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A Texas Holiday Cheese Plate

Cheese tray snapshot
by Trish Bales

Texas cheeses---have you tried them? Did you know that Texas produces quite a variety of delicious cheeses across the state?

It may sound hard to believe but America produces more cheese than any other country in the world, even though we do not consume as much per capita as other cheese-producing countries. Texas happens to be an excellent place to produce cheese because of our large dairy industry.

The first cheeses produced in human history were made from goats' and sheep's milk. These animals, as opposed to cows, can adapt easily to any climate and graze on mostly any kind of weed. In the Middle East and Asia, containers to transport the milk collected were made from the bladders or stomachs of slaughtered animals. The warmth of the sun probably assisted in the "turning" of the milk, and the first cheeses resulted.

Most of the cheese produced in Texas is sold at farmers' markets, mainly because the cheese is made in small batches and lacks wide distribution. Most Texas cheesemakers deliver their cheeses weekly or bi-weekly to the restaurants, gourmet grocers or farmers' markets they serve. Small batch cheesemaking also provides the maker more control over the outcome of the cheese. Milking varies from day to day on a farm as temperatures and atmospheric conditions change, all of which affects the taste of the milk.

The diet of the animals also vastly affects how the cheese tastes. A sheep that is fed grain will produce a different tasting milk from one that grazes on mostly grass. Acorns and pecans will affect both taste and texture of cheese.

Cheeses take on different characteristics depending upon whether morning or afternoon milk is used, whether or not the cheese is aged and then for how long, and how the curds are collected and then whether or not they are cooked to produce a drier cheese.

However, cheese is only as good as the milk from which it is made. From there, it's time, temperature and culture agents. A gallon of milk will make approximately one pound of cheese. Cheese is a living product. If you vacuum pack it and leave it for months on end. then the cheese, in effect, dies and will not continue to age and change.

The optimum temperature for aging cheese, as well as wine, is 50°F. In fact, wine and cheese both are greatly affected by the terroir (land characteristics) in which they are produced. The assumption can be made that cheese and wine that are produced in the same area will pair nicely. A general rule for pairing wine and cheese is that lighter cheeses go best with lighter wines; however, ultimately it comes down to personal preference.

How about that mold that grows on the cheese after its been in the fridge for a while? Actually, you can eat it; that is, if you like the taste of it. If not, just scrape it off and enjoy the cheese without worry as this mold will not harm you. The salt added to cheese prevents bad molds from growing. The rind can also be consumed and, for some cheese, I think it is the best part. The one time you shouldn't eat a cheese is when it is ammoniated. It will have this odor when it is past its prime. Usually these are soft cheeses like brie or Camembert.

Another tip regarding purchasing Texas cheese is to buy what you're going to consume in the next few days, rather than purchasing large quantities of cheese which will sit in your fridge for weeks and grow old. Call your local grocer to see if they provide any Texas cheeses. If they don't, ask them why not?. Many of your favorite high-end restaurants serve Texas cheeses without your even knowing it. Ask around and choose to dine in a restaurant that offers Texas cheese.

Most Texans have probably heard of two popular cheesemakers, The Mozzarella Company and Pure Luck Farms, who make goat cheese, but there are many producers of wonderful cheeses throughout Texas. Some of my favorites include:

  • "Maid" in the Shade Goat Milk Cheese & Cheesecakes from Rosanky, Texas (512-237-3074)
  • Brazos Valley Cheese from Waco, Texas (254-230-2535) which makes an incredible triple cream Brie (one of the best I've ever had in my entire life), Dill Havarti, Smoked Gouda and a Veggie Colby
  • Full Quiver Farms of Kemp, Texas (903-498-3884) makes just about the best Marinated Feta I've ever had, as well as an excellent Marinated Mozzarella. They also produce Raw Milk Cheddar and Raw Milk Colby and several flavored spreads.
  • West Wind Dairy Goats, Inc. from Seguin, Texas (830-303-8093) produces a tasty Sundried Tomato Basil Goat Cheese.
  • Wateroak Farms near Bryan, Texas (http://www.dairygoathaven.com/) produces Ricotta cheeses in plain, garlic and herb and jalapeño pepper.
Want to try making your own cheese? Contact the New England Cheese Making Supply Company at www.cheesemaking.com. Also, The Cheeselover's Cookbook and Guide by Paula Lambert of the Mozzarella Company in Dallas is a comprehensive look at cheese and cooking and can be found on www.amazon.com.

Here are some ways to serve Texas cheeses at your holiday gatherings:

The Texas Cheese Plate
A cheese plate should be at room temperature (an hour to an hour and a half out of the refrigerator before serving) for optimal flavor. Start by choosing cheeses that have different textures. For example, a goat cheese, a brie, a cheddar and a smoked gouda would make a good variety.

Texas Brie Topped with Homemade Cranberry Sauce
Top brie with your favorite, chunky-style homemade cranberry sauce.

Christmas Eve Lasagna Made with Texas Garlic & Herb Ricotta Cheese

  • 15 ounces garlic & herb ricotta cheese
  • 2-1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, divided
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese, divided
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • 1 (26-ounce) jar spaghetti sauce
  • 1 pound ground veal, browned and drained
  • 1 cup water
  • 12 lasagna noodles, uncooked
Preheat oven to 350°F.

Mix ricotta cheese, 1-1/4 cups of the mozzarella cheese, 1/4 cup of the parmesan cheese, parsley, and egg until well blended.

Pour spaghetti sauce into meat in skillet. Pour water into empty sauce jar, cover and shake well. Pour into skillet; stir until well mixed.

Spoon 1 cup of meat sauce on bottom of 13x9-inch baking dish. Layer 3 lasagna noodles, 1/3 of the ricotta cheese mixture and 1 cup meat sauce. Repeat layers 2 more times. Top with remaining 3 noodles and sauce. Sprinkle with remaining 1-1/4 cups of mozzarella cheese and 1/4 cup parmesan cheese. Cover tightly with greased aluminum foil.

Bake 45 minutes or until cooked through. Remove foil and bake an additional 15 minute or until bubbling. Let stand 15 minute before cutting for easier serving.

Wateroak Farms Dairy Goat Cheese Enchiladas

  • 4 large, dried, red chili peppers
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 36 corn tortillas
  • 1-1/2 pounds WaterOak Farms Whole Milk Ricotta Grated Monterey Cheese
Preheat oven to 400°F.

Place chili peppers in a medium saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for one hour with the pan covered. Let cool, then remove stems and purée chiles and water in a blender.

In a saucepan, melt butter and stir vigorously, adding one tablespoon of flour at a time. Pour chili mixture into flour and butter all at once through a sieve (to remove seeds and skins). Stir continually until mixture is smooth and thickened. Add cumin, garlic, salt and pepper, and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Remove from heat. Fill small skillet half way with oil and heat over medium fire. With tongs, dip tortillas in hot oil for 2 to 3 seconds to soften. Roll tortillas with a few spoonfuls of Whole Milk Ricotta and a tablespoon of sauce. Place tortillas side by side in a baking dish. (You may need 2 dishes.) Pour the rest of the sauce over the enchiladas and sprinkle the Monterey Cheese on top.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until heated through and cheese is bubbly, or microwave on high for 15 minutes.

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