The landscape of food and beverage pairing is littered with adages meant to make things easier: “What grows together goes together.” Or, “Likes with likes” and “Opposites attract.” Though I’ve spent the last 15 years immersed in the cheese world, even I get nervous when it comes to proper pairing. Good cheese is expensive. What if I mess it up?
I decided to pick the brains of some of the most accomplished cheese pairers I know. These are folks who have taken top honors at the biannual Cheesemonger Invitational, which includes the final preliminary challenge “Perfect Bite.” Judged on presentation, originality and taste, each competitor is assigned a cheese and given an hour to prepare 100 bite-size compositions. What did top mongers have to say about pairing? Here are the four big takeaways:
“If you’re gonna start thinking about pairing cheese with other things you’ve gotta start simple.” — Eric Miller, Mission Cheese, San Francisco
That’s easy to say if you’re the guy who fried 100 quail eggs in your efforts to reinterpret the New York classic bacon, egg and cheese sandwich. But as Miller is quick to point out, the Perfect Bite is a competition at the highest levels of cheese mongerdom. To pull out the stops he wore his restaurant hat, not his retailer hat.
For people looking for a good pairing at home, the classics — think Manchego and quince paste or Blue drizzled with honey — are all about balance. A salty, gamy cheese is balanced by a sweetly fruity or floral element. Lana Patrick, of Wheel House Cheese in Los Angeles, is in complete agreement. “Sit down with your cheese and taste it. Ask yourself what balances it. Find other things that groove alongside.”
One of the most common mistakes all the mongers warn against is overwhelming the cheese. At the end of the day, pairing is about layering flavor and complexity, but it’s always got to be about the cheese. Taking a heavy, buttery cream-bomb of a cheese and wrapping it in puff pastry smeared with thick, cloying fruit preserves is an exercise in palate fatigue. The whole mouthful is rich and thick and sticky, and the cheese becomes just another smear.
Which brings us to …
“Texture is a huge part of pairing. If it’s going to be completely mushy I’m not going to enjoy it. It needs some sort of textural dynamic.” — Matt Reilly, Eataly, Chicago
Pairing isn’t just about flavor. It’s also about texture. I’d argue this is especially true for cheese, because it’s such a fat and protein-rich food. Younger, softer, higher moisture cheeses coat your mouth. Drier, aged cheeses literally lodge in your teeth. The feel of the cheese, and of what you put with the cheese, can make or break a pairing.
At the winter Invitational, Alex Ourieff, of Vagabond Cheese Company in Los Angeles, was given Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt Tam for his Perfect Bite. A cream-enriched (triple crème) cow’s milk cheese, Ourieff points out that the flavor of the cheese is relatively straightforward. Deliciously, it’s a cheese that’s about sweet cream. Texturally, it’s about tempered butter.
Ourieff reduced his recipe’s call for black molasses and corn syrup because he wanted the cheese, layered atop homemade gingerbread, to have a firmer, snappier texture. Crushed pistachios added crunch. Without this sandwiching of texture, his cheese might have languished as a predictable goo-bomb.
Similarly, what brought Miller to his version of a breakfast sandwich is the realization that the texture of his assigned cheese reminds him “in a good way” of a Kraft Single. What would he do with said Single? He’d make an egg sandwich. Fried bacon, however, is “too bacon-y.” It is oily and thick, and what you would walk away with is the sensation of eating a slab of pork fat.
Miller wanted the milky, slippery goodness of the cheese to shine, so he oven-roasted thin strips of prosciutto. I bet crackling would have worked too. What he got was flavor balance (fermented tang and porky sweetness), but even more critically, he’d managed to “get some crunch in there.”
Reilly’s foray into textural balance was the most eye opening for me. After making a nacho “chip” out of dried and puffed cheese, he topped it with, of all things, Mexican crema (his play on sour cream). One would assume that cream atop cheese would just be overkill. But the thick palate coating texture of the crema actually spread the chipotle-imbued flavors of his crispy cheese chip.
Acid Is The New Sugar
“Cheese pairings get lost in the sweet/salt balance. I didn’t want to play that game so I relied on acidity (and spice).” — Alex Ourieff, Vagabond Cheese Company, L.A.
The most touted condiments for cheese pairing — membrillo (quince paste), fig jam, honey, fruit — rely on sugar. Sweetness can be a great way to balance salt, which is often a predom-inant flavor in cheese. But acidity will balance flavor and texture. Like a crisp white wine, an element of acidity slices through the richness that all cheeses share, regardless of milk or style. To his Perfect Bite, Ourieff added acidity in the form of a quick sugar/champagne vinegar pickle for persimmons: an essence of sweetness without cloying intensity.
Patrick had the challenge of pairing a dense, aged cheese that is a razor’s edge away from cheese candy; what makes Cypress Grove’s Midnight Moon (and other aged goat Gouda styles) so com-pulsive is the caramel note that lingers. Tasting the cheese made Patrick think of citrus: “It needed an acidity component.”
Reilly, who took home the grand prize at the winter Invitational in San Francisco, relied on tamarind to lighten his Rogue Creamery chipotle-laced Pistol Point Cheddar. And cooking down tamarind wasn’t enough. He did that, diluting it with water, and then added back the scrapings of the tama-rind pod. He wanted to “accentuate the brightness,” and while he was originally concerned the tart, sour note would overwhelm his cheese, he found he actually needed much more than originally planned.
Miller, too, found acidity was the essential element to his milky, meaty, eggy bite. No breakfast sandwich would be complete without ketchup. Instead, he made a bright, mouth-puckering tomato jam and laced it with the same proprietary dried chili jam that gar-nished his Cowgirl Creamery Devil’s Gulch.
Trust Your Experience
“It’s about what you like. Put the cheese in your mouth, and see what happens.” —Lana Patrick, Wheel House Cheese, L.A.
Another universal acknowledgment among the mongers is that everyone is intimidated by pairing. Like me, most of us don’t want to “mess it up.” But we all have a lifetime of food memories that can inspire and guide some really exceptional cheese pairings. Miller’s textural association with a Kraft Single made him think of an egg sandwich. Patrick tasted Midnight Moon and remembered “this moment when I had a goat milk caramel. Aha that was fantastic!” Reilly ate a flavored block of cheddar and thought: “Nachos!”
This isn’t sophisticated or rarified food recall; these are the fundamental tastes of our childhood, or our first food discoveries. We all eat cheese because it’s delicious. It offers a seemingly infinite range of flavors and textures, all from a few humble ingredients. Pairing it should be fun, exploratory and playful.
This top cheesemonger can help you pair like a pro:
Eric Miller’s Devil’s Gulch Breakfast Sandwich
Yield: 12 Perfect Bites
12 quail eggs
3-4 slices of soft white bread (potato or brioche work well)
1 wheel of Cowgirl Creamery Devil’s Gulch cheese, cut into 12 portions
¼ lb sliced prosciutto
1 Tbsp poppy seeds
¼ cup chive oil
Tomato jam (or ketchup)
Oil for frying (grapeseed is preferred)
Using a 2-inch ring mold, cut out rounds from the sliced bread, butter lightly and toast both sides in a frying pan. Set aside.
Set oven to 350 degrees F. While the oven preheats, slice the prosciutto into quarter-inch strips and lay them out on a cooling rack set on a sheet pan. This will allow any oil released from the prosciutto to drain away. Cook for about 10 minutes or until crispy. Set aside.
While the prosciutto is cooking, set a dry skillet to medium-high and toast the poppy seeds until they become fragrant. Set seeds aside.
Add generous amount of grapeseed oil into the medium-high skillet. This is where you’ll fry the quail eggs. Using a sharp paring knife, cut the top of the quail eggs and pour the egg into the hot oil (using a knife will make it less likely that you break the yolks — trust me). Cook them sunny-side up. Don’t flip them.
Start assembling: Add the cheese to the toast rounds, and top with the egg. Add several strips of crispy prosciutto, tomato jam, and a few drops of chive oil for additional color. Sprinkle with poppy seeds to finish.CC
The producer of Cheesemonger Invitational, Liz Thorpe is a 13-year industry veteran, author and consultant. She is currently writing a reference guide to cheese to be published in fall 2016.