Hanukkah Cheesin': The Forgotten Story of Curd and the Festival of Lights

Ed note: Loyal blog readers may remember this story from Hanukkah 2013. We’re republishing it this year because…well, because it’s an amazing story of how cheese saved the day, and we can’t get enough of those.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the “Festival of Lights” better than a big old wedge of curd. Every year, I make the schlep down to south Florida where the whole family gathers to enjoy a week of family time and fried food. And every year I brave the death-stares of fellow travels as I stink up the 3 hour flight with an insane amount of cheese stashed in my carry on. Although in my house I can’t guarantee that these treats will make it 8 days…48 hours would be a real miracle.

Until recently, I didn’t know that cheese, at one time, was part of traditional Hanukkah food celebrations. And just like any food tradition in the Jewish faith, there is a neat little story that will help us rationalize 8 days of gorging ourselves on some fantastic fromage. While this part of the Hanukkah story has become mostly forgotten in modern culture, it’s a great tale of heroism and the perfect excuse to munch on some curd, or gift a little wedge. It goes something like this:

Judith decapitating her enemy

Judith was a strikingly beautiful widow from the town of Bethulia in sixth century BC Israel. Her community came under siege, and annihilation looked inevitable. That is, until Judith came to the rescue. She put together a spread of wine and cheese and entered the enemy camp. The leader, Holofernes, was so smitten by her beauty, he couldn’t resist her offering of ripe cheese and intoxicating wine. He got bombed. I mean really, really drunk, like me at any Bar Mitzvah I have attended in the last 6 years. He was so wasted that Judith reacted in the most natural of ways: she stole his sword and cut of his head.

Jewish heroines really know how to bring the badass.

While this story takes place centuries after the Maccabees and their “Miracle of Light”, for many years it was incorporated into the Hanukkah celebration. Judith’s heroism was celebrated along with the Maccabees victory as an example of the perseverance of the Jewish people. But stories and cultures are not static, and this exciting tale has slowly been abandoned for the the modern Hanukkah story and celebration.

Torus

So, now that you know that it is not only acceptable, but encouraged that you get some cheese for Hanukkah, you might want a few suggestions for the platz-worthy wedge. The time and location that Judith’s story takes place would undoubtedly be a land full of goat and sheep milk cheeses. Allison Hooper, from Vermont Creamery, is what many consider the heroin of American goat cheese. She has helped to create the American market for goat cheese, and explored techniques and methods that have helped shaped a quality driven landscape of cheesemakers across the United States. Try some velvety and tangy Coupole or some fudgy and lemony Torus (and a dollop of their Crème Fraîche is a wonderful substitute for sour cream with your latkes). Nutty and grassy Ossau Iraty with a schmear of Seashore Honey will drive your great-aunts taste buds mashugganah, and a beautiful wheel of Cavemaster Reserve Hudson Flower will insure your eternal reputation as a real mensch.

One final piece of interesting cheese and Hanukkah knowledge. You know those potato latkes that Bubbie spends all day frying up? Potatoes were not brought over to Europe until the colonization of the American continent, but Jews had been making fried latkes for centuries. Guess what the original  latke was made of? You guessed it…CHEESE!

Regardless how you celebrate Hanukkah this year, Murray’s hopes it is a fun and full of friends and family. Here is to the festival of lights, and really good cheese! L’chaim, y’all!

How to Throw A Raclette Party

Raclette comes from the French word “Racler” which means to scrape. It is a cheese traditionally eaten in Switzerland. The Swiss cow herders used to take the cheese with them when they were moving cows to or from the pastures up in the mountains. In the evenings around the campfire, they would place the cheese next to the fire and, when it had reached the perfect softness, scrape it on top of some bread. Today we use fancy machines to do the melting, but the results are just as tasty. The cheese has a mellow, slightly funky flavor that makes it the perfect accompaniment to almost anything, and the texture is ideal for melting.

 

Throwing a Raclette Party is easy. The key is to have a nice variety of meats, veggies and bread for topping with the gooey cheese. There are 2 kinds of raclette machines: one holds a quarter wheel of the cheese and heats it under a lamp, the other heats individual portions of cheese on little pans. If you don’t have a raclette machine you can use a nonstick pan to melt slabs of the cheese, it’s just a little messier.

Here are some of our favorite things to serve with raclette:

Artisanal Breads

Vegetables: Small Potatoes, Roasted Brussels Sprouts, Roasted Butternut Squash, Cipolline Onions, Cauliflower

Meats: Prosciutto, Speck, Jambon Royale, Finocchiona Salami, Chorizo, Roasted Pork

Fruits that go with cheese: Sliced pears, sliced apples

Fruits to refresh the palate: Grapes, Berries, Dried fruits

Acidic and briny bites to refresh the palate: Cornichons, Olives

How to Enjoy Winnimere to the Max

Beth Griffenhagen works in Marketing and Events at Murray’s Cheese. She doesn’t believe in rules for eating cheese, but does believe in the pursuit of max deliciousness.

First of all, if you are in possession of a wheel of Jasper Hill Farms Winnimere, be very excited. I’m not saying your life is about to change, but your life is about to change. Just look at that beautiful cheese!

What’s the Deal with this Cheese?

Winnimere is made of raw cow’s milk, so you get subtly nuanced flavors that sometimes get lost when milk is pasteurized.  Jasper Hill takes the notion of terroir (roughly translates “taste of the land”) a step further by washing each wheel in a local beer, which gives the cheese a creamy texture and a lightly funky flavor. Are you transported to the rustic landscape of rural Vermont yet? No? What if I told you that Winnimere is wrapped in locally harvested Spruce bark? It’s true, they wrap a strip of fragrant, woodsy bark around every wheel to impart that special, earthy flavor. The result is like nothing you’ve ever tasted. (Ok, it’s a little like Forsterkase if you’ve ever had that, but way better!)

Serving Tips: Sharing is Caring

Most wheels of Winnimere weigh a little over a pound, and this is the type of cheese that is really best to eat in one sitting, two at most. So either you commit to eating a pound of cheese, or you invite 4 to 6 friends over and tell them to bring the wine. The choice is yours! No judgment here!

All cheese should be served at room temperature, but this is especially true for a cheese like Winnimere. If it’s too cold it won’t be as gooey and scoopable, and the flavors will be muted. When you’re ready to serve it, slice off a portion of the top rind to make for easy scooping of the luscious, creamy inside!

Take it to the Next Level

They say “the cheese stands alone,” but the truth is, there are a few ways to make this cheese even more delicious.

Drinks: Off-dry Riesling and fruity reds (mountain-y stuff from Austria works) make great pairings. You can also enjoy with a beer – after all, it’s washed in beer from Hill Farmstead Brewery!

Spread on: Thinly sliced baguette or a hearty cracker is the way to go.

Eat with: I love serving Winnimere with Speck to play up the smoky flavors in the cheese.  (Speck is like bacon you don’t have to cook. Try it immediately.) You can also expand on the savory theme with olives, nuts, and pâté, or any other savory thing your heart desires.

BON APPETIT, you crazy cheese lovers!

Dips to fill your SUPER bowl

Quick, cheesy, yummy.  What else can make your Super Bowl Sunday this delicious?

BLACK & BLUES DIP

This is the quickest blue cheese dip ever — great for wings and crudité.

1 lb. blue cheese, crumbled – use the Black River Blue from our new Super Bowl Shuffle package or order an extra pound.

1/2 Cup mayonnaise

1/2 Cup sour cream

2 TBS. apple cider vinegar

Dash of Worchestire sauce

Dash of Piri Piri sauce

Sea salt & freshly ground pepper

Optional: minced baby chives

Place all ingredients with half of the crumbled blue in a mixing bowl or use your mixer if you would like it ultra-smooth. Whisk vigorously or pulse in mixer until blended. Add in the remaining crumbles for the chunky factor; salt & pepper to taste. Want it more savory with a hint of heat?  Double dash with Piri Piri for that extra kick.

SPINACH FETA DIP

1 lb. pack frozen chopped spinach

1/2 Cup sour cream

1/2 Cup mayonnaise

1/2 Cup Crumbled Feta – either Bulgarian or French

2 TBS. dried oregano

Zest & juice of one lemon

Sea salt & freshly ground pepper

Optional: 2 TBS. Walnut oil (adds great flavor!)

Optional: Toasted Walnuts  (adds great flavor!)

Steam the frozen spinach and thoroughly drain the liquid. Place the spinach in a fine mesh strainer and press all of the liquid out of it.  Chop the drained spinach on a cutting board.

Place the chopped spinach in a bowl and add all of your other ingredients and stir.  Save a little feta to sprinkle on the top as well as the nuts.

Refrigerate in an air tight container, overnight is just fine.  When ready to serve, you can mix in more lemon, salt, feta to flavor it, and top with feta and walnuts.  Serve with endive, tortilla chips, flatbreads or crusty bread.

PIMENTO CHEDDAR DIP

1 lb. cheddar: our favorite is Tickler

1/3 lb.  cream cheese

1/2 Cup mayonnaise

1 tsp. white pepper

1 tsp. smoked paprika

2 tsp. cayenne

8 oz. jar roasted red peppers

1 tsp. sugar

Dash Worchestire sauce

Optional: pickled jalapenos (if you like it spicy)

Use a grater or a food processor to shred the cheddar.  Pulse the red peppers in the food processor.  Add spices and cream cheese and pulse until mixed.  Then just add in cheddar and pulse until mixed – go for a textured (not smooth) finish.  Serve with celery, apples and bread.

Three Ways to Do the ‘Due

Who isn’t a fan of fondue? On a cold winter night there are few things more comforting than melted cheese, especially when friends and family are gathered around to share in the experience.

And we’ll let you in on a little secret: Fondue is the perfect storm of minimal effort and maximum rewards. A true cornerstone of entertaining for lazy people. It’s so easy that we made three batches in an just under an hour to try out some new recipes, which you’ll find below. What are you waiting for? Get melting!

RECIPE #1 : Basic Fondue

This is the “classic” recipe most people think of when thinking of fondue. Want to add a little flair to your fondue? Substitute 1/4 lb of any cheese below with a more flavorful Alpine style cheese like Scharfe Maxx, Etivaz, or Vacherin Friborgeois.

Serves 3-4

Ingredients:

1 Cup Chardonnay

½# Gruyere, shredded

½# Emmenthaler, shredded

¼# Appenzeller, shredded

2 Tbsp Cornstarch

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 Tbsp lemon juice

1 Tbsp Kirsch (if desired)

Pinch of salt and pepper to taste

1 clove garlic

Method:

  1.  Take garlic glove and cut in half.  Rub the garlic clove halves all over the inside of your fondue pot or thick bottomed pot on your stove.
  2. Add the wine and lemon juice and bring to a simmer.
  3. In a large bowl combine all cheeses and the cornstarch tossing the cheese several times until all cornstarch has evenly coated the cheese.
  4. Add cheese to the liquid in the pot over low heat.
  5. Stir frequently with a wooden spoon.  Approximately 7-10 minutes until all cheese has been fully melted and your fondue has a smooth consistency.
  6. Add nutmeg.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Serve it up!  Keep over low flame to keep fondue melted.

Accompaniments of apples, ham, crusty bread, and cornichons will complete your meal.

RECIPE #2: Steve’s Fondue

A funky twist on a classic. The combination of Etivaz, nutmeg and Piri Piri makes this fondue especially rich, flavorful and nuanced in a way that will make people say, “Do I detect a hint of…?” Yes. Yes you do.

Serves 3-4

Ingredients:

1 cup Samuel Adams Boston Lager or other Lager

½# Gruyere, shredded

½# Emmenthaler, shredded

¼# Etivaz, shredded

2 Tbsp cornstarch

2 teaspoons Piri Piri

1 Tbsp lemon juice

1 garlic clove

1 teaspoon nutmeg

Salt and pepper

Method:

Follow method for basic fondue. Add Piri Piri at the end, seasoning to taste.

Serve with accompaniments of your choice. We like it with roasted Brussels sprouts and potatoes, chorizo, tasso ham, and crusty bread.

Recipe #3: Matt’s Fondue

If you’re ready to take your fondue to the next level, also known as “The Maxx,” this is the ‘due for you. Bold flavor, silky smooth texture and unmistakable nuttiness.

Serves 3-4

Ingredients:

1 cup Samuel Adams Boston Lager or other Lager

½# Scharfe Maxx, shredded

½# Gruyere, shredded

¼# Appenzeller, shredded

2 Tbsp cornstarch

1 Tbsp lemon Juice

1 garlic clove

1 teaspoon nutmeg

Salt and pepper

Method:

Follow method for Basic Fondue.

Serve with accompaniments of your choice. We like apples, saucisson sec, potatoes, roasted fennel or pearl onions, crusty bread, and cornichons.