By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Feb 01, 2008 at 5:27 AM
Few words are as synonymous with Wisconsin as "cheese."

We call ourselves "cheeseheads," visitors stock up on our cheese curds and ask anybody to name one animal that could be found in Wisconsin, the response will likely be a cow.

Yup, Wisconsin is -- despite what some TV commercials boast -- America's Dairyland (although not the top dairy-producing state). State dairy farmers produce nearly 2.5 billion pounds of more than 600 varieties of cheese each year. And while most people think of cheese and individually-wrapped slices and boxes of macaroni & cheese come to mind, there is a wide variety of uses for the iconic Wisconsin product.

"I think one thing that's getting more and more popular is eating cheese by itself," explains Heather Porter Engwall, National Communications Director for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. "More people are eating artisan cheeses out of the hand and maybe doing something to pair with cheeses with wine or crackers."

Artisan cheeses, especially, provide an opportunity to experiment with different flavors, tastes and recipes. The production of such cheeses has grown in recent years and currently accounts for 16 percent of the state's current cheese output.

Other options to try are specialty aged-Cheddars. Six- and 10-year-old Cheddars will have a fuller flavor than the bricks you pick up off the regular grocery store racks.

"It's like a good piece of chocolate," Porter Engwall says. "It has a more fuller flavor and is more intense. You don't need to eat as much of it because your taste buds are satisfied."

Cheese is a workhorse ingredient that can be used in many different ways.

"It can be added to the menu for breakfast, lunch, appetizers, dinner and even dessert," Porter Engwall says. "Seafood is a little harder, but you can add some parmesan to it and for dessert you can try blue cheese cheesecake for some outside-the-box thinking."

The Packers' recently-completed playoff run helped boost cheese sales. A WMMB study found that sales increased 21 percent during the weeks preceding the big game.

For those planning to host Super Bowl parties -- no matter who was playing in the game -- the WMMB put together a list of party recipes that featured Wisconsin cheeses. Here's a look at some of the ideas. For more recipes, click on the Milk Marketing Board link at the bottom of the page.

Wisconsin Gorgonzola Dip
(Served with buffalo shrimp)

1/2 cup cottage cheese
1 carton (6 o.z) plain yogurt
1 cup milk
3/4 cup (3 oz.) crumbled Wisconsin Gorgonzola cheese
Dash pepper to taste

Cooking Directions
Combine ingredients in bowl, mix until slightly chunky. Pour into serving dish or bread bowl and chill.

Tavern Beer Cheese

3/4 lb. Wisconsin Carr Valley 6-year-old Cheddar cheese, shredded
6 oz. Wisconsin Sartori (Antigo) SarVecchio Parmesan cheese, shredded
1 1/2 tsp. Tabasco sauce
3 tbl. Worcestershire sauce
1 tbl. pure chile powder blend, such as ancho and New Mexico
1/2 tsp. garlic powder or granulated garlic
1/4 to 1/3 cup beer
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Cooking Directions
In large bowl, combine cheeses. Add Tabasco sauce, Worcestershire sauce, chile powder and garlic powder. Mix well. In large food processor bowl with metal blade, process mixture, adding beer to make a thick spread. Return to bowl; stir in parsley. Serve at room temperature with crackers or toasts.

Fried Cheese

Wisconsin Cheddar, Muenster, Brick or Colby cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
2 eggs, beaten
Seasoned dry bread crumbs or flour
Vegetable oil

Cooking Directions
Dip each cheese cube in egg. Coat with crumbs; repeat. Fry in hot oil (350 to 375° F) until lightly browned. Serve immediately.

(Note: Cheese curds may be substituted for cheese cubes. Cheese may also be coated ahead and refrigerated until ready to fry.)