by Denise Sakaki of Wasabi Prime
Little Miss Muffet, sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey…
– curds and whey?! Girlfriend, it’s time for you to upgrade.
So, that’s not how the nursery rhyme goes. But really, what the heck’s a tuffet good for anyway? Cheese Curds, on the other hand, are most definitely prose-worthy. What are curds? They’re the lumpy little shapes of milk solids that are separated from the liquid (Whey? Yes, whey!) when making cheese. Most people are probably familiar with cheeses like Ricotta or Mascarpone, which are soft, large curd cheeses cooked at low temperatures. Cheese Curds are a signature Wisconsin Cheese. Wandering the grocery store, I came across a package of Wisconsin’s Henning’s Garlic and Dill Cheddar Cheese Curds and was immediately inspired, if I could just get past the overwhelming impulse to snack on the squeaky cheese bites.
Squeaky cheese? I don’t have a scientific explanation, but it’s due in part to the rubbery texture of curds. They do sort of squeak against your teeth as you eat them.
However, cheese curds have cooking uses beyond their obvious snackable traits. The Cheddar curd shapes remind me a bit of gnocchi, and the added flavor of the garlic and dill is a nice, strong complement to the curds’ already salty taste. Along with a little wedge of Wisconsin-made Provolone to add the complexity of aged, pungent flavor, I thought these cheesy choices would pair nicely with thinly
–sliced sweet potatoes, baked into a gratin. Cheese and potatoes. What could be better?
Sweet potatoes make for a nice alternative to the typical russet varieties and they’ll take on a slightly golden hue to let you know its cooked, giving the dish additional color. A bit of finelydiced shallots sautéed in butter provides a caramelized sweetness to a cheese sauce made up of milk and the shredded Provolone. I kept the consistency of the sauce loose, and it’s fine if it’s not a perfect creamy consistency, as it will thicken slightly in the oven and the potatoes will absorb it. The cheese curds are the final add-on before baking, as they will melt down to create a lovely, chewy crust.
The gratin can be made in a large baking dish or in smaller, individual ramekins, as shown in the photos. With this recipe I made one larger gratin in a glass pie dish and four smaller ones in shallow dishes
– small dishes photograph better, what can I say? But it should all fit in a single, large baking dish. This gratin is good for potlucks, if you can do everything ahead of time and borrow an oven to do the final bake-off. You can certainly bake it all the way through and just reheat later, but it’s preferable to enjoy it right when the crust is freshlyformed and still melty from the oven. Melty, yeah, that’s totally an official cheese term.
Sweet Potato and Wisconsin Cheddar Cheese Curd Gratin
Serves 8 – 10 as a side dish
3 to 4 sweet potatoes, thinly sliced about 1/8 of an inch, approximately 4 to 5 cups worth
10 Wisconsin Garlic and Dill Cheddar Cheese Curds (plain cheddar curds are fine)
5 aged Wisconsin Provolone cheese, grated
2 cups whole milk
1 shallot, peeled and finely minced
1 tablespoon butter
Pepper to taste
Place a pot of salted water on a burner set to high for the sliced sweet potatoes. Waiting for it to come to a boil, get a separate saucepan on a burner set to medium and melt the butter. Add in the diced shallots and let them sauté until lightly browned. Slowly add in the milk and let the saucepan come back up to a low simmer, turning down the burner as needed. Sprinkle small handfuls of the shredded Provolone, stirring constantly to ensure the melting is as even as possible. Add pepper to season, as the cheese should provide enough of a salty flavor. When the cheese sauce gets to a loose consistency, enough to coat the back of a spoon, take it off the heat and set aside.
When the salted water is at a boil, add the sweet potato slices and stir to make sure they don’t stick together. Cook for only a few minutes; the thin slices will cook fast, and they only need to be par-boiled, so the oven will finish cooking them. The slices will start to take on a slight golden color to let you know when they’re starting to cook. Remove from the heat and strain out the water.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. When the potato slices are cool enough to handle, arrange in a casserole dish, fanned out like cards or slightly jumbled so there’s spaces between the slices for the sauce to get into. Carefully pour the cheese sauce over the potato slices and sprinkle the Cheddar curds over the top before putting the dish into the oven to bake. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until the curds melt down over the top and brown into a crust. Remove from the oven and let it set for a few minutes before serving.