Nutritious nibbles: Cheese pairings for the holidays

No matter what you celebrate this winter, remember to include cheese as a nutritious offering among other delicious snacks.

Cheese is a highly nutritious option for holiday celebrations, and can be paired well with a wide range of other treats.

Cheese is a highly nutritious option for holiday celebrations, and can be paired well with a wide range of other treats.

As winter approaches, many celebrations begin to take place. Perhaps it is a welcome home for students that have been away at college or university, an office party to celebrate the season, graduations, birthdays or just a time to reconnect with old friends. Through these celebrations, food is often one of the center pieces people gather around and build memories of the event. With an infinite amount of choices of what to serve guests, remember to include cheese as one highly nutritious option that pairs well with a multitude of other treats.

Cheese is generally made from cow’s milk in the United States, but it can also be made from sheep, goat or buffalo milk, just to name a few other sources. It ranks as the number two product as a source of dietary calcium in American households. Besides calcium, cheese is also an excellent protein source and often has less lactose than fluid milk due to curds being separated from whey during the cheese making process. Phosphorus, vitamin A and zinc are other important minerals that are supplied with a serving of cheese.

Humans have developed thousands of varieties of cheese, but the basic recipe is very simple: milk, salt, started culture (beneficial bacteria that help produce the different flavors and texture of cheese) and rennet, an enzyme that causes the milk coagulate, or form the curds at the beginning of the cheese making process. All cheeses can be classified into one of eight categories: blue (Roquefort or Gorgonzola), hard (Parmesan or Asiago), pasta filata (mozzarella or provolone), processed (American cheese or processed cheese spreads), semi-hard (cheddar or Gouda), semi-soft (Monterey Jack or Muenster), soft and fresh (cottage cheese or Mascarpone) and soft-ripened (Brie or Camembert).

Cheese, just like milk, is a very local product for Michigan. Several farms throughout the state make and sell their own cheese, including Michigan State University at the MSU Dairy Store. The MSU Dairy Plant in Anthony Hall, as part of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, which is also where Michigan State University Extension is housed, produces multiple varieties of cheese, including a chocolate cheese confection, as well as ice cream. Cheeses may be purchased in-person on campus or can be shipped around the county.

No matter what types are chosen for serving, storing cheese is easy. Remove the products from the plastic it likely came in and wrap it loosely in waxed, parchment or cheese paper, and place it in a plastic bag. Because of the cultures in the cheese, it needs to “breathe” and maintain its moisture content so it will be most delicious when served. And speaking of serving, most cheeses should be allowed to come to room temperature, allowing for their true character to be revealed in flavor, scent and texture. The type of cheese will help inform how it should be served. It is recommended that firm cheeses, such as blues or Havarti, are cut into small wedges, while “break” cheeses, such as cheddar or Asiago, should be allowed to break on their natural “fault” lines, creating unique, bit-sized pieces. Soft-ripened cheeses, like Brie, can be served whole so that each person enjoying the selection may cut the size they desire.

Although there is no truly “wrong” pairing for cheese, there are recommendations for “ideal” pairings based on the character of taste, texture and firmness of a cheese. Some general rules to keep in mind are:

  • Soft, semi-soft and fresh cheeses work well with fruit, some fresh and some dried, and light, sweet drinks.
  • Soft-ripened cheeses pair well with more robust flavors, such as fruit chutney or jam, crusty breads and drier beverages.
  • Blue cheeses are very bold, so match their flavor with something sweet, such as honey or dried fruits.
  • Hard and semi-hard cheeses may have intense flavors, so match them with cured meats and nuts.

For a more detailed pairing list and a wealth of information on the benefits of dairy products as part of a healthy diet, visit the United Dairy Industry of Michigan’s Cheese Pairing Guide.