The Cheese That Started My Adventures Du Fromage: Iowa’s Maytag Blue

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While I’d always loved cheese, my refrigerator seldom held much in the way of lacto-exotica. There was my fondness for Cracker Barrel™, a wedge of Brie from the supermarket, and salty, briny feta from the local co-op (which was my nod to Cheeses Unusual). Granted, I was a poor graduate student with an aversion to graduating with more debt than necessary, so higher-priced cheeses tended to stay out of my market basket. But I knew that someday, SOMEDAY, I too would join the ranks of the Cheese Cognoscenti.

How I Met the Cheese that Changed My Life

In the early aughts, I moved to Iowa City for a year; I’d taken a contract teaching position at the University of Iowa while I was finishing my dissertation. I joined the local co-op ( New Pioneer Co-op ) within 6 hours of moving there from Delaware. I loved shopping there—the Coralville branch was within walking distance of my apartment and the Iowa City branch within walking distance of my office—and was so happy to be surrounded by such gastronomic (and healthy!) goodness. The produce was exquisite, the breads from the bake shop practically soul-stirring, and the bulk spices so über fragrant. But it was the cheese aisle that widened my eyes and set my mouth agape. Here was value-added dairy nirvana.

Given that I was in Iowa, a state that, while I’d never actually fantasized about living in, I was enjoying very much, I decided to try a native son (native daughter? Do cheeses have genders?). What I tried was Newton, Iowa’s delicious claim to fame: Maytag Blue Cheese. To say I was impressed would be understating my love for the cheese. I consumed quite a bit of it in my year in Iowa. It became a luncheon mainstay for me. And while Maytag Dairy Farms is easy to get to (it’s just off I-80 in Newton), I didn’t make the trip until this summer, after I’d been living in Indiana for over a decade. And what of that cheese? Let’s learn a little bit about the cheese that launched my curiosity.
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Whither Maytag? A Brief History of (Cheese) Time

First, let’s look at the name: MAYTAG Blue. Yes, it’s those Maytags, the family that brought you the washing machines. When I first bought the cheese, I thought having the same name as the appliance company was just a coincidence. Then I did a little investigating. Not a coincidence. Anyway, I guess you could always snack on some cheese while laundering your clothes if you want the full Maytag experience. By the way, Whirlpool bought Maytag a number of years ago.
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Back to the cheese. So, with prize-winning cattle (Holsteins) grazing on the lush pastures of the family farm, the setting was ripe for cheesemaking. Frederick Louis Maytag II, the son of Elmer Henry Maytag (founder of Maytag Dairy Farms) and grandson of Frederick Louis Maytag I (founder of the Maytag Company) learned about a way of producing blue cheese from cow’s milk that was developed at Iowa State University (the country’s first land-grant college institution). Typically, blue cheeses were products of sheep milk. The Iowa State method used homogenized cow milk and more rennet (enzymes that act as coagulants) than is typical; additionally, higher temperatures were used in the cheesemaking process, which resulted in a more consistently flavored cheese. Using this production method, Fred Maytag made the first wheel of Maytag Blue Cheese that would be aged in the caves on October 11, 1941.

What Else Do We Need for Maytag Blue?

Besides the milk, rennet addition, and temperatures, what else was (and is) needed to make this cheese? Penicillium, a bacteria, is introduced to the cheese. Then, a process called “needling”, in which thin skewers punch a wheel of cheese, is undertaken. This permits oxygen to enter the cheese and spur the growth of its characteristic blue-green mold. The cheese wheels are then ripened in climate-controlled aging caves for a number of months before being cut and packaged for sale.

Maytag Blue is a labor-intensive cheese to make. The wheels are made by hand. The cheese is cut by hand. The wedges are wrapped by hand. And while the milk no longer comes solely from the Maytag farm, it still comes from neighboring Iowa farms so it doesn’t need to travel long distances. And while it may be labor-intensive to make, Maytag Blue ISN’T labor-intensive to sell. You see, Maytag Dairy Farms (it’s singular) doesn’t have a sales force. It isn’t necessary. Nor do they advertise. It also isn’t necessary. This cheese is well known, well respected, and well loved. Customers, whether retailers or end consumers, seek out Maytag Blue, so there’s no need to staff a department to promote the cheese. Its flavor promotes itself!

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Okay, But How Does It TASTE?

And what about that flavor? Maytag Blue, while not the most pungent of the blues (I put Spain’s Cabrales in that category), nonetheless has a wonderfully sharp, tangy, salty flavor, with a finish that lasts well after it’s been swallowed. Its texture is dense. Amenable to being paired with beef or bison (e.g. a bacon-bison-blue cheese burger) or crumbled in a salad, Maytag Blue can also be incorporated into dips and cheeseballs. And try it with a beer or late-harvest Riesling, too.

To savor Maytag Blue on its own, let it come to room temperature. In fact, you should eat just about all cheeses at room temperature (cold dulls flavor). Simply remove it from the refrigerator about an hour before you plan to eat it; this allows plenty of time for the cheese to warm up. And Maytag Blue takes well to a drizzle of honey. The sweetness of the honey is a delicious foil for the sharpness of the cheese.

Well, Aren’t You Going to Share a Recipe?

Yes. Look for Homemade Blue Cheese Dressing and Maytag Blue Pecan Potatoes (the latter courtesy of Maytag Dairy Farms) later this week.

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Want to Impress Others at your next Cocktail Party? Here’s a Maytag Factoid!

Interesting Maytag trivia alert. Fred Maytag’s son Frederick Louis “Fritz” Maytag III brought the old Anchor Brewing Company (in San Francisco), changed the recipe, and spurred an interest in serious beer brewing in America with his Anchor Steam beer. In fact, much of the credit for the resurgence in American microbrewing can be credited to him.

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The Milk Stands Alone: Traders Point Creamline Whole Milk

Let me start by saying that I’ve never been one to drink much milk. Sure, after the inhalation of a mass of cookies, well yes, but not in the way of looking forward to drinking a glass of milk. My brother loved milk, but I only liked it in a bowl of Cocoa Krispies (which turned it into chocolate milk!) And I only drank it because I HAD to (the usual kid reason—Mom made me drink it, which I vowed to myself I’d stop doing once I became a grownup).

I am now chronologically a “grownup”, even though I still feel like a kid1. I have the mortgage, the crow’s feet, and the junk mail from life insurance companies to show for it. And milk is still an “ingredient” as opposed to a beverage. That is, I still don’t drink milk.

Well, I don’t USUALLY drink milk. There is one exception—Traders Point Creamline Milk, a product of Zionsville, Indiana’s Traders Point Creamery that I buy at Muncie’s Downtown Farm Stand.

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So, what is so special about Traders Point Creamline Milk? Let’s start with the cream. Maybe you’re old enough to remember when milk came in bottles (this one does!) and had a layer of cream on top which, if you were lucky, you got to eat (or else you shook the bottle to reincorporate the cream back into the milk. Homogenization is the process that blends two liquids that don’t dissolve together. With homogenization, the milk fat globules are made smaller and then spread throughout the liquid milk. Thus, the milk fat is distributed evenly throughout. Today’s commercially available milk is largely homogenized, so that delectable layer of cream is missing. However, Traders Point milk is not homogenized and a layer of cream (sometimes over an inch thick!) can be found at the top of the bottle.

Traders Point milk is also the product of grassfed cows that graze on pasture free of pesticides. This grassfed and certified organic milk is higher in Omega 3 fatty acid and Conjugated Linoleic Acid (CLA), both of which can potentially improve health. Milk from grassfed cows is also higher in beta-carotene.

Traders Point milk comes from Brown Swiss cows, a breed that originated in the Alps (I guess the “Swiss” part is a clue!). The subtly gray-brown colored Brown Swiss are hardy, having been bred to withstand the difficult alpine climate with its strong, cold winters. They have docile natures and require much less attention than some other breeds. Still, they aren’t as common as other breeds, such as Holstein. The milk of the Brown Swiss (and they are prolific producers!) has a fat (4%) to protein (3.5%) ratio that seems ideal for cheesemaking (and there’s a lot of that at Traders Point Creamery).

Traders Point Creamline Milk is my go-to milk (and yes, I do use it as an ingredient!) Traders Point became the first Indiana organic dairy farm to win certification from the USDA. While they might be known more for their cheeses and drinkable yogurts, their milk gets a special nod of approval from me!

1When, exactly, does one actually FEEL like a grownup? Apparently, a mortgage doesn’t do it. I’ve asked other adults this question and no one seems to know the answer. Nor do most of them (at least the fun ones!) feel grown up. I guess it really is okay to feel like a kid.

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Ground Cherry-Lime Muffins

This is a none-too-sweet, subtly flavored, old-fashioned muffin. By old-fashioned, I mean that it’s not filled with 14 cups of sugar per muffin. Seriously, a really sweet “muffin” is a cupcake. And if that’s what you want, just order a stinkin’ cupcake. And by old-fashioned, I also mean that it’s not the size of a basketball. This is a muffin meant to serve one, not an entire kindergarten class.

Ground cherries do not have an oomphy, up-front flavor. Rather, they are more delicate-tasting, with tropical notes. The lime, also fairly subtle, adds a bit of tang. I like these with a cup of herbal tea in the afternoon. And, if well wrapped, the muffins freeze beautifully.

Makes 12 muffins

What You’ll Need

  • two bowls, one large and one smaller
  • measuring cups, solid and liquid
  • measuring spoons
  • spoons for mixing
  • grater (Microplane#&174 or a box grater)
  • 12-cup muffin tin
  • muffin/cupcake liners
  • small saucepan
  • pastry brush

Ingredients

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 5 Tbsp sugar, divided
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder, preferably non-aluminum like Rumford
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 large egg, beaten lightly
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • grated zest of 1 lime
  • 3 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • 3/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1/4 cup half-and-half
  • 1 cup ground cherries, husked, rinsed, and dried
  • 3 Tbsp water
  • 1 Tbsp lime juice

How to Make the Muffins

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°F (205°C).
  2. Place a cupcake liner in each muffin cup of your muffin tin. Alternately, you can grease the cups with butter.
  3. Place the flour, 3 Tbsp of the sugar, the baking powder, and salt in a large bowl and mix well.
  4. DryIngredients

  5. Melt the butter in a small saucepan or in the microwave.
  6. In a smaller bowl, add the egg, vanilla extract, buttermilk, half-and-half, butter, and lime zest, again mixing well.
  7. WetIngredients

  8. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and quickly mix together. Take care not to overmix the batter—it’s okay if you see a few dry spots.
  9. Carefully mix in the ground cherries. The batter will be stiff.
  10. Divide equally into the muffin cups, filling each about 3/4 full.
  11. Bake for about 15-20 minutes, until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
  12. While the muffins are baking, make a light lime glaze. Put 3 Tbsp of water, 2 Tbsp of sugar, and 1 Tbsp of lime juice in a small saucepan. Over medium heat, stir until the sugar is dissolved. Let the mixture come to a boil, and boil for about 4 minutes, reducing it somewhat—it’ll become a syrupy glaze.
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  14. When the muffins are done, remove them and place on a rack. Lightly brush the tops with the lime glaze. Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Using the Midwest’s Bounty: Ground Cherry-Coconut Jam

Inspired by the ground cherries at the farmers market, I decided to make jam out of them. Their vaguely tropical flavor, reminiscent of mangos and melons, pairs nicely with coconut. Additionally, ground cherries have plenty of pectin, so you needn’t add any when making this jam. This recipe is for a very small batch—it makes one 8-oz. or two 4-oz. jars. You may wind up with a little more, but not enough for a 3rd jar—just refrigerate it if that’s the case.

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What You’ll Need

  • colander or strainer
  • measuring cups (solid)
  • measuring spoons
  • saucepan
  • bowl
  • potato masher or immersion blender (optional)
  • wooden spoon
  • small plate for gel test (optional)
  • stockpot or canner: must be large enough to hold filled jars with at least 1 inch of water above them
  • chopping board and knife (optional)
  • Ingredients

    • 2 cups ripe, husked ground cherries1
    • 1 cup sugar
    • 1.5 Tbsp lemon juice
    • 2-3 Tbsp chopped dried unsweetened coconut flakes; if the flakes are large, chop them them up into smaller pieces

    Making the Jam

    1. Rinse the ground cherries and drain in a colander or strainer.
    2. Place drained ground cherries, sugar and lemon juice in a saucepan large enough to hold everything.
    3. Over medium heat, cook the mixture until the sugar has fully melted, mixing regularly with your spoon. You may mash the berries, which gives a more “jammy” texture and releases the little seeds. Or you may use an immersion (stick) blender after cooking to mash up the berries (that’s what I do).
    4. Stir in the coconut.
    5. Place the mixture in a bowl, let cool, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight.
    6. Sterilize your jars, bands, and funnel and get your canner ready.
    7. Place lids in a bowl filled with very hot water. If, during the cooking and canning process the water cools down, simply drain it and add more hot water. This softens the gasket for proper sealing of the jars.
    8. Place the jam contents into a saucepan and, over medium-high heat, bring to a boil.
    9. Cook until the proper gel stage is reached—this can take 10-20 minutes or so. I use the cold plate test2.
    10. Once gel stage is reached, pour the jam into your sterilized jars, leaving 1/4 inch head space.
    11. Seal, cover the canner and bring to a boil. Process in a water bath for 10 minutes.
    12. Turn off heat and remove canner lid. Let stand for 5 minutes, then remove jars from canner, placing them on a clean towel in a draft-free spot.
    13. Test seals after at least 12 hours. If a seal has failed, simply put the jar in your fridge and use it within a couple of months.

    1Ripe ground cherries are a golden yellow/orange. If you find green ones when husking, discard them as they are not ripe and toxic, according to the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center.

    2Place a small amount of jam onto a chilled plate (I use one that’s been in the freezer for at least an hour). Let it cool for a minute or two and then push it with your finger. If it wrinkles even slightly, it’s set. I like a looser set, so if you want it firmer, make sure the wrinkling is pretty solidly evident.

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Ground Cherries—Undiscovered Fruit Gem of the Midwest

Until this summer, I’d never eaten a ground cherry. In fact, I didn’t even know what they were. But my local farmers market had baskets of them for sale and the grower gave me a sample. Pleasant sweetness, with flavors of mango and melon—I thought they’d be nice in a jam or in muffins. I bought a couple of boxes, a ground cherry virgin no more.

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Ground cherries in need of some husking!

Ground cherries, also known to some as Cape gooseberries or husk tomatoes, aren’t cherries (and they aren’t gooseberries, either.) A perennial native to the Americas, ground cherries are fairly common; in fact, the plant is considered to be a weed by many and might be found growing along roads or other disturbed areas. They can grow in fairly poor soils, too. The ground cherry is part of the Nightshade family (Solanaceae), which also includes potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, eggplants, and tobacco. Indeed, the ground cherry resembles a tiny tomatillo, as it is encased in a heart-shaped papery husk. Once ripe, the ground cherries fall to the ground. The husk can then be removed and the fruit eaten or incorporated into a recipe.

Ground cherries should only be eaten ripe. You’ll be able to tell if they are, as the color will be a golden orange-yellow. Unripe ground cherries, which are green, are said to be somewhat toxic, no doubt due to the presence of solanine, a type of natural defense common to nightshades (and the reason you shouldn’t eat the green parts of potatoes). Ripe ground cherries, with their myriad tiny (edible) seeds, however, can be safely eaten.

While they were a Midwestern favorite of yore (older cookbooks have recipes for ground cherry pies), they seem to have fallen out of favor. I assume it’s because of the work involved husking them. You have to remove the papery husk which, since they are small, can take some time and yield you less than you’d expect looking at the carton. But the task isn’t all that onerous and you do wind up with, well, ground cherries!

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Unhusked (left) and husked (right–in the bowl) ground cherries.

In my next posts, I’ll share with you my recipes for Ground Cherry-Coconut Jam and Ground Cherry-Lime Muffins. The coconut and lime are nicely complementary to the flavor of the ground cherries.

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