Hidden Springs Cheese Tasting – Winter 2015

We recently made a return trip to Fromagination in Madison, WI, to pick up selections to create a tasty winter cheese plate. Our last trip we detailed here and featured a Holland’s Family Cheese offering, Marieke Gouda. This time we picked up two varieties of sheep cheese created by Brenda Jensen at Hidden Springs Creamery – Ocooch Mountain and a Manchego-style cheese. We also picked up another Manchego-style from Emmi Roth, called GranQueso, this one a cow’s milk variety. We also picked up a favorite dry sausage from Underground Meats, their Saucisson Sec.

We’re using the term Manchego-style because Manchego, like true Champagne, is defined by the region it originated from. Here is Murray’s Cheese explanation:

Perhaps Spain’s most famous cheese, Manchego is a D.O. (Denominacion de Origen) protected cheese, meaning the traditional recipe must use 100% Manchega sheep milk. The breed has proven sturdy enough over the centuries to traverse the rocky, arid central plateau region of La Mancha – where cows just can’t hang. Made using fresh, pasteurized sheep’s milk, this Manchego develops a rich nuttiness and pleasant gaminess (think toasted almonds and broiled lamb chops) after over a year of aging. The patterned rind is a nod to the grass baskets previously used to form the cheese. Firm enough to grate for any culinary application, highlight its sharp, caramelly flavor anywhere you would use Parmigiano.

So Hidden Springs approach is fairly close to the tradition – sheep’s milk, organic farming, and old-school techniques. The flavor is grassier, more herbaceous, more “farmy” than any imported Manchego we have tried. We’ll admit to having never traveled to La Mancha to savor farmstead Manchego, but a taste of Hidden Springs definitely transports us to the hills near Westby, WI, where the sheep graze. We included the Ocooch Mountain in the tasting as way to distinguish the sheep milk effect as compared to the cow milk variety fro Emmi Roth. Ocooch is wonderful in it’s own right, like a sheep milk Parmesan, though slightly softer in texture, maybe hinting towards a Romano in texture, but many levels more interesting in flavor.

Cheese Plate - Winter 2015 Manchego2
Clockwise from upper left: Hidden Springs Ocooch Mountain, Hidden Springs Manchego-Style, Emmi Roth GranQueso



The GranQueso is fun, approachable and an interesting addition to the tasting, as the texture is very close to Hidden Springs and a traditional Manchego.  According to the maker, this cheese is “rubbed with a spice blend including cinnamon and paprika to bring out a unique identity”. You get just a hint of cinnamon and paprika, so little that if you did not know they were there, the reaction upon tasting would be one of those “Hey, there is a little bit of something in the aftertaste. What is that?”. Upon hearing the spice mix, you’ll immediately say – “Yeah, that’s it.” It’s subtle but it adds a sense of sweetness to the cheese. Some preferred this to the other two, others liked the more pronounced flavors present in the sheep milk varieties.

We added Honey Crisp apples along with the Saucisson Sec to complete the plate. Quince paste is the traditional Spanish accompaniment, and we considered a number of pear or apple options. A pear butter with honey would likely have made a nice addition (or maybe a preserve made of Pear with Honey and Ginger from the aptly named Quince & Apple in Madison). Overall, a fun and enjoyable exploration of artisan foods, taking traditional European approaches and adapting them, tweaking them, making them a new example of Great Lakes Cuisine.

Butchers, Beef, and Three Hours of Smoke

Here in the Great Lakes, a local butcher is a good person to know. Let’s say one day you walk in looking for something unique to throw on the smoker. No, not pork belly. We’ve done that. Beef brisket, done it. Most of the standard fare, we’ve covered. If you’re a regular like Tom and you’ve caught the butcher when things are not busy, they just might invite you to the backroom to take a look at the half cow they are preparing for the day and ask you “What looks interesting?” That is how he ended up with a six pound, custom cut, beef short rib from the folks at Clancy’s Meat & Fish. If you are able to procure such a glorious cut of beef, here is one of our recommended preparations:

Smoked Beef Short Ribs

Spice Mix

Mix together 1 cup brown sugar, 1 tablespoon salt, 1 tablespoon five spice powder, 1 teaspoon garlic powder, 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes, 1 teaspoon dry mustard, 1 teaspoon powdered ginger. Then add just enough olive oil to wet the mixture and make a paste.

Prepare the Beef Ribs

Coat the entire beef short ribs with the mixture, wrap with plastic wrap and allow to marinate overnight in the refrigerator.

Fire up your smoker, apple wood and oak chips are recommended. When smoker settles to approximately 250 degrees, throw the beef ribs on, bone side down over indirect heat. We placed a pan with Sprecher Oktoberfest underneath to catch dripping which later became a pan sauce. Smoke for about 3 hours or until internal temperature reaches 185 degrees. The meat will pull easily away from the bone. It should look something like this:


Beef Ribs1


We enjoyed the smoked ribs two ways – the first evening we had a slab of beef with sauteed kale, potato rosti, and creamed corn. The corn was a roadside farmer’s stand find which we creamed with buttermilk and Carr Valley Cheese’s Dancing Sheep Fontina, picked up earlier directly from the one of the Carr Valley locations. The ribs were deeply smoked and unbelievably rich in flavor as the inter-muscular fat had partially rendered and left the beef really moist, the sugars caramelized into a crisp exterior shell of spicy goodness.

The next day we sliced leftover smoked ribs into 1/4 inch slices, served two slices on a multi-grain sourdough toast, topped with oven-roasted tomatoes and Carr Valley Cheese’s Smoked Gorgonzola (same recipe for the tomatoes as our past version of a steak sandwich).

Beef Ribs2

These were rich, decadently fatty and creamy, with the concentrated tang of the oven-roasted tomatoes adding a nice contrast. If you have the opportunity to enjoy them lakeside on a brilliantly sunny afternoon, alongside friends and family, they may be even better. This is Great Lakes living. This is Great Lakes cuisine.

Clancy’s Meat & Fish is a great little butcher shop in the Minneapolis area. In Madison, talk to the folks at Underground Meats which we featured in a previous post. In Milwaukee, Bunzel’s Old Fashioned Meat Market is a great family-run butcher or Bavette La Boucherie offers a very European-style shop. Wherever you are, find a real butcher, explore different cuts, ask them what they think, if you like their stuff keep going back. A local butcher is a good person to know.

Drifting through Madison, WI

With some free time in the Madison, WI area you can discover all sorts of lovely surprises, including two new additions to our Purveyors page. On a recent business trip to the area, a walk around Capitol Square brought me to Fromagination, a specialty cheese shop featuring Wisconsin cheeses and other artisan and local products.  It is an absolute gem of a store, which my poor picture does not do justice.

FromaginationThe service was helpful, offering tastings of a number of different cheeses including a number of exclusive offerings. They clearly have an excellent relationship with their suppliers, as some the cheeses on offer here will not be found any where else (How about a curry-rubbed, Manchego-style cheese aged for 6 years?). A new offering from an old favorite eventually caught my eye, Golden from Holland’s Family Cheese. Their description: “This creamy, semi-soft, American Original boasts a flavor profile rich in nuttiness with hints of sweet fruit. Handcrafted by award-winning cheesemaker, Marieke Penterman and her team, this raw milk beauty is carefully aged on Dutch pine planks in our cellars.” The flavor profile is full and creamy, reminiscent of a young sheep cheese. We paired the Golden with the other end of the Holland Family Cheese spectrum, the “Super” aged Gouda, which has a Parmesan-like texture with a deep, caramel nuttiness.

A quick trip west of Madison will take you to the Fitchburg/Verona area, which is the edge of the Driftless Region, an area that has been left untouched by the glaciers which flowed over much of the Great Lakes region in the geologic past. Here is where Bavaria Sausage continues a 5o year tradition of making authentic German sausage. Smoked sausage, fresh sausage, frozen sausage, smoked meats, thick-sliced bacon, and nearly every German condiment you could ask for (How about seven varieties of curry ketchup?).  Amongst the variety of summer sausages, we selected the venison, and then grabbed a small beef summer sausage for comparison. Check out the bundles of landjaeger (upper left).

Bavaria sausage

The venison summer sausage is blended with beef which balances the flavor and adds moisture. Bavaria Sausage uses no fillers, no colorants, no artificial flavors. The flavors of the sausage are pure meat. In the picture below, the darker venison sausage is on the left, paired with the Super.  The beef summer sausage on the right was paired with Golden. But playing with combinations made this a simple, tasty, quickly consumed treat, enjoyed with summer cocktails.

Cheese Plate Summer 2014


So as you drift through the area, explore the old traditions, and the new producers. Enjoy the experience of ethnic traditions honored, and made new again. This is the exploration of Great lakes Cuisine.

Lavender Honey Glazed Carrots

The Milwaukee’s Winter Farmers Market over the weekend, hosted by the Mitchell Park Domes, had a really impressive number of vendors and quality products. In addition to the ground elk meat which became Swedish meatballs, and Bison summer sausage from Lakeview Buffalo Farm, there was also a good selection of sprouts, root vegetables, apples, and prepared products such as breads, cookies, and jellies. One of the most beautiful vegetables were these organic carrots, a varietal known as Purple Haze, from the folks at JenEhr Farms:

Purple carrots1


Peeled then sliced into half inch coins.

Purple carrots2Then cooked in a skillet over medium-high heat in a cup of chicken broth until beginning to soften, which should occur just as the last of the broth evaporates. Then add 1 tablespoon of Wisconsin honey and a teaspoon of finely chopped lavender leaves. Allow to caramelize just slightly then add a tablespoon of salted butter off the heat. Serve warm.

Purple carrots3


Grilled Cheese Sandwich #1

With Thomas Keller’s sage advice to consider the grilled cheese “a blank canvas”, we share three recent creations, each in separate posts. Our first begins with a unique cheddar, Deer Creek’s Vat 17, which is a specialty cheese produced for, and distributed by, the folks at The Artisan Cheese Exchange. Chris and Julie Gentine founded the company. Chris’ granfather is Leonard Gentine, one of the founding partners of Sargento Foods. Yes, that Sargento, the one that sells all the mass-produced, pre-sliced, pre-grated bags of cheese at your national grocery chain. Jeanne Carpenter does a great job of detailing how this unique product was produced and ultimately went on to win Best Aged-Cheddar at the American Cheese at her wonderful blog: Cheese Underground. Great story and a great cheese, but on to the Grilled Cheese Sandwich #1:


The Cheese: Deer Creek Vat 17 Cheddar

Created by The Artisan Cheese Exchange by blending different cultures of the world’s best cheddars, it is a creamy, full flavored cheese with a texture reminiscent of some of the best aged white cheddars. If you need a substitute, think more aged Vermont white cheddar, than traditional Wisconsin cheddar. Many of the clothbound cheddars have similar profile such as Cabot’s or Bleu Mont Dairy. For a less expensive alternative, consider using Montamoré from Sartori Cheese. The Deer Creek Vat 17 has the creaminess of the Montamore and the fuller flavors of the clothbound cheddars.

The Accompaniment: Bourbon-spiked Onion and Fennel Jam

Based on a appetizer from Distil, one of my favorite Bourbon bars in Milwaukee, we start by adding Bourbon Bacon lard to the skillet over medium high heat, add thinly sliced sweet onions and fennel, deglaze occasionally with Elijah Craig 12 year old, and simmer until a deep amber, then finish with a malt vinegar/honey gastrique. The process takes about an hour. It’s worth it. The fennel adds the right depth to a sweet and tangy onion jam. Fresh thyme or lemon thyme can be added in the last ten minutes of cooking to enhance the flavor.

The Bread: Sprouted Grain Bread

The density of sprouted grain bread and the nutty flavors create a nice background for the burst of cheddar and tangy onion flavors. Seek out a local bakery that produces sprouted grain or a dense whole grain bread for ideal results. But in a pinch, probably the most accessible sprouted grain bread comes from the folks at Food for Life with their 7 Sprouted Grains bread. They add wheat gluten, which adds that moistness we’ve become so accustomed to in our bread, but for a grilled cheese, the lower the gluten, the crispier we can get the bread. So seek out a gluten-free or low-gluten alternative from a local baker if you can.

The Results

Grilled Cheese #1b

The jam really carries this sandwich from great to outstanding. The Deer Creek Vat 17 becomes even more flavor forward as it is heated and the texture becomes somewhat granular. Have this with a rye whiskey manhattan or a bourbon-barrel aged brew, like Founder’s Backwoods Bastard. Big, bold flavors.