We continue our winter hibernation, but bring you this cold-weather cheese from Switzerland today. Enjoy!

Maybe it has something to do with temperatures that can’t seem to climb above freezing around here, but I’m still craving hearty mountain cheeses. Appenzeller, another Swiss classic from Rolf Beeler, is a semi-firm cow’s milk cheese brined in a centuries-old secret blend of herbs, wine and liquor.  Remarkably smooth, ideally suited for melting (think fondue), the Appenzeller has a sweet, fruity flavor and supple bite, with a spicy aftertaste. The buttery cheese has a few characteristic large holes and a hard reddish-orange rind.

Appenzeller is ideal for cooking, or serve on a cheeseboard with sausages and bread. I layered thinly sliced Appenzeller with stone ground mustard and Pinot Grigio salami on a wheat baguette, served with cornichons on the side. Perfect for a slightly gourmet, yet still hearty, Super Bowl appetizer. Enjoy with beer of course (a German bock would be nice), or pinot gris.

Check out this travelogue from Appenzell for a look at the cows responsible for this wonderful cheese.

— originally posted 1/27/09

Do you know how you can make a good cheese taste even better? Let it sit out on the counter overnight. That’s what ol’ preggo brain here did last night, and the outcome wasn’t bad like I had feared. Actually, it makes sense – if all cheese are supposed to left at room temperature an hour before serving to heighten their flavors, 10 hours at room temperature must make a cheese 10 times as good, right?

Anyway, the cheese we’re talking about today is Gruyère, the Swiss cow’s-milk cheese that, to me, is Swiss cheese. Though you won’t usually find holes in Gruyère like the commodity “Swiss cheese” features, this is the quintessential Swiss cheese – sweet, nutty and rustic. And while cave-aged versions, such as the 15-month one I bought, typically have a stronger flavor, I found my piece to be pleasingly light and creamy on the tongue. If I had a loaf of crusty bread around, I could have had the entire wedge of Gruyère and bread for breakfast and be totally satisfied. Alas, I’m eating oatmeal. Yawn.

Gruyère melts well, so you’ll find it in a range of dishes, like gratins, quiches and soups. But to me, Gruyère means one thing – fondue. I’m all for trying new cheese combinations when making fondue, but the classic version features Gruyère as a main ingredient, and you can’t argue with that kind of star power. No matter how you prepare it, though, enjoy Gruyère with a light wine wine such as Riesling or a sparkling apple cider.

When I think of French cheese, I generally think of something blue and/or creamy, like the beleaguered Roquefort or decadent Bries and Camemberts. Yet the most popular cheese in France is a hard, aged Alpine cheese, Comte. Comte is one of France’s oldest cheeses as well, dating back to the time of Charlemagne. Comte is the French interpretation of Gruyere, derived from raw mountain-grazing cows’ milk, and aged for over a year for a smooth, slightly sweet caramel flavor.

While Comte is wonderful for snacking on as is – enjoyed by my toddler and dog (the latter snuck some rind off the table when no one was looking) – it would also make a lovely fondue into which to dunk spring’s first asparagus spears. I’d stick with French wine, of course, such as the white Cotes du Rhone I enjoyed recently.

Since early March is definitely still winter here in Minnesota, an Alpine cheese is still in season. And when you’re sick of snow and slush, a cozy cheese like Vacherin Fribourgeois is just the thing to remind you that there are benefits to the cold. You probably wouldn’t have a bowl of French onion soup in July, which means you’d be unlikely to melt a thick slice of Vacherin Fribourgeois on top of such a bowl in that month, either.

This semi-firm, raw cow’s-milk cheese, another winner from Rolf Beeler, is a superb melter, as many Swiss cheeses are. (Go to town, fondue lovers!) Steven Jenkins compares it to Fontina, and I can definitely see some similarities. Though it has a washed rind, it doesn’t really have a big stink factor. Rather, the buttery, meaty flavor pleasantly coats the mouth and makes you want just one more taste. Pair it with some crusty bread (my favorite is the rustic loaf from Rustica Bakery) and snack away. A nice hunk with bread and a green salad would make a very satisfying lunch or light dinner.

Jenkins recommends enjoying Vacherin Fribourgeois with a big red wine from Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Rhône Valley or the Piedmont. I tasted mine the other night with my unfinished can of diet ginger ale, and wouldn’t you know, that match wasn’t bad, either!

Something about grey, wintery weather makes me crave a good melting cheese, and my first thought when biting into a slice of Hoch Ybrig was, “fondue!” A Swiss mountain cheese, this semi-firm cheese has a smooth texture with just a few little crystals, and a bold tang from being soaked in white wine. It is produced by acclaimed fromager Rolf Beeler in Zurich, known in cheese circles as “The Pope of Swiss Cheese,” and whose cheeses appear several times on the Wine Spectator list. Try it on a baguette with a chardonnay mustard and sliced salami for a hearty winter lunch. Its nutty flavor would pair well with a Riesling or pale beer, though I enjoyed it with some hot apple cider.

This cheese is produced in small batches only in the summer months (I guess those Alpine cattle hibernate in the winter?) so catch it while you can! I found it at Cheesetique, and online at Artisanal. There is apparently a Swiss ski resort by the same name; so whip up some Hoch Ybrig fondue and imagine you’re sitting by the fireplace after a day on the slopes.

However you ring in the New Year, we wish you nothing but the finest in cheese and life in 2009!

New Year’s Eve was always a particularly fun evening for me, Colleen and our spouses. It typically involved a lot of food and wine and us yelling at whichever teeny-bopper of the moment was featured on “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” that year. For our first New Year’s Eve together (2002), the food highlight was the top layer of Colleen and Lou’s wedding cake. The next year is significant for the debut of my (a.k.a. Ina Garten‘s) smoked salmon dip, which was a hit with our guests and my cat. But by the time we got to New Year’s Eve 2004, we found our true calling – fondue. I think it was the idea of our friend Jo, who had lived in Switzerland, and Colleen and I jumped at the chance to make cheese the focus of the festivities. We made two cheese fondues and one chocolate fondue and I think I remember all of them being delicious, but since we went through more bottles of wine that night than we had people at the party, all of our memories are a bit fuzzy.

If you don’t have a menu set for Wednesday night yet, consider fondue. It’s easy to make, everyone gets a kick out of dipping, and you could even make it part of a theme party if your theme is the Swingin’ Sixties. Here’s a step-by-step guide to having a successful fondue:

  1. Ask your cheesemonger for suggestions. Traditional fondue is made with the Swiss cheeses Gruyere and Emmental, which are fantastic, but it’s always fun to mix it up a bit. I went to the Premier Cheese Market yesterday, and the friendly cheesemonger advised me to consider adding Red Dragon or Black Mountain Cheddar. We went with the Black Mountain since its blend of garlic, herbs and white wine was appealing to my garlic fiend of a husband.
  2. Get your proportions right. Your cheesemonger should be able to tell you how much of each cheese to get based on the number of guests. For four people having our Black Mountain fondue, purchase 1/2 lb. each of the Gruyere and Emmental and a 1/4 lb. of the Black Mountain.

    Black Mountain Cheddar with yummy bits of garlic and herbs

    Black Mountain Cheddar with yummy bits of garlic and herbs

  3. Gather your non-cheese ingredients. You’ll want to make sure you have fresh lemons, garlic, cornstarch and white wine (we used a cheap Pinot Grigio from Trader Joe’s) on hand – all four are essential to a great fondue. Traditional fondue recipes often call for Kirsch, a German cherry brandy. I’ve never used it in fondue because I don’t keep any in my liquor cabinet, but if you have some, by all means pour some in. For dippers, you’ll definitely want some crusty bread, preferably cut into cubes ahead of time so they can dry out a bit. Other ideas include boiled new potatoes, baby carrots, broccoli or asparagus.
  4. Start shredding and stirring. Shred all the cheese with a box grater. Heat up your fondue pot (mine is electric, so I just plug it in). Rub the inside of the pot with a cut garlic clove. Add the cheese, the juice of one lemon, three heaping teaspoons of cornstarch and 3/4 cup of white wine (eyeball it). Stir until melted and smooth. Adjust heat as necessary to keep it from boiling.
  5. Enjoy! I made this fondue for my parents, sister and husband last night, and none of them could be considered cheese aficionados. But all of them loved it, so hopefully your group will, too!

For more fondue ideas, check out fonduebits.com or bestfondue.com. Happy New Year!