Spotlight on Cheese: Beyond the Cracker

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Everyone loves a cheese plate.

Pairing an array of hard to soft and mild to stinky cheeses with appropriate accompaniments is a great way to provide an appetizer or pre-dessert course for groups large and small.

But what about cooking with cheese? In this season of roasts and stews, main dishes that feature cheese provide a welcome alternative.


Cheddar is a kitchen workhorse. Even at its sharpest, the flavor is generally accessible to timid palates. It originated in the English village of Cheddar in Somerset, and has been mimicked the world over. Cheddar is the second-most popular cheese in the United States (behind mozzarella); Americans consume 10 pounds of cheddar cheese per capita each year.

The following two recipes showcase cheddar cheese, one down-home and rustic, the other, elegant and special.

Rapturous Macaroni and Cheese

You’d be amazed how good this can be when it doesn’t come out of a box — not that I’m knocking the boxes; they got me through many a picky eater stage with my two little darlings, and I certainly put on a few pounds happily finishing the portions they didn’t eat. To this day, my son will only eat the box version; he strenuously refuses “homemade mac and cheese.” He doesn’t know what he’s missing.

If you can’t get your hands on Wondra, you can mix the flour with a little bit of the milk before adding it to prevent lumps.

Serves eight

  • ½ stick butter
  • 3 tablespoons Wondra flour (specially formulated for sauces — it doesn’t lump)
  • 1 cup milk
  • ½ pound American cheese
  • ½ pound sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 pound penne, rotini, shells or other small pasta shape
  • Salt and pepper and garlic powder to taste (approx. ½ teaspoon each)
  • cup crushed cheddar crackers
  • cup grated sharp cheddar cheese

Heat your oven to 350 degrees. Cook the macaroni according to al dente package directions — usually a minute less than the instructions indicate. Drain thoroughly and pour into a 13-by-9-inch pan.

While the pasta cooks, melt the butter on medium heat in a large saucepan.

Lower the heat and add the milk and cheese, stirring until smooth. Add the Wondra flour, sprinkling it in and whisking constantly until the sauce becomes slightly thickened and smooth.

Add the salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste.

Pour the cheese sauce over the pasta in a pan and mix thoroughly. Top with additional grated cheddar and crushed crackers. Bake 30 minutes until the top is slightly browned and crisp.

Note: This can be frozen before baking to use at later date. Increase the cooking time to an hour if frozen, and bake covered with foil for the first 45 minutes.

Cheese Soufflé

This dish falls on the extreme other end of the cheese spectrum. Whereas mac and cheese is the ultimate in homey comfort, this dish elevates a few simple ingredients into a light, elegant meal.

For years, I avoided making soufflé after a rather scarring incident. I was a newlywed and eager to create special dinners in our new home. One evening, I attempted a cheese soufflé. The one hitch in this otherwise sound plan was that my husband, then a young associate at a law firm, was tapped by a higher-up to attend to some urgent client matter when I thought he was on his way home.

This was long before the days of cellphones, texting and email — and he (understandably) didn’t feel it was the mot juste to tell the partner to wait while he called his wife to rearrange dinner.

Instead, he immediately attended to the matter, and arrived home two hours late to a souf-flop. My beautiful cheese soufflé had risen and fallen, and by the time we ate it was a high-maintenance omelet. The good news was that the partner was impressed, and my husband has continued to practice law successfully in Philly ever since. The bad news is that I was skittish about making soufflés for many years.

But I got over it, and now this dish has joined the rotation when I am looking for something simple and light, and I have some time to spare. The recipe involves a few steps and several different bowls; it is certainly more involved than a cheese omelet. But if you have the time and the inclination, the results are spectacular.

Serves two generously

  • 3 eggs, separated
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 4 tablespoons flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon pepper
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese

Heat your oven to 350 degrees and butter a round soufflé dish (or 1-quart casserole).

In a small saucepan, melt the butter. Stir in the flour with a whisk and mix until it is smooth and bubbling. Add milk, salt and pepper, and continue to mix. When a smooth, creamy texture is achieved, add the cheese and remove it from the heat; stir to blend and set aside. (Note: If the cheese does not fully melt and blend after a few minutes, put it back on a very low heat, stirring constantly and watching carefully.)

In a large mixing bowl, whip the egg whites until foamy and stiff but not dry, about two minutes on high; set aside.

In another mixing bowl, whip the egg yolks until they are thick and bright yellow.

Pour the cheese sauce into the yolks and mix. Gently fold it into the whites.

Pour the entire mixture into the buttered dish and bake for about 35 minutes until the top is golden brown and the middle is set. Serve immediately.

Cheese Fondue

My husband and I had a rather amusing contretemps over fondue last week. He uncharacteristically requested cheese fondue for dinner.

He mentioned using the fondue pot, a long-ago wedding gift. This indicated to me that he had seen it recently. He then suggested that we invite our neighbors for a casual weeknight dinner. I issued the invite, mulled over recipes and asked him where the fondue pot was. He told me it was in the basement, and I went hunting — without success. I asked when he last saw it, and he was vague. I recalled that this summer, in response to a clean-out of a large family home, I did a massive purge of our house. Doubtless, the fondue pot was a casualty.

But all was not lost, for I was confident that a small Le Creuset pot would be a reasonable substitute — until I learned that it, too, had been pitched in my reactionary sweep. We argued, semi-good naturedly, and he recommended that we cancel the dinner. I assured him that I would work something out and, in the end, we had a lovely evening.

I used a shallow, round Cuisinart pan that conducted and held the heat well, and looked nice on the table. So, if you want fondue but don’t have a traditional pot, fear not. Any heavy-bottomed pot will do. Bonus if it looks decent.

We went very traditional with our meal, dipping only bread, and serving a simple green salad and a cucumber vinaigrette alongside. But you can get creative with your dippers, using different breads, roasted potatoes, steamed broccoli or carrots, sliced apples, or, really, anything your heart desires.

Serves four

  • 1 clove garlic, cut in half
  • ¾ pound Gruyere cheese, grated or cut in small cubes
  • ¾ pound Emmenthal cheese, grated or cut in small cubes
  • 1 tablespoon corn starch
  • cup dry white wine
  • Pinch of salt
  • Generous grind of pepper
  • 1 loaf baguette, cut in bite-sized cubes

Toss the cheese with the corn starch.

Rub the inside of a medium-sized, heavy pot with the garlic clove.

Heat the wine over medium heat until just below a boil.

Slowly and gradually, pour the cheese mixture into the wine, stirring constantly until smooth, about five minutes.

Serve immediately, in the fondue pot or in the cooking pot.

You can’t very well discuss cheese as a main course without a nod to grilled cheese sandwiches.

This quintessential lunch food has grown up and, while there is nothing wrong with the standard cheese/bread version, I am discovering a whole new world with the help of Meltkraft. Spending time with their grilled cheese experts afforded me the following tips to ensure a great sandwich every time:

  • Quality is key; use the best ingredients you can find as far as cheese, bread, butter, fillings, etc.
  • The fat that coats the bread and prevents burning is essential, but you can use butter, olive oil and/or mayonnaise for excellent results.
  • Consider the bread. If you are using fillings that will tend toward more liquid textures (gooey soft cheese, relish or pickles, jam, tomatoes, or spinach) be sure to use a sturdy, thick bread like country white or Texas toast.

Meltkraft has a number of complicated sandwich combos with multiple ingredients and diverse flavor profiles, but if you want some simple, unique variations, they suggest:

  • Rye bread with Swiss cheese and mustard
  • Challah with brie, fig jam and caramelized onions
  • Provolone with cooked broccoli rabe or escarole
  • Pepper jack with salsa and chopped fresh cilantro
  • Mozzarella with garlic and tomato

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