Good Old Tasty English Cheddar Cheese

Cathedral City mature

It’s no secret around here that we love cheese. From Dolcellate (which was an annual Christmas present from a client when O was working as a vet in Dorset) to Brie de Meaux (which explodes with the taste of honey when tasted with a sip of red wine), and from a goat’s cheese pyramid (which I carried in my handbag to London as a present for my sister) to Pont l’Eveque (which just plain stinks, but tastes gloriously rich if you can get beyond the smell of mouldy socks), the cheese board has a position of elevated importance for us in the course of a fine dining experience.

However, setting aside all regional and continental considerations …

If you’re wondering what to eat,
There’s one thing you cannot beat –
That good old tasty English Cheddar cheese.

As sung by The Wurzels.

In 2008, Cheddar was voted the nation’s favourite cheese in research by the British Cheese Board. Cheddar cheese and pickle sandwiches, Ploughman’s lunches … 90% of all households turn to Cheddar for its versatility. Whilst O and I mostly prefer to eat our Cheddar straight, with or without any crackers,  it also excels when used as a bubbling topping on Shepherd’s pie, a creamy sauce for Macaroni and a melted filling in toasted sandwiches.

Cheddar is apparently the most purchased and consumed cheese in the world, with all modern variations originating from a recipe developed on the land around the village of  Cheddar in Somerset hundreds of years ago. The earliest references to Cheddar cheese date from 1170, when it is recorded that King Henry II bought 10,240 lbs of it at a farthing per lb (in modern terms, that’s 4644 kg for a total cost of £10.67).

All Cheddar cheeses are not created equal however, and an enduring question concerns how people choose which Cheddar to buy. With a possible taste profile ranging from extremely mild to extremely sharp, it’s obvious that the exact same Cheddar is unlikely to please everyone. In our house, we prefer the mature Cheddars for their sharpness, dislike a texture that is too gritty with salt and look for a taste that grows and develops in the mouth. Taste aside however, considerations such as price, packaging and promotional offers also influence the decisions that consumers make. Add health considerations to the mix and research shows that 16% of adults restrict the amount of cheese they eat, choosing to eat cheese less often, to eat smaller portions or to buy lower-fat substitutes.

When Cathedral City Cheddar contacted me and claimed that their lower-fat, Cathedral City Mature Lighter Cheddar cheese could deliver taste on a par with their mature variety, we were naturally intrigued. As far as pre-packed, block Cheddar cheese goes (as opposed to the more rarefied traditional farmhouse Cheddar cheeses), we’ve always gone to Cathedral City Mature (or even Extra-Mature) as our first choice. Apart from loving how the bags have a resealable thingymagig along the top (which saves wrestling with countless acres of annoyingly clingy clingfilm), we’ve always found Cathedral City to be  a good, flavourful everyday Cheddar that our children enjoy eating too.

Cathedral City lighter

Cathedral City asked me if I would be interested in comparing their lighter mature variety with their macho, full-bodied cheddar, and I agreed. This was a particularly timely proposition as we had recently tasted a variety of low-fat cheeses at the Devon County Show and had been unanimously unimpressed by their blandness and rubbery texture. It would be interesting to see if Cathedral City had come up with something better …

We decided to conduct a double-blind experiment in which samples of Cathedral City Mature were compared for taste with samples of Cathedral City Mature Lighter cheese. I sliced and divided the samples; O fed one of each (not knowing which was which) to our willing guinea pigs …

Cathedral City taste taest

Although we found that the mature Cheddar does in fact have a more complex taste that lingers and develops for longer than that of the lighter cheese, we were very pleasantly surprised by the mellow flavour and creamy texture of Cathedral City Mature Lighter. When O took some taste-test samples  into work the next day, two of his colleagues couldn’t tell the difference at all and one even preferred the lighter cheese to the higher-fat Cheddar. This is quite a result for Cathedral City – researchers have been striving to create a reduced-fat cheese with these flavour and texture profiles for years (see this report by the National Dairy Foods Research Center Program, for example).

A quick search of the internet revealed that Cathedral City Mature Lighter is already a popular choice of Cheddar, especially among those who are weight-conscious or on a diet. Posters in this Slimming World forum all vote for Cathedral City Lighter with comments like:

“I like Catherdral City Lighter – really very nice.”

“Another vote for Cathedral City Lighter. Best low fat cheese I’ve tried.”

“Definitely Cathederal City Lighter! It’s so good and I can’t tell the difference between that and the full-fat one! Mmm! Don’t like the Weight Watchers one it’s like eating paper, ew!”

Incidentally, the chewy, rubbery texture that is usually associated with low-fat Cheddar is down to the function of fat. In full-fat cheese, larger fat globules create weaker spots in the network structure which in turn break down into smaller particles during chewing, thereby allowing a smooth, creamy texture to develop in the mouth. In low-fat cheese, there are not enough weak spots in the structure to create this texture, which leads to a firmer, rubbery texture that needs more chewing before swallowing. So you can see how impressive it is when a lower-fat Cheddar also has a smooth, buttery, creamy texture, even when melted …

melted Cathedral City cheese

Cathedral City’s Mature Lighter Cheddar cheese should certainly be seen as a welcome addition to the reduced-fat cheese market. Unlike many other lower-fat cheeses, it is something that people can both enjoy and feel good about eating (and if anyone’s stuck for inspiration on what to do with it, then Cathedral City also provide a wealth of recipes on their website). Ultimately, I hope that more people than ever can now be persuaded of the glories of that good old tasty English Cheddar cheese!

Parmesan Thyme Shortbread

Today is the last day of term for L and M. It is also their last day at the village school as they will be moving to a specialist music school in September.

Standing in the playground for the final time this morning, they clutched presents for their teachers and received gifts from friends they have known for most of their young lives. It was a particularly poignant moment tempered only by the knowledge that whilst their classmates may be changing, their long-standing friends at home in the village will still be around for after-school play dates.

To thank all of the staff at the school for their hard work and dedicated teaching, I made a batch of savoury shortbreads flavoured with Parmesan, thyme and pepper. I arranged these around a block of perhaps the creamiest, tastiest Cheddar cheese ever –Barbers 1833.

Hopefully, these nibbles will provide an antidote to the many sweet, chocolatey treats that I am sure are now filling the staffroom!

Parmesan and Thyme Shortbread

8 oz unsalted butter at room temperature
7 oz Parmesan, freshly grated
1 1/2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
9 1/4 oz plain flour
2 1/4 oz potato starch

Preheat the oven to 180 degrees C.

Beat the softened butter until it is creamy and billowy.

Stir in the grated Parmesan, thyme, salt and pepper, mixing at low speed until combined.

Add the flour and potato starch. Continue to mix at a low speed for about a minute until the dough holds together in clumps.

Press the dough together with your hands and place on a floured surface.

Roll out to about 1/4″ thickness (it helps to place a piece of clingfilm/plastic wrap on top of the dough whilst rolling).

Cut circles using a round biscuit cutter (1 5/8″ diameter). Place on ungreased baking trays and bake in the oven for 10 minutes until slightly puffed and golden.

Transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Makes enough for a staffroom of Primary schoolteachers (about 60 to 70 biscuits … I’m afraid I lost count).

His Hat Was Made of Good Cream Cheese

It is unusual for O to request a dessert. He’s more of a meat-and-two-veg sort of person really. By some quirk of genetic fate, none of his teeth are of the sweet variety.

I tend to forget this fact when planning a menu for guests and invariably end up asking him, “What should we have for dessert?” His disgusted expression as he then contemplates the various sugary options makes me wonder if perhaps I’d just asked him to choose from a range of particularly gruesome and bloody death scenarios by mistake.

“Should we torture our guests with a red hot poker or serve up their severed heads on the silver platters?”

“Don’t we need the silver platters for the fish course, darling? Perhaps the red hot pokers would save on the washing-up.”

Last weekend however, O surprised me. We were standing in the kitchen discussing the popular choices of pizza toppings in preparation for a dinner with family and friends when I inevitably forgot and asked THE question, “What should we have for dessert?”

“Cheesecake,” he replied.

I was stunned. Here was an endorsement more compelling than that of any celebrity chef. O had just requested cheesecake!

This is how we came to discover Rose’s superb No-Bake Whipped Cream Cheesecake from her latest book, Rose’s Heavenly Cakes.

When I was little and it was the 1970s, cheesecakes were apparently in fashion at dinner parties. I can remember standing on tiptoe to spot the berry-topped creations among the Black Forest Gateaux and cans of squirty cream adorning the dining room table.  Seeing the shining cherries and blackcurrants that smothered the entire surface of every cheesecake I saw back then, I naturally assumed these berries were an inescapable part of the tasting experience. I had an intense dislike of forest fruits and therefore refused to sample even the tiniest morsel of a cheesecake.

Then came that fateful dinner party when the hostess, disturbed at the thought of letting a small child go without dessert, remarked that there were some plain cheesecakes still waiting in the kitchen for their toppings. Would I like to try a slice of one of those, without the berries?

I didn’t try just one slice. Falling instantly in love with the smoothness of the filling and the saltiness of the biscuit-crumb base, I ate so many slices that I promptly felt very sick indeed.

My love affair with the cheesecake was swift and cruel. Unable to forget my self-induced nausea, I couldn’t bring myself to eat cheesecake again for at least another ten years.

Perhaps these memories saved me from a similar fate last weekend, for I would certainly have been far less restrained otherwise when serving myself extra slices of Rose’s no-bake cheesecake. A sublime lightness and creaminess elevate this cheesecake way beyond the sum of its parts. And when I tell you that those parts include a crème anglaise made with crème fraîche and an italian meringue laced with fresh lemon juice, you will know how serious I am about this cheesecake.

Of course, O hasn’t become a newly-converted, sweet-toothed fan of all things sugary following his uncharacteristic request. My hidden chocolate bars are still safe unless my secret hideaway is rumbled by my children. Whilst O certainly enjoyed his slice of cheesecake and appreciated its superior qualities, he’s a die-hard lover of cheese in its purest form at heart.

With three wild children and a long-haired cat running through the rooms, our house makes an unlikely dairy for cheesemaking. Scrupulously clean, we are not.

There is one form of cheese that is within our grasp however, and that is ricotta.

Creamy, rich and tangy, ricotta is traditionally made in Italy from the leftover whey after the process of cheesemaking. A simpler option for those with only a kitchen stove at hand is to heat a mixture of whole milk and acid gently until the curds separate from the whey. These can then be easily removed with nothing more technical than a colander and cheesecloth. Indeed, the most challenging part of the whole procedure is in resisting eating all of the warm, milky ricotta within a few minutes of its production.

I don’t think that I left the whey to drain from the curds for quite long enough this time though, which is a shame because I used whole goat’s milk for this ricotta and O was particularly looking forward to it. It was still quite delicious in a runny rather than fluffy sort of way, but you had to catch it quickly before it dribbled over the edges of the oatcakes!

O says that he’d prefer “more goat, less cream” next time, so the challenge has been set. I’ll try not to bore you too  much with news of my quest to produce a goat’s milk cheese that satisfies my husband’s exacting standards, but I do feel that I owe it to him as a reward for pushing me towards discovering my new favourite cheesecake recipe.

And his hat was made of good cream cheese …

Creamy Goat’s Milk Ricotta (adapted from a recipe by Julia Moskin)

1 litre whole goat’s milk
250ml double cream
190ml buttermilk
3/4 teaspoon salt

Prepare a sieve or colander lined with a cheesecloth or muslin (folded if necessary) over a large bowl.

Place all the ingredients in a large, heavy-bottomed, non-reactive (stainless steel or enameled – something that won’t react with acid or brine) pot and heat slowly to between 80 and 90 degrees C (175 to 200 degrees F). Stir frequently as the liquid warms but stop stirring once the curds have started separating from the whey.

Remove from the heat and pour into the cheesecloth-lined sieve.

Gather together the ends of the cheesecloth and twist to bring the curds together. Do not squeeze.

Allow to drain for 15 to 30 minutes more and then spoon the ricotta into airtight containers. Refrigerate and use within a week.

Don’t discard the whey! It can be used in many recipes (e.g. pancakes, muffins, sauces) in place of buttermilk or sour cream and will keep for up to a week in the fridge.

Oatcakes (adapted from ‘Scots Cooking‘ by Sue Lawrence)

175g/6oz medium oatmeal
50g/20z pinhead oatmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
25g/10z butter, melted
about 50-75ml/2-3fl oz boiling water

Preheat the oven to 170 degrees C  (325 degrees F).

Combine all the ingredients together in a mixing bowl. Add the melted butter and enough boiling water to form a stiff dough when stirred.

Sprinkle some medium oatmeal over a board. Roll out the mixture gently to about 1/4 inch thickness (depending on how thin/thick you like your oatcakes). Use a biscuit cutter to cut out circles of the dough.

Use a spatula to transfer the rounds carefully to a buttered baking tray.

Bake in the oven until just firm (10 to 20 minutes depending on the size of your circles).

Transfer carefully to a wire cooling rack.

Store in an airtight container when completely cooled (you can keep them crisp by storing them buried in porridge oats).