Blessed are the Cheesemakers: Paying homage to house-made fromage

Food trends are like popular kids in high school. Some are beautiful, but unsubstantial (ahem, foam). Follow them blindly, and you’re left feeling unsatisfied, with a dusty bag of goji berries in the pantry where your Fruit Roll-ups should be.

Other trends are bandwagon-worthy specimens of culinary evolution. Here I’m thinking about cheese (as I often do). Nearby artisanal dairies like Baetje Farms and Marcoot Jersey Creamery have elevated cheese from macaroni’s sidekick to fine cuisine, which is why you can’t throw a fork at a menu these days without it sticking in a cheese plate full of rich fruits from the local milk gods.

I am pro-artisanal cheese, and I hope the trend catches on so completely it makes the balsamic years look quaint. But when I learned a few restaurant menus now feature their own “house-made” cheeses alongside the artisanal superstars, I got a little huffy. Was this a referendum on my beloved Baetje Bloomsdale? A my-small-batch-is-smaller-than-your-small-batch ego trip? I dabbed a little Limburger behind my ears and sat down with a few cheesemaking chefs to determine if their hearts, and their milk fat, were in the right place.

But first, Cheesemaking 101: Cheese varieties are described as “fresh” or “aged.” This has less to do with how long a particular cheese lurks in the refrigerator drawer and everything to do with how it’s made. Fresh varieties like ricotta, stracciatella and paneer are divined from a fairly simple process. The milk or cream is heated. An acid such as lemon juice or vinegar is added to separate the curds from the whey. The curds are skimmed off and snuggle together in cheesecloth for a few hours. Just like that, you have fresh cheese that can be enjoyed the same day it’s made.

Aged cheeses, on the other hand, undergo a more sophisticated process involving hands-on curd management, regular cheese wheel-flipping and fermentation. Hard cheeses also require much longer than a day to age. For example, Monterey Jack ripens in a month. Slow and steady cheddar may be aged nine to 12 months. Some super-aged varieties are nearly old enough to vote.

Since I fully appreciate instant gratification, I understood why quick-cooking, house-made fresh cheeses have appeared in several restaurants around town. What I didn’t expect was how well these mild-mannered curds partnered with so many kinds of dishes. At Mike Shannon’s Steaks & Seafood, executive chef Josh Roland combines Gruyere, fontina and cheddar with white wine to make the house-made American cheese that accompanies the restaurant’s cheeseburger. During the height of tomato season, Jamey Tochtrop of Stellina fashions ropes of fresh mozzarella, which make a delicious addition to the caprese salad and, often, one of the menu’s four rotating pasta dishes. At Juniper, chef-owner John Perkins and team use milk and vinegar to make a creamy ricotta-like “farmhouse” cheese for the farmer’s market plate.

In some cases, the in-house cheese mania has been by popular demand. The fresh goat cheese devised by Cielo’s Shimon Diamond and Brasserie’s Alex Feldmeier for a special dinner last summer was such a hit that Diamond has brought it to Cielo’s salumi and cheese platters, the bruschetta of the day and several salads. He starts with unpasteurized fresh goat’s milk and uses a vegetable rennet to produce a rich, creamy cheese in about an hour.

However, the most common fresh cheese popping up in area kitchens is ricotta. Anthony Devoti, chef-owner of Five Bistro, started making his own when one of his cooks offered to bring fresh goat milk in from Ste. Genevieve. Devoti credited Five Bistro chef Mark Mulitsch with perfecting the restaurant’s ricotta, which appears in a variety of items on Five’s ever-changing menu, including gnocchi with pork trotter ragout and Bolognese with pappardelle noodles. Never one to waste good ingredients, Devoti also cooks with the goat milk whey. A recent seasonal starter featured turnips that were steeped in whey, then pureéd into a warm, hearty soup.

Basso executive chef Patrick Connolly has made his own cow milk ricotta for a decade, frequently tweaking the flavor with ingredients like rosemary and orange zest. “There’s so many applications for ricotta,” Connolly said. “You can smoke it, whip it … I’ve even braised meat in the whey.” One of his favorite dishes is Basso’s Rocker Fella pizza, which includes fresh ricotta puréed with oysters. If you’ve ever tasted Basso’s roasted cauliflower side dish, you’ve enjoyed Connolly’s whipped ricotta, which coats the inside of the bowl.

The ability to manipulate ricotta’s texture is one of the reasons Truffles and Butchery executive chef Brandon Benack makes his own for a crowd favorite, spinach and ricotta ravioli. The dish, explained Benack, needs a firmer ricotta, one that can withstand the cooking process. David Rosenfeld of Death in the Afternoon and Derek Roe of Dressel’s are similar devotees of the cheese, which they both serve on grilled bread. Like Devoti and Benack, Rosenfeld strains off more whey to make his ricotta firmer, which complements piles of hearty, house-cured coppa and a vibrant salsa verde. At Dressel’s, Roe presses the curds to make firm, creamy ricotta for Dressel’s Pub Toast, which is kissed with truffle oil and adorned with earthy smoked oyster mushrooms and crunchy radish sprouts.

A relative of mozzarella, stracciatella is another pet project of Rosenfeld’s, though he’s quick to share the credit with the rest of the kitchen. The stracciatella appeared in Death in the Afternoon’s late-summer heirloom tomato salad and shared a plate with sungold granita, gremolata breadcrumbs and sea urchin at Death’s sister restaurant, Blood & Sand. “It’s a very versatile cheese,” Rosenfeld said. “I’m thinking of using it in a winter salad with delicate squash, basil and pine nuts.”

Controlling the consistency and quality was the principal reason Rosenfeld and Roe gave for making their own cheeses. But both chefs are passionate about educating the younger cooks in their restaurants’ kitchens, too. “I (make ricotta) to train the kids,” Roe explained. “Sure, you can just call and order bread or meat or cheese. But when you … make the cheese from start to finish, you learn to really respect the ingredients.”

If cheesemaking is an education, Brian Lagerstrom, sous chef at Niche, has been schooling himself since last winter. While the rest of us ate pie and watched infomercials, Lagerstrom learned to make aged farmhouse cheddar by watching videos online and reading cheesemaking manuals. “Homemade cider … bread … cheese. I’ve always got a project,” he explained.

Lagerstrom brought his new skill to Niche, where the chefs also make their own butter, yogurt, buttermilk and ricotta. He currently makes 10 to 12 wheels of Camembert-style cheese for the restaurant’s cheese plates every week. The same way sparkling wine can only be called Champagne if it’s from that region of France, soft, creamy, surface-ripe cheese is only called Camembert if it’s made in Normandy. (I tasted Lagerstrom’s version, and it was so velvety and buttery that if it can’t be called Camembert, I submit “Holy Moly This Is Good” as an alternative honorific.)

Lagerstrom uses whole milk from pastry assistant Angela Commean’s family farm in Osceola, Missouri. Each batch is aged in a “cave,” a dedicated refrigerator Lagerstrom retrofitted with a special thermostat. He takes copious measurement and fermentation notes on every batch he makes, so if a cheese behaves unexpectedly, he can pinpoint the exact moment the process went awry. “The notes are so important,” he said, showing me his data on more than 80 batches of cheese. “You have to be meticulous – from a sanitation standpoint, obviously, and also from a taste perspective. I’ve done a lot of research on how to do this properly. This isn’t some sort of cowboy, Wild West thing.”

In addition to the Camembert-style, Lagerstrom is experimenting with another aged cheddar, as well as a washed-rind cheese, which gets its name from the cheese-fermenting bacteria that Lagerstrom applies almost daily to the outside of the wheels. So far, he’s made six batches, and has considered putting the cheddar on the Niche cheese plate.

It was clear I was wrong in thinking that house-made cheeses were simply a competitive restaurant response to the artisanal cheese movement. Whether cheesemaking chefs are inspired by fresh ingredients, a need to oversee every aspect of a dish or a desire to teach others (and themselves), they appreciate food craftsmanship above all. And that is passion that will endure long after the trends have moved on.