Have you grown weary of holiday treats? Or are you up for something spectacular to assist you in ringing in the New Year?
If so, I'd like to make a hearty recommendation for your New Year's Eve cheese plate.
It's Petit Frères, an American original washed-rind cheese made by Crave Brothers, an artisan cheesemaker in Waterloo, Wis., whose creations have won both domestic and international awards. And, although it resembles other farmhouse cheeses – like the French Reblochon and Saint Nectaire, and the Irish Gubbeen – this cheese is unique to Wisconsin.
"We started our cheese factory in 2002 with fresh mozzarella and mascarpone production, but always knew that we wanted to create our own cheese." Debbie Crave explains. "We developed the cheese to tell our family story and to fill a niche – the washed-rind cheese category is underdeveloped in the U.S."
The Petit Frère package, which took top honors against competitors from coast to coast, is a keepsake round wooden box decorated with original artwork that depicts a young boy and a cow. The illustration on the lid of the Petit Frère is based on a photo of the youngest Crave brother, Mark, with his 4-H fair calf.
According to Debbie Crave, the concept for the cheese was born of the need to tell their family and farmstead story.
"The cheese reflects the Crave Brothers' Irish-French heritage. It is made in small batches, cellar cured and washed in a brine solution to develop a complex flavor and creamy texture," she told me. "After Petit Frère is made, it is placed in humidity-controlled aging rooms and washed with a special mix of cultures to develop the rind and flavor. The cheeses are wrapped in paper and shipped to customers at about three weeks, so the cheeses do continue to age through distribution."
If I'm honest, I'll admit that Frère is similar to a Camembert – it's runny and slightly stinky and it's always multi-layered in flavor. Its pleasant "funkiness" also becomes stronger with age. The flavor of a well-aged round of this cheese won't appeal to everyone – but for those who appreciate its finer points, it can become an obsession.
And for those who love the cheese as much as I do, there's something even better. To celebrate their 10th anniversary this past November Crave Brothers released Petit Frère with truffles – the same luxurious, rind-washed, semi-soft, cave-aged cheese, augmented with the unmistakable earthiness of fresh truffles.
Since truffles tend to push any flavor profile to the extreme – sometimes to a fault – it can be a risky proposition to add the flavor to a cheese. Luckily, Crave Brothers developed just the right balance between the earthiness of the truffles and the olfactory roller coaster of the pinky-orange mushroom-flavored rind.
The zing of the washed rind keeps the earthiness of the truffles in check, and the oozy texture brings the cheese's creaminess to the forefront. In fact, when left on the counter for a good hour or two before serving, the cheese will ooze and pool with a luxuriousness that suits the truffles perfectly.
Whether you choose Petit Frères with or without truffles, here are some great ideas to enhance your New Year's Eve spread:
- Add it to your next cheese plate. Be sure to serve it alongside crusty artisan bread, toasted walnuts and select winter fruits like Asian pears, apples, pomegranates and dried apricots.
- Enhance the mushroom flavor by serving the cheese baked en croute (wrapped in puff pastry) and topped with sauteed wild mushrooms.
- Grill it between thin slices of baguette for the perfect bite-sized upscale grilled cheese.
- Melt thin slices over freshly made pasta for a simple, but rich, presentation.
- Fill halves of small hollowed out roasted red potatoes with the cheese and melt for a delicious comfort food appetizer.
- Try out pairing the cheese with various wines and beers. My personal favorite is a crisp Pilsner or wheat beer or a fruity Oregon Pinot Noir.
- Or why not compose a perfect crostini with plum and cranberry compote?
Petit Frère with truffles' availability varies, but look for it locally, along with other Crave Brothers cheeses, at Glorioso's, Wisconsin Cheese Mart, Whole Foods or West Allis Cheese Market.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.