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There’s a New Cheese Lady in Town!

There’s a New Cheese Lady in Town!

One of the great surprises of pitching a tent in West Michigan was finding a cheese store, nay a Cheese Lady, which far surpasses all found in the multiple world capitals in which I have lived. I know that seems hard to believe, but I’m here to tell you it’s flat out fact. Even Paris, with its iconic Androuët, home to one of my greatest meals ever, pales in comparison to The Cheese Lady. If it were the Cheese Olympics and I was the Russian judge – ok, not her, she’s a bit mean – the American Judge, I would give Androuët a stingy 5.8. The Cheese Lady, a solid 10. Any quality cheese monger will have an extensive variety – The Cheese Lady carries some 150 cheeses from around the globe, with about 20% quality domestic cheeses. And sure, sure, sure, all respectable joints will include raw milk cheeses – something that was off limits in the US until relatively recently. TCL has raw in every category, including goat which is a bit rare. The big difference however is the Midwestern hospitality. Just imagine, if you will, a French monger shouting his most disdaining Mais No!!!  But just in case variety, raw milk, and hospitality aren’t enough, Kathleen Fagan Riegler, the original Cheese Lady, wears a beret. Mais oui!!! I can feel my gruyere melting already.

Beret-Wearing Cheese Lady in front of the chalkboard with all the listingsKathleen spent nearly two decades on the road peddling le fromage for a big Chicago-based importer. Tired of the road, she set herself up at the Muskegon Farmer’s Market and sold out each day. Kathleen loves the market: the energy, the diversity, the passion of both growers and customers, and I think even quite possibly annoying people like me who ask way too many questions. She loves us all. She also has a real gift for connecting with her customers and sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm. Because of the farmer’s market, she developed a mentality and sensibility that focuses on sharing. Very few shops taste cheeses with their customers. Fewer still cut to order. This gift of sharing and generosity trickles down throughout the entire staff. They all totally embrace the living nature of cheese and the fact it varies from day to day, quick to point out whether this wheel needs immediate consumption or can wait a week. Customer service as it was intended!

Sampling Cheese - hand cutting half wheel with a cheese plane and offering a tasteTalk about right place at the right time! Kathleen was there to ride the wave of consumer interest in increasingly more intense flavors and America’s (even West Michigan’s) growing fascination with all things cheese. What you can’t help but notice is the SISTERHOOD at The Cheese Lady that Kathleen has created. You business types might call this a franchise, but I assure you, it is so much more. This is a family of Cheese Ladies and the newest addition (sisters are scattered across Michigan from Traverse City to Kalamazoo) has been there since the beginning, right at the flagship store. Shelley Essebaggers Lewis. She approached Kathleen in the earliest of farmer’s market days when the first tiny store was coming into focus, and Kathleen assured Shelley she would never be that busy. Six stores later, Kathleen is THAT busy. The time has come and Shelley is now the newest (official) Cheese Lady. Kathleen’s goal is to be an increased resource to “The Sisters” and continue to source new products and learn and share. This move allows more time to visit and coach all the sisters. And Shelley is both ready and excited to officially take over the flagship that she has managed for years. Run right over and pick up some of the yummy cheese that I recently sampled and give her a big high five. The future of The Cheese Lady Muskegon is bright and tasty.

Kathleen Riegler and Shelley LewisI spent the morning with them during a blizzard a few weeks ago. Winter cheeses, great for recipes and cooking, were on the menu. We cracked a couple huge wheels and I was surprised (probably shouldn’t have been) that the flavors were so nuanced and nutty. I sometimes clump cooking cheese into a category less flavorful. Never again. Not on my watch. These cheeses would be great in French Onion Soup, Fondue, Gratins, Omelets and Mac & Cheese (recipe coming very soon – thinking about making it Saturday, with a nod to pimento cheese jazzed up with peppadews).

Big Wheels The cheese lady cutting large wheels of cheeseFirst up was a Cave-Aged Gruyere from Switzerland – a raw cow’s milk cheese. The aging creates crystals giving the cheese a light crunchy texture and deep nutty taste. The wheels are a whopping 80 pounds. Super delicious and a fantastic candidate for best grilled cheese ever!

Fontina Fontal is a staple in North Italian pantries. It’s a perfect melting cheese. The Lady likes to use it in mac & cheese to make the cheese sauce creamier. I suspect it will be going in mine! Cheddars have a tendency to separate when heated, so a cheese like this will keep the sauce from breaking.

Next up was Emmental, the classic “Swiss” cheese, which bares zero resemblance to the sliced stuff you get hanging on a rack at the supermarket. Emmentaler has a protected origin designation so that the integrity of true Swiss Emmentaler can be maintained by its stringent standards. The wheels often weigh upwards of 150 pounds. Emmentaler is a brined cheese, so there is a slightly salty taste. Pure perfection.

Specialty Cheeses - some of my faves; wheel of cypress Grove Midnight Moon, Fontina and label from Pleasant Ridge ReserveAnd then we finished off with some Pleasant Ridge Reserve. Yum. One of Wisconsin’s most awarded cheeses, Pleasant Ridge is a raw milk cheese, made from the milk of a single herd, fed and managed using natural “Old World,” hand-crafted practices. As the cheese ages, its flavor becomes more complex and concentrated and is both musty and mushroomy. Often eaten as a table cheese, it is also an excellent recipe cheese.


I\'ll take that to go! Stacks of freshly cut wedges of cheese

While not on that day’s menu, I did have to squeak in a taste of truffled Gouda.  Melkbus is a raw milk Gouda made on small dairy farms around the Netherlands. Each style is numbered – this was #149, a buttery unpasteurized Gouda with Italian black truffles added to the curd before pressing.

O. M. G.

Melkbus #149 - Truffled Gouda - 1/4 wheel and a large web

I am 100% sure that The Cheese Lady has upped my food cred among colleagues, friends and family alike. There are certain people that likely only invite me for Christmas because I come with a clown-car-sized suitcase filled with The Cheese Lady treasures. I can’t tell you how many guests (it’s a lot) visiting each summer bring coolers to stock up. Some even throw tantrums if we miss the opening hours. I’m pretty sure we should start some kind of petition to get Cheese Ladies Everywhere. I know I could use one on my NYC corner. Right now. My then-12-year-old cousin said she was pretty sure there should be one or two in every state, right before proclaiming The Cheese Lady as “my idol”.

Cheese in the Spotlight: Two rather disturbing stories have surfaced in the media this week. One I reject wholesale – a GQ piece saying that cheese can be addictive. They say it like that is a bad thing? I know for a fact that cheese is good for you – hence the expression cheesy goodness, although there is a high probability that I invented that expression myself. Still. Just sayin. Isn’t cheesy euphoria what we live for? The only part of that post that I do embrace? A retouched photo of Scarface with 20 kilos of uncut Colby.

20 Kilos of Uncut Colby - riff off Scarface with Al Pacino looking at highly addictive cheese of many flavorsAnd then there is the distressing news about wood pulp in our cheese. Well, not in my cheese. Unfortunately NBC Nightly News filled the story with B-roll of beautiful cases of hunks of cheese. They went so far as to create an infographic showing what the acceptable 4% level looks like on a wheel. That’s not where the cellulose (anti-caking agent) is found – it’s in the little green shakers of “parmesan”.  (They also report that some of those shakers have zero parmesan – all cheaper cheeses AND wood pulp). So another reminder to read your labels. And while you are checking out ingredients, check out expiration date. I can pretty much guarantee you that the cryovac Manchego or feta at the supermarket will have expiration dates from 6 months to a year out. Remember that bit about cheese being alive? Not so much when sealed in plastic. Just go already to The Cheese Lady where your lovely, breathing, creamy, runny, tasty, smelly, gooey piece of dairy heaven is cut to order and wrapped in French cheese paper. Have I made myself clear?

Kathleen Riegler and Shelley LewisCourtesy of The Cheese Lady…some 30 second appetizers:

  • Manchego, Pear Preserves & Marcona Almonds
  • Eurocreme Stuffed Peppadews
  • Dried Figs Stuffed with Gorgonzola & Honey Drizzle
  • Taleggio & Tart Cherry Preserves
  • Mascarpone & Lemon Curd on Oatcakes
  • Fresh Chevre, Quince Chutney & Toasted Coconut

Toasted Baguette Toppers

  • Iberico & Olive Tapenade
  • Feta, Prosciutto, Honey & Fig
  • Raclette & Cornichons
  • Burrata & Artichokes
  • Valdeon Bleu & Creamed Honey
  • Irish Cheddar & Pear Jam

My Mac & Cheese recipe is coming soon! Stay tuned!! It’s National Drink Wine Day so I think you know what you gotta do! Giddy up.

If this is wrong, I don\'t wanna be right, Cheese board with goat cheese with cran chutney, brie, pears and other cheese with crackers and cheese wafers© Copyright: KatyKeck.com 2016. All rights reserved.

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Giving Thanks and Giving Back: Cupcakes for a Cause

Giving Thanks and Giving Back: Cupcakes for a Cause

It’s been a couple of a weeks and I’m still not sure which was cuter – the cupcakes or the girls making them. I had the rare opportunity to visit the monthly meeting of the minds of Team ChloElla J, a band of merry thirteen year-olds (Juliette is now 14) who gather together for their scheduled session to pay it forward. Palate, Passion, AND Purpose are alive and well in this latest generation. I caught them during fall break and a day off from school. But sometimes they bake on the weekends, and sometimes until very late at night…..and once in while, ”too late” at night. Based on all the energy and effort that goes into this, you would expect a feast at the end. And while there is no doubt a feast somewhere, the feast is not theirs. They don’t bake for themselves.

Chloe, Ellary and Juliette have been friends since childhood, and, earlier this year, the girls saw an opportunity at church fundraisers (that’s right – fundraisers, plural – they go to three different churches) to auction off Cupcakes of the Month for charity. They sold the year-long 6 seasonally-themed cupcake package an amazing five times between them. Each church had different goals and the monies raised support mission work, a youth mission trip and “general churchy stuff”. She had me at “churchy stuff”. Adorable, indeed!

While the leadership is clearly shared, with hosting and shopping scheduled on a rotating basis, I had my eye on Ella. Ella is not new to paying it forward. A whole two plus years ago, at the tender age of 11, she raised $5,000 for her Let’s SHAKE Parkinson’s campaign by running a 5k. At that age, I was just trying to figure out how to pass the President’s Fitness test, never mind run 5k. Sit-ups were my strong suit. Running and the softball throw, not so much.

Let\'s SHAKE Parkinson\'s - Ella\'s fundraiser

And while I was likely still dabbling in all things Easy Bake Oven at 13 (Okay, probably not at 13, but it was the 60s and things moved a whole lot more slowly), these girls each have full professional toolkits. One has adapted a manicurist’s tackle box, replacing nail color with icing tints. Another has a Cricut Explore Air, an electronic cutting machine that precisely cuts – with embedded bluetooth for wireless cutting, of course – labels for the packaging. And the pastry tip collection between the three is unparalleled. Wowza! Impressive.

Getting the right gear - all the pastry tips and molds to make cupcakesThe girls FaceTime each month to get a theme. Pinterest, magazines, and baking websites provide inspiration.  I connected as Thanksgiving was being designed and created. They finally settled on turkey legs, mashed potatoes with gravy and two pies – one latticed-topped fruit and one pumpkin. Each customer gets six – so two legs, two mash, two pies.

For this holiday, the cupcakes were made from scratch – a delicious apple cinnamon batter. When I arrived, they were already cooling, and the girls were making the icing – one base, tinted as needed for the berry pie, pumpkin pie, or au natural for the turkey and mashed potatoes. And the music was jamming. Much like a professional kitchen, there was little chatter. Each girl was focused on her task at hand and looked up only to ask an opinion or show off a masterpiece.

Chloe, Ellary, and Juliette - the cupcake championsJuliette was working on mashed potatoes with a caramel gravy. Much like the real thing, the “potatoes” were piled high, a well was made, and “gravy” poured. Unlike the real thing, there was some tricky timing to get the caramel hot enough to pour well, but not so hot as to melt the “potatoes”. She poured with a deft hand.

Mashed Taters, cupcake style - creamy frosting with a pool of caramel for the gravy

Ella was busy creating the turkey drumsticks. She had already made a white chocolate “bone” to extend from the meaty part of the leg, and she created roast turkey “skin” by sprinkling with graham cracker crumbs.
Turkey Drumstick Cupcakes with a white chocolate leg bone

That left Chloe to tackle the pies.  She needed fondant for the lattice crust and the pumpkin pie trim. And of course, she makes her own – stretching and rolling a marshmallow fondant to keep the sugar pliable, yielding a dough-like consistency.

Rolling, Stretching, Trimming - making thanksgiving cupcakesOnce the fondant is rolled, Chloe cuts it in thin strips and weaves it together just like a lattice topped pie. But no further baking required – she has used her marshmallow fondant.  For the pumpkin pie, she uses two cutters – the larger one fluted and one slightly smaller that is not. It was impressive to see that each girl had her own technique to fulfill her vision. Crumbs, fondant, caramel: each used in a unique way.

Plenty of Pies: Thanksgiving cupcakes that look like pumpkin pies and lattice top cherry piesIt’s clear they enjoy what they are doing. And they have learned a lot. They have gone from basic to “pretty cool”. I’ll add a “very cool” of my own. Watching the camaraderie and flashes of pure joy was inspiring. Knowing that they are supporting their community is heart-melting. You can’t help but know for sure that despite their small town experience, they have a global perspective. They expand their own horizons every time they turn on the oven.

And when they are done, they dance.

Wishing these girls, their families, and you a joyous and food-filled Thanksgiving.


From the ChloElla J portfolio – now taking orders!

On theGrilll, Halloween, and at the beach cupcakesAugust: Teddies at the Beach;  Burgers on the Grill for “Uncle Dan’s” birthday; October: Six Spooky Designs

Back to School, Minions, and s\'mores on a campfire cupcakesSeptember: Back to School Apple for the Teacher; Custom order: Minions; and my personal favorite for a youth group outing: S’mores with tootsie roll logs and hard candy flames.

© Copyright: KatyKeck.com 2015. All rights reserved.

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