “You have to buy the entire wheel, you commit to it, and then bring it home or to a party and enjoy the cheeses together, as a social experience,” says Keenan. “Spoon cheeses are great for entertaining and for the holidays because it’s really a beautiful thing to gather around a gooey piece of cheese and devour the whole thing together.”

Dipping Bread in Spoon Cheese

Bread is essential for enjoying spoon cheese, like this St. Albans from Vermont Creamery.

HOW TO SERVE SPOON CHEESE

“The best way to think of these is as a room-temp cheese fondue, so whatever you would put in cheese fondue you can dunk into a spoon cheese,” says Keenan. If your cheese is a bit cold from the fridge, you can pop it in the oven (10 minutes at 200°F, wrapped up in foil so it doesn’t leak) or the microwave (10 to 15 seconds to warm it up and make it super gooey). Once it’s warm, serve the cheese with chunks of good, hearty bread, slices of baguette, slightly cooked vegetables, or even roasted potatoes.

Spoon cheeses can also be used like a sauce! Werlin spoons it over broccoli and baked potatoes, while Hatch loves it poured on top of pulled pork or over roasted potatoes.

Keenan says serving it with bread is essential, but feel free to add the following:

Rush Creek Reserve → grilled endive
Epoisses → potato chips
St. Albans → Morello cherries
Vacherin Mont d’Or → fried olives
Harbison → pickled carrots
Winnimere → candied bacon
Zimbro → sweet tomato jam
Serra da Estrela → roasted pumpkin

Andrea Strong’s work has appeared in The New York TimesNew York magazine, and a host of other publications, including The Strong Buzz, her blog devoted to New York City’s food scene. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, her two kids, and her big appetite.

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CheeseFeaturesHoliday Entertaining
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