Say cheese

I believe I mentioned in a post awhile back my penchant for pretty platters laden with cheese, bread, crackers, fruit, nuts, what have you… Hubby and I recently found ourselves amid a veritable jackpot of newly launched Ludwig Farmstead Creamery artisan cheeses and were all too happy to assemble a dinnertime cheese board to sample the wares, rounding out our spread with a baguette, hard salami, kalamata olives and some sliced cucumbers. An ideal summertime meal when it’s scorching hot outside and you don’t feel like firing up the stove.

Ludwig Farmstead Creamery cheeses

Under the capable direction of Zionsville-based cheesemaster Fons Smits (formerly of Traders Point Creamery and an international dairy consultant), Ludwig is turning out some damn fine specimens.

Now, let me preface this review by saying that I am not by any means a cheese expert, nor have I ever played one on TV. I just know what I like when I taste it. So without further ado, let me bring you along on a little virtual Ludwig cheesetasting tour:

Feather Ridge is the company’s bestseller, inspired by hearty European cheeses like Fontina, Vacherin and Mobier. This firm number eats smooth with a little tweak of sharpness on the finish. I couldn’t help but think it would taste fantastic grated over some pasta or maybe on a pizza.

Feather Ridge

The Jake’s Wheel havarti has a mild, mellow nature that lends itself to experimentation, but its semi-soft texture and buttery flavor is plenty delicious on its own merits. Perfect sliced on a crunchy little cracker with perhaps a smear of mustard underneath.

The talented Mr. Smits is having fun infusing this cheese with ingredients as the mood strikes him to produce variations that include, say, bits of Moody Meats bacon (a guaranteed hit with most Midwesterners); fenugreek, a love-it-or-hate-it herb/spice that vaguely calls to mind Indian cuisine; spicy habanero peppers (Fons says this cheese has a small but very enthusiastic fan base); Dutch garden herbs; Italian herbs; and Asian spices. I like the Dutch garden herb with its bright, pretty blend of mixed green herbs. It looks gorgeous, and tastes delicious – do I detect a little bit of dill here? I love dill.

Jake’s Wheel, Dutch garden variety

The Kickapoo, named in honor of a state park near the Indiana-Illinois border not far from where the Ludwig Farm is located, is creamy in texture with a fresh flavor and a tiny hint of sweetness. My three-year-old loved this cheese, gobbling up each bite I gave him and asking for more. I plan to try to melt some on toast or use it for a grilled cheese and see how it goes over.


Blue cheese fans, sit up and take notice. Fons is toying around with a Kickapoo that includes a stripe of blue cheese culture running through the middle. If you like an extra-bold blue cheese that really brings the funk, this probably won’t pack enough pungent punch for you. However, if you’re looking for just a subtle hint of flavor that won’t overpower — a good starter blue cheese, if you will — this baby should be right up your alley.

Kickapoo blue

Traditional Dutch Farmstead Gouda is perhaps closest to Fons’ own heart, being a native Dutchman and all. A good, solid all-around cheese for sandwiches, salads, whatever.

You can currently find the lovely Ludwig cheeses for sale (and free sampling!) at the Zionsville Farmers Market on Saturday mornings; check the web site for updated product news and a list of other retail outlets. The cheeses are also available to order online.

For more information:

A cheesy proposition

When hubby and I lived in Sonoma, California the year after we got married, one of our favorite things to do was to pick up a random bottle of vino from one of the local wineries and assemble a cheese board for supper. In fact, we enjoyed this whole ritual so much, we did it on a weekly basis. In California wine country, every restaurant, grocery store, corner deli and gas station (no joke) offered spectacular wine and cheese selections. Creating something incredibly delicious without even turning on the oven was a total no-brainer.

One of the more memorable cheese platters that comes to mind from that era in my life was something we enjoyed with another couple, kicking off a night out at the swanky Ledson Hotel restaurant on the Sonoma town square. I don’t recall specifics, but I have a fond fuzzy memory of fragrant, fruity red wine complemented by salty, robust blue cheese smeared on small squares of housemade walnut bread and topped with paper-thin slices of sweet, juicy pear. It was a thing of beauty. I have no idea where we went for dinner or what we ate the rest of the night, but the memory of that blue cheese and walnut bread is etched in my brain forever.

Sadly, our cheese board habit has gone the way of the dinosaurs since moving back to Indianapolis. Every now and then, we’ll get a hankering for it, but these times are few and far between. Out of sight, out of mind I suppose. I’m not even sure where to go here in town for great cheese. Valentine’s Day, we decided, marked a perfect occasion to bring our long-lost tradition back to life.

In the past, our cheese board dinners and party platter offerings have consisted of fairly standard ingredients. Two or three cheeses, water crackers or slices of baguette, nuts, olives, grapes, perhaps a sliced apple. Maybe some salumi if we’re feeling wild and crazy. That’s about it.

From what I’ve gleaned in my culinary research over the years, the general rule of thumb for cheese platters is as follows — one hard, one soft, one blue. Which breaks down into a cheddar/gouda/havarti, a brie/goat, and a gorgonzola/blue. No rocket science about it. It’s what you choose to accent the cheese that really makes the difference.

Presentation is key when it comes to cheese platters, as it is for any plate you want to appear impressive. The saying “you eat first with your eyes” is definitely true. A few extra minutes can make any item you serve so much more appealing. Stack things up in little piles. Slice your vegetables and fruits with care. Set out a couple of cute cheese slicers or cocktail spoons for serving. Include some fresh herbs for garnish. The little details count big here.

I clipped a gorgeous two-page spread from a magazine (I believe it was Bon Appetit) several months ago detailing creative cheese platter ideas, and secured it to the wall of my fridge with magnets for inspiration. It includes yummy stuff like pine nut brittle, spirals of dried citrus zest, pate and spicy red pepper jelly. In short, it looks absolutely beautiful and oh so sexy. Alas, I had serious doubts about locating many of those items in my shopping.

For tonight’s offering, here’s what I put together:  a brie (which I ended up having to toss because it smelled overwhelmingly of ammonia. Thanks for staying on top of things in the cheese section, Marsh…), a slender chunk of creamy Edam (delicious, rich and buttery), and a wedge of Maytag blue (quickly becoming a go-to for me). A bag of toasted Italian bread rounds (which screamed for some sort of flavor or seasoning), sweet-salty chunks of proscuitto-wrapped cantaloupe, smoked almonds, sliced pear, yellow pepper matchsticks and a ramekin of pickled grapes rounded out the spread.

Valentine's Day dinner cheese platter. Seriously - look how pretty it is!

The grapes are another Molly Wizenberg recipe I cribbed from her “A Homemade Life” memoir. This woman can do no wrong. The seedless grapes are basically just marinated in a vinegar and sugar concoction with some pickling spices. They were fab, almost like tangy chutney with hints of cinnamon and pepper.

pickled grapes

The wine? A friendly and knowledgeable woman at Cork and Cracker steered me toward a lovely French Fleurie red Beaujolais. I like that place more and more each time I go in; they really seem to know their stuff.

The nice thing about having a cheese board for dinner is you can eat and eat and eat without ever really feeling like you’re pigging out. It’s perfect and romantic for a date night. Finger food, feeding each other tastes of things… get the picture?? And because everything is fresh and usually heavy on fruit and fresh items, it all feels fairly healthy.

For dessert, I baked up a batch of red velvet cheesecake swirl brownies. Sadly, I have yet to master the swirl – my marbled effect usually ends up looking pretty uniform. In this case, pink. No matter. They were tasty, and I used a biscuit cutter to carve them into rounds instead of the usual squares for a little something different.

red velvet cheesecake brownie rounds

This Valentine’s Day, dear readers, I hope your lives are full of love, and your love is full of life.

Will cook for food

So last night, I had a few friends come around to sample some of my culinary efforts, and so that I could impress my new business cards upon them and beg them to hire me. I feared the cold would keep people away, and there were a few no-shows, but all in all the turnout was good, the evening went well and I think a good time was had by all.

I knew that no matter how much time I had allotted to prep, I would probably end up in a frantic state of panic at the last minute. Things started off smoothly – I shopped on Wednesday, made cupcakes and cleaned the heck out of the house on Thursday so that I could devote all of Friday to cooking.

The first dilemma proved to be the chocolate pots de cremes (aka Chocolate Sex) I was hell-bent on making. I own 12 ramekins, but knew that wouldn’t be enough. The party rental place had them, but at $1 pop, renting was a little pricy. I finally found the solution earlier in the week in the form of little espresso cups I bought for cheap at a restaurant supply store downtown – problem solved!

I’d mapped out a schedule for cooking on Friday, and the pots de cremes were first up so they’d have enough time to cook and chill. I’ve made this recipe a few times already and it’s always been fantastic, dare I say foolproof, so I wasn’t nervous about them at all. Ha. Ha. Bloody ha. I measured out all my ingredients, got all my dishes in place, ready to rock and roll. I started heating up the cream, as you do, when I smelled something fishy. Maybe not fishy, just slightly foul. I stuck my finger in the pot only to discover that the economy-sized vat of Half and Half I’d bought at Costco two days before was sour. Yikes. Just glad I caught it before I’d whipped up 30 of the little buggers! Cardinal rule of chefdom – taste, taste, taste as you go.

I was on a fairly tight schedule, but now I had to afford a few minutes for a quick emergency supermarket run. I took off like a bat out of hell to the grocery for more cream. Did I mention it was -11 degrees and the lock on the driver’s side door on our Explorer is jammed? So there I am, rushing out of the house (I didn’t even brush my teeth), crawling in and out of the passenger door and humping over the gearshift in subzero temps, all in the name of chocolate custard.

I bought my new Half and Half, got it home and mixed up the rest of the recipe, but realized that the custard seemed a little thin as I was pouring it into the espresso cups, which I managed to slop all over and had to spend more precious time wiping drips off of each one individually. The required 30 minutes baking time came and went, and the desserts were still runny. At this point, after all this time, money and effort, I was determined to make these little suckers work come hell or high water. Fortunately, 10 extra minutes of baking seemed to do the trick and by the time the pots de creme had chilled, they seemed to be just fine in taste and texture. Thank God.

My other slight dilemma: I had planned to serve mini cheeseburgers Caprese – little beef patties with Italian seasoning topped with tomato, fresh mozzarella, arugula and pesto. Sounds simple enough, right? But I quickly found it’s hard to keep burgers warm for a crowd without them drying out. I resorted to grilling them off all at once, then reheating them in small batches during the evening. I’m afraid the ones that sat out on the buffet for longer than a few minutes went cold, although the guests still seemed to enjoy them.

I had invited everyone over at 6, but was still humping to get things plated and set up at 6:15. My poor first guest ended up patiently babysitting for a few minutes (thanks, Amy! You rock, and you’re Michael’s new favorite peek-a-booer) while I ran around like a chicken with its head cut off, throwing things on platters and imploring my loving husband to just make the dirty dishes in the sink go away. (Which reminds me, hubby will kill me if I don’t take a moment to publicly acknowledge his help and contributions, which I will sincerely do now. He took the day off work to watch the boys so I could cook, picked up my rentals, washed dishes, managed the Euro 80s background music, did a million other little things to help AND frosted cupcakes. Yes, Virginia, real men frost cupcakes. Thanks for everything, babe, couldn’t have done it without you! Mwuah!)

The full menu was the mini cheeseburgers Caprese, pear bleu cheese flatbreads, a sumptuous cheese board, baked brie with spicy apple chutney, hot mulled wine, mini vanilla latte cupcakes and the aforementioned chocolate pots de cremes.

The rest of the evening was spent eating, drinking and chatting with old and new friends. It was a great learning experience for me, a great excuse to entertain and a great chance to test out some new recipes. I had fun, and I hope everyone else did, too. Thanks to my guests for their attendance and support!

the full-on buffet. No Golden Corral here!

the full-on buffet. No Golden Corral here!