This cheddar is better

Wednesday, June 13, 2007
Real Cheddar cheesecake can be a special treat, especially when you use fine Cheddar and add pineapples to the mix. (Fred Lynch)

A few years ago thieves raided the English farm of James Montgomery, an award-winning cheese maker who supplies Harrods, and took off with six tons of his Cheddar. The robbers evidently knew what they were doing. They pilfered only the finest aged cheese, ignoring wheels of lesser quality, and timed their heist just days before the annual British Cheese Awards, thereby depriving Montgomery, a frequent gold medal winner at that event, of the opportunity to win again.

This incident of fromage sabotage stunned Britain, where for 200 years cheese-rolling (the competitive pursuit of a wheel of cheese down a steep hill) has actually been a sport, but it only goes to show that the English take their Cheddar seriously.

And why shouldn't they? After all, they invented it. The most famous hard cheese in the world, it was created toward the end of the 16th century and takes its name from the village of Cheddar, by Cheddar Gorge in Somerset County. The word "Cheddar" derives from the Old English "ceod," meaning pouch, a reference to the fact that the gorge is laced with lots of caves or pouches in the earth.

Cheddar is now made around the world, though, alas, most of it is not in the same league as the original. As cheese connoisseurs Max McCalnan and David Gibbons point out, because the name cheddar was never legally protected, the term today "covers all kinds of abominations." So you might think that to find truly great cheddar you'd have to go to England.

That's what I thought -- until I recently visited the Tillamook Cheese factory. The facility is operated by the Tillamook County Creamery Association, a dairy cooperative made up of 150 farms near the small town of Tillamook, Ore., where cows outnumber people 2-to-1. According to award-winning cheese monger and native Missourian Steven Jenkins, the first American honored with France's prestigious Chevalier du Taste-Fromage, Tillamook Cheddar "ranks with the finest Cheddar made anywhere." Oregon food writer David Sharp agrees. He claims, "Tillamook is to cheese what Napa is to wine."

Some of the cheeses available in Tillamook, Ore. (TOM HARTE)

Having sampled Tillamook cheddar at a variety of stops along the lush Oregon coast, I heartily concur. Ironically, however, the early European settlers of Tillamook County, an Indian word which means "land of many waters," wanted to make Swiss cheese as befitted their heritage, but the climate would not cooperate, so they turned to Cheddar. And now it's no longer necessary to cross the pond to enjoy that great cheese. Tillamook cheese is available at the supermarket.

English Pineapple Cheddar Cheesecake

You'll want to use the finest Cheddar, like Tillamook, when you make this unusual dessert, adapted from a recipe by the late Hungarian chef Louis Szathmary, who owned the legendary old Bakery Restaurant in Chicago and whose personal collection of thousands of cookbooks forms the nucleus of the Culinary Archives and Museum at Johnson and Wales University. (Please note that this recipe contains uncooked egg whites. If you are concerned about the risk of salmonella, substitute pasteurized eggs.)

6 tablespoons butter

1 and 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs

4 eggs

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 teaspoons grated lemon zest

1 cup heavy cream

2 tablespoons unflavored gelatin

6 tablespoons water

12 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated

1 can (20-ounce) drained crushed pineapple

Melt butter, mix with crumbs, and press onto the bottom of a greased 9-inch springform pan. Chill. Combine egg yolks, sugar and lemon juice and beat over hot but not boiling water until mixture thickens to the ribbon stage. Add gelatin to water and stir over medium heat until gelatin dissolves. Cool to lukewarm. Whip cream to soft peaks and fold into cooled egg mixture. Fold in cheese and pineapple and then dissolved gelatin. Beat egg whites until stiff and fold into mixture. Spoon into crust and chill until set, 3 to 4 hours.

Tom Harte's book, "Stirring Words," is available at local bookstores. A Harte Appetite airs at 8:49 a.m. Fridays on KRCU, 90.9 FM. Contact Tom at semissourian.com or at the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699.

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