We may have had a whole box of cheeses waiting when Jill arrived for her visit last month, but that didn’t stop us from venturing to a cheese shop.  After all, Jill hadn’t been to La Fromagerie yet and we’re certainly not ones to miss out on visiting a new cheese shop! And of course we managed to come across something new, Bloomin’ Idiot from Hook’s Cheese Co. of Wisconsin. Yes, the same Hook’s whose 15-year cheddar has become something of an obsession around the cheese world. But that’s no reason to overlook their other fine cheeses, particularly the clever double-creme-slash-blue specimen here. In fact, prior to the cheddar craze Hook’s was known for their variety of blues. And since it’s Valentine’s week, it’s worth pointing out that Tony and Julie Hook were college sweethearts who’ve been making cheese together for over 30 years. Now that’s romance.

Bloomin’ Idiot is a cows-milk, semi-soft and creamy cheese that at first glance resembles a brie-style cheese. In fact, if you scoop out a bite from the middle and exclude the rind, it has that same mild, creamy, slightly sour milky taste you would expect. Take a bite with the bloomy, mottled rind, however, and you’ll get the tangy astringent flavor of a blue. Huh?

is it just me or is that cheese smirking?

In traditional blues, the milk is inoculated with mold and mold spores are injected into the cheese to encourage its development. By skipping the injections, this cheese develops blue only in the rind, creating a cheese with almost a split personality. We give this experiment two thumbs up, with bonus points for the amusing name.

I wasn’t sure how I was going to like this week’s cheese, Brie de Nangis. Though I don’t dislike Brie, it’s not one of my go-to cheeses. Cheap grocery-store versions offer very little flavor, and the Brie de Meaux I’ve bought in the past has an odd aftertaste. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to find that Brie de Nangis’ taste and texture mimicked a French triple-creme cheese more than its similarly named cousin.

A pasteurized cow’s-milk cheese, Brie de Nangis almost disappeared from cheeseboards for a while, but luckily for those of us who like its mild, buttery flavor, it is readily available today. You’ll find it in smaller rounds than Brie de Meaux, and its texture is firmer, too. Even after sitting on the counter for an hour, my wedge of Brie de Nangis didn’t get runny, though it probably would have if it stayed for another hour or two.

Surdyk’s recommends pairing Brie de Nangis with a Beaujolais, while Artisanal Cheese suggests a Merlot. Personally, all I need is some crusty French bread upon which to schmear it.

We know budgets are tight these days, and gourmet cheeses can really make your grocery tab add up quickly. Here are a couple ways to incorporate cheese in your holiday feasts and still have enough money for the Hanukkah brisket, Christmas goose or whatever else is on your menu!

Pick a “showcase” cheese. Odds are you’re serving enough other food for people to fill up on, so you don’t really need to have multiple cheeses. Pick one high quality cheese, centered among spiced nuts and other accompaniments, and pair with a beverage, for a stand-out start or finish to the meal. Try Cypress Grove’s Truffle Tremor paired with a California sparkling wine for a first course, or a wedge of Parmigiano Reggiano and spiced hot cider for an after dinner treat.

Make cheese a star ingredient. Baked brie – with seasonal cranberry sauce or fig preserves – stretches your cheese dollars and is sure to please a crowd. Or try blue cheese-filled endives, topped with pomegranate seeds (a la Eric Ripert) for festive little bites of cheese.

Look for budget-friendly cheeses. You don’t have to get the most expensive triple-creme cheese from France to wow your family and friends. Look for heartier favorites like a Dutch gouda or aged Irish cheddar – or look for domestic brands, like Cabot/Jasper Hill (Vermont) or Carr Valley (Wisconsin). Tillamook‘s vintage white extra sharp cheddar (Oregon) is a budget-friendly family favorite. A mild, hard cheese like cheddar and gouda will hold up well to a variety of foods and beverages as part of the holiday meal.

Skip the Champagne. Perfectly palatable sparkling wines from California, Spanish cava, or Italian prosecco can be found for $15-30, and will delight your guests when paired with cheese treats. I love Tarantas organic cava ($12.99 at Whole Foods) and have used Trader Joe’s $6 prosecco in pomegranate cocktails that are perfect for Christmas. Sean of Vinifico! recommends Zonin Prosecco Brut NV ($14), and Washington Post wine columnist Dave McIntyre calls Scharffenberger Brut “America’s best bargain bubbly.” (See his blog for more bargain sparkling wine recommendations.)  

Hope your holidays are cheese-filled and merry!