You’ve had your fill of sweets and candies. You’re sick of baking and can’t stand the sight of another sprinkle, but you’ve got one more holiday party to finish out the year, and what are you going to bring to the table? What about something everyone loves, something no one ever gets sick of, something everyone will rave about and will be the talk of the New Year’s Eve party? The answer is cheese.
Done right, a cheese plate can be a decorative centerpiece, and when filled with an assortment from local cheesemakers, can be a great conversation starter. Of course you don’t need quite the assortment I put together below – I just wanted to give several examples. Four or five should suffice, but why limit yourself?
Maine has become a hotbed for cheesemakers, many making an art form of it, experimenting and developing signature flavors, specializing in varieties best suited to their cows’ milk. One can easily fill an impressive cheese platter with Maine-sourced cheeses. A stop at a food co-op and a local grocery store provided all I needed for the above cheese board.
- Haymaker is described as a mild to medium English-style hard cheddar-type cheese by its maker – Balfour Farms in Pittsfield. This
cheese is the base for their other herbed hard cheeses. Owners of the farm, Doug and Heather Donahue, have a small herd of mostly Normande and Normande crosses – a beautiful breed with striking markings, including rings around their eyes, in an array of colors. It is known as a dual purpose breed, valued for its meat as well as its milk. In addition to aged hard cheeses, the Donahues also make soft cheeses and a bloomy rind cheese as well as yogurt and other cultured dairy products.
- Orne Meadows is advertised as a robust, sharp cheddar, and it is that for sure. Named for Cabot’s founding cheesemaker Tom Orne, it is a smooth Alpine-style cheese with a subtly sweet fruity and nutty finish, according to Cabot. The cheese is part of Cabot’s Founders’ Collection – cheeses are made from the original recipes created by their founding farmers in 1919. And yes, yes, Cabot cheese is made in Vermont, but more than one-third of the dairy farms in the state of Maine belong to the Agri-Mark cooperative, meaning they are farmer/owners of Cabot. So a purchase of Cabot products is still supporting your local dairy farms. As well as being easy to find in most grocery stores, there is also the Cabot Farmer’s Annex in the Old Port of Portland. They have a plethora of Cabot cheeses as well as other artisan cheeses, wines, ciders, gifts and more.
- Port City Pesto by State Of Maine Cheese Company is an Italian flavored Jack cheese with “a delightful blend of roasted minced garlic, sun-dried tomato, and basil.” Owner Cathe Morrill said it was a favorite among those attending the wildly popular Maine Harvest Festival in November in Bangor. She added that it’s festive red and green colors make it perfect for the holiday season. It could decorate a cheese platter all on its own. If you want to treat guests to a fun fondue, Cathe recommends the Mt. Kineo Caerphilly – a traditional Welsh cheese that melts very nicely. State of Maine Cheese Company is not of the new crop of cheesemakers. They were well ahead of the curve, establishing in 1983. Several of their cheeses are available in Hannaford Supermarkets. If you can make it to Rockport, it’s worth a stop at State of Maine Cheese Company’s shop – a haven for Maine-made foods and other items. Of course you can find cheese (as well as a bottle of wine with which to pair it), and you might even time it right to visit when they are making cheese. They also have more specialty cheeses that you’ll only find in the shop. State of Maine has a working relationship with Oakhurst Dairy to source its milk, and they have been able to hand-select the farm where their milk comes from – Springdale Jerseys (where they also have Guernseys) in Waldo.
- Moonchego is Silvery Moon Creamery’s version of Manchego, which is traditionally a Spanish sheep’s milk cheese, but this is made with milk from the Smiling Hill cows in Westbrook. Aged for at least 4 month, the outside of the Moonchego is rubbed with extra virgin olive oil and smoked paprika, and the cheese has a creamy texture with nutty undertones. Silvery Moon Creamery puts the “art” in artisanal cheesemaking, and they have won several national awards for their cheeses. You can find their cheeses in a variety of places in Maine and New England.
- Wholesome Holmstead’s Brin D’Amour is a beautiful cheese, which is why I chose to use it for the center of my cheese board. It is described as “velvety, semi-soft, with bright citrus notes, earthy finish, enveloped in herbs,” mainly rosemary in this case, which made it delicious on crackers. The Trenholms (the family who farms Wholesome Holmstead in Winthrop) suggest trying it on bread, grilled veggies and salad. The Trenholm family has a long history with Guernsey cows – a breed once common on homesteads around Maine, and they wouldn’t want to make their “Golden Guernsey Dairy Products” with any other milk. They offer fresh and aged farmstead cheeses, yogurt and milk. They make yogurt cheeses with flavors like cranberry almond and curry garlic, and their “BeerME” cheese is made with a Maine craft brew, but that stuff sells out as fast as they can make it, so good luck. The Trenholms also raise Angus beef cows and pigs (which are milk and whey fed) if you’d like to offer pepperoni or sausages on your cheese plate. Wholesome Holmstead has a great Instagram account to follow.
- The Lumberjack Pepper Jack from Sonnental Dairy will be just the kick needed to get your party hopping. Several Maine cheesemakers offer their delicious, spicy take on pepper jack, and Sonnental is one of my favorites. I also love their Asiago, especially for a good cheesy bread – not unlike this recipe from King Arthur Flour. Although Sonnental dairy is in Smyrna, I have found it in numerous stores all over the state as it is distributed by Crown O’ Maine, and they make several varieties of cheeses.
- The Bradbury Blue by Winter Hill Farm is obviously a blue cheese. I will say right here that I am not usually a blue (or bleu) fan, BUT the Bradbury Blue won me over as it’s makers point out that it is “a very creamy blue! Not overwhelming, but distinctly blue.” If your introducing people to new flavors and styles of cheese, this is a great one with which to start. I also picked up their Camembert-style Frost Gully, which was melt in your mouth goodness with the figs from my cheese board. I’m sure it would have been wonderful baked with some sweet topping, but I wasn’t patient enough for that and just ate it as is. Winter Hill cheesemaker Sarah Wiederkehr has learned much of her artisan cheese making skills through trial and error, and she has developed some one-of-a-kind cheeses, including their Tide Line, which won 3rd place in the prestigious American Cheese Society competition in the Farmstead cheese category in 2015 and is a finalist in the Good Food Awards competition. Their Collinsbrook cheese had the honor of being served at the distinguished James Beard house in NYC on a smorgasbord presented by Portland’s Hunt and Alpine Club. As Winter Hill Farm is located in Freeport, their cheeses along with other dairy products (don’t pass up their flavored yogurts if you get the chance) can be found at their farm as well as at several stores in southern Maine. They’ve also become popular in many Portland area restaurants.
- While Pineland Farms Creamery in New Gloucester makes a number of cheeses, I chose their Baby Swiss for this board because it’s one of my favorites – mild and creamy with the unmistakable tang of Swiss. Their Three Pepper Jack is also a nice choice for those who like it hot. The Pineland Farms Creamery is within view of the Pineland Farms dairy barn that houses some of the finest Holsteins anywhere. The farm is open to tours as is the creamery, both with large viewing areas for guests to get a firsthand glimpse at the “farm to you” process. The Bangor Daily News did an extensive story about the success of Pinelands Farm Creamery a few months ago. As it is the largest cheese maker in the state of Maine, Pineland cheeses are easy to find in grocery stores throughout the state or at the farm market on the Pineland campus, which is always a fun stop.
- Tide Mill Creamery Organic Little Bloom is a cow and goat milk mix cheese, but I had to include it as it was an American Cheese Society Winner in the sheep or mixed milk soft-ripened cheeses category. From the Creamery’s web site: “What makes this cheese a winner? We believe it is the care our team puts into every step of the process, beginning with the milk given by our goats and the cows of Tide Mill. Both herds graze a wide array of native flora each day and are managed 100% organically. Therefore, the essence of Little Bloom is red clover and timothy, raspberry, maple, and birch leaves, goldenrod, sorrel, and rosa rugosa.” Tide Mill Creamery buys its cows’ milk from Tide Mill Organic Farm and both are run by members of the Bell family – a family with a rich farming history. Tide Mill Farm also sells its milk to Lakin Gorges Cheese in Rockport, which was recently featured in a Portland Press Herald article.
- Tomme by Fuzzy Udder Creamery in Whitefield is a French-style hard cheese aged more than 60 days. Of all the creameries included in my cheese board, Fuzzy Udder is the one I am probably least familiar, but I couldn’t resist their label. They milk their own goats and sheep for cheeses and yogurt, but use milk from cows on the Two Loons Farm in South China for their Mozzarella, Swiss, Gouda and Tomme. I also found the label interesting in that they listed calf rennet as an ingredient, which you don’t see very often. More commonly these days, cheesemakers use vegetable rennet, but traditionally calf rennet or the enzyme found in the lining of a calf’s stomach was used. Here’s a little more info about rennet from the New England Cheese Making Supply Co. if it interests you.
There are several other cows milk creameries that I didn’t have room for on my cheese board, and depending on your location, you can find far more than I’ve listed here. Earlier this year, the Bangor Daily News did a list of the “Seven Maine-made cheeses you must try now.” Siberia Farms in Hermon was included for its hand-pulled mozzarella, but it has numerous dairy products available. Other cheeses on the list included Winter Hill’s Tide Line, Balfour’s brined feta, Fuzzy Udder’s washed rind cheese, Silvery Moon’s Stroudwater Tomme, and Lakin’s Gorges Cheeses’ ricotta. I am also a fan of Crooked Face Creamery’s ricotta, which was a third-place winner with the American Cheese Society. Mary Mackinson of Mackinson Dairy in Illinois featured Amy Rowbottom of Crooked Face in Norridgewock as a part of her Women in Dairy series.
Siberia Farms has a Mozzarella with pesto and olive oil, all is left for you to do is add a cracker or bagel bite and little slice of tomato for an appetizer. And I like making my cheese cakes with ricotta and Greek yogurt, or I just did this recipe for a Cranberry Orange Ricotta Cake.
Maple Greek Yogurt and Ricotta Maple Cheesecake
2 cups Greek yogurt
2 cups Ricotta Cheese
1 cup maple syrup
1 tsp vanilla
Handful of pecans (optional)
For the crust (use your favorite or try mine)
1/2 cup pecan meal
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup maple syrup
4 tbsp softened butter.
Preheat oven to 375. Mix your ingredients for the crust and press into the bottom of your springform pan. Bake for 10-15 minutes. Remove and lower oven temperature to 325. Mix all your cheesecake filling ingredients, making sure to break up the egg yolks. Pour the filling into the pan. Bake the cheesecake for about 40 minutes, reduce the temperature to 300 degrees, bake another 15 minutes and then turn off the oven, crack the door and let the cheesecake cool for an hour. Remove the cheesecake from the oven, and once it is down to room temperature, refrigerate. Top with pecans.