Happy new year, cheese lovers! The start of a new year is always exciting, but Jan. 1, 2011 is particularly thrilling for me since my beloved Wisconsin Badger football team is facing Texas Christian University in the Rose Bowl this afternoon. Of course, it won’t really be a contest – Wisconsin is known for kicking major booty during previous Rose Bowl games – but it’s a great excuse to get together with fellow Badgers and cheer on our team. While eating cheese, of course.

In honor of this year’s Rose Bowl competitors, I’ll be serving a cheeseboard with two regional favorites. Wisconsin will be represented by Hook’s 7-Year Cheddar, and since I couldn’t find any Texas cheese at my local shop, Green Hill will stand in for the South. (And I really wanted an excuse to buy a fresh wheel of Green Hill, anyway.) We’ll have my favorite Carr’s whole wheat crackers on hand, as well as gluten-free rice crackers, and lots of beer and other appropriate beverages.

Since both cheeses are amazing, our taste buds will win no matter which team comes out victorious, but you all know my bias. Go Badgers!

PSA: If you’re in the DC area, head down to La Fromagerie in Alexandria right now for a chance to snatch some of the infamous 15-year-aged cheddar from Wisconsin’s Hook’s Cheese Co.

After selling out before Christmas, the second batch is rolling out to cheese shops now. Have you tried it? Spotted it? Cheesemongers, let us know if you’re carrying it and we’ll alert our cheese friends on Twitter.

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.

My allusion to the now-famous 15-year Cheddar produced by Wisconsin’s Hook’s Cheese Company a couple of weeks ago occurred before I got the notion to ask my friends Jim and Becca, who have spent the better part of November and December in our home state promoting their fabulous book, to pick up a chunk for me to taste. Alas, by the time they made it back to Wisconsin, it was hard to find this extra-special cheese anywhere in the state. But ever resourceful, Jim and Becca brought me back a tiny sample cup containing two chunks of the Cheddar from one of their book-tour stops, and it made its way safely back to Minnesota to my eager mouth. Was it worth the wait? Oh yes!

This is, quite simply, the best Cheddar I’ve ever tasted, and you know how many Cheddars we’ve tasted over the past year. It’s the epitome of what a Cheddar should be. It is rich, creamy and caramelly with a few tiny crystals thrown in for good measure. Definitely worth its $50/lb. price tag, the 15-year Cheddar should become an award-winning cheese this summer at the American Cheese Society Annual Conference in Seattle. If not, those judges don’t know cheese.

I’m guessing this Cheddar would make a fabulous mac and cheese or grilled-cheese sandwich, but I think it would be a crime to desecrate it by grating and melting. Just carve off little chunks and enjoy with a big red wine.

If you can still find it in your area (as of yesterday, Surdyk’s reported via Twitter that it had 5 lbs. remaining), Hook’s 15-year Cheddar is the perfect holiday gift for the cheese lover in your life. But if you can’t get your hands on it, here are some other last-minute gift ideas:

  • If you know the recipient is a big fan of soft-ripened cheeses, a whole wheel of Brie, Chaource or Camembert makes a great gift, especially when paired with fruit preserves or chutney.
  • Crowd-pleasers like Gouda or Cheddar are always a safe bet. If you’re still uncertain about your cheese choice, revisit our post from last year, with gift advice from Ken Liss, the owner of the recently departed Premier Cheese Market. Ken is also a wealth of information about unusual cheese pairings – my Heavy Table profile of him from last spring may give you some fun ideas.
  • We know y’all love cheese balls because we get a ton of traffic to this blog from people searching for recipes. If you haven’t already, try Colleen’s version with Old Bay seasoning.
  • The gift doesn’t have to be cheese itself. My husband gave me a beautiful marble cheese board for Chanukah this year, and fondue pots are always a hit. Every cheese lover needs a quality set of cheese knives, and babes will look fabulous in Murray’s “little cheese” bibs.
  • And if you still have space on your tree, get one of these adorable cheese ornaments from Sur La Table. They almost make a Jew wish she had a Chanukah bush!