Hook’s 20-year Cheddar is Swoonworthy
Even if I could have convinced my husband that shelling out $200 for a pound of cheese was well worth it, I have to admit it’s probably best that I didn’t. Not that he wouldn’t agree, and that I don’t think it’s worth it (or more importantly, that I’m worth it) because I know it is. It’s more of a psychological issue.
I harbor a weird trait that I learned from my dad, and it makes no sense. Well, I think I learned it from him, and rest his soul, he’s not here to argue otherwise. The best food must be saved. Saved for what, you ask? I don’t know.
So you see, buying Hook’s Cheese Co. coveted 20-year cheddar would result in a hunk of the most amazing cheese sitting in my fridge banned from use. Too expensive to share with friends, too good to just snack on, too flavorful for the dish I’m cooking. It would sit there in the cheese drawer, until one day, my son would mistake it for “regular ol’” cheddar and grate it on his omelet (which in fact happened with my stash of Hook’s 15-year cheddar, but I digress.)
Attending the Flight of Delight dinner at L’Etoile Restaurant, at the generous invitation of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, was the perfect solution. Throughout the evening we enjoyed a 6-course menu with wine pairings featuring a flight of Hook’s cheese, from the freshest curd to the great and mighty 20-year under the masterful hands of chefs Tory Miller of L’Etoile, Sujoe and Graze, Chef Justin Carlisle of Ardent and Chef Justin Aprahamian of Sanford Restaurant.
There’s something about these chefs’ skillful elevation of comfort food that is consistently impressive, and when it comes to showcasing great Wisconsin cheese, there’s no exception.
The first course highlighted fresh Hook’s cheese curds three ways: kimchi seasoned; on a bed of trout lily pesto and pickled rhubarb; and infused with Buddha’s hand, truffle and koshu. All of the flavors enhanced the loveable, squeaky-fresh curd, but my surprising favorite was Chef Miller’s kimchi curd. Those would make a great regular addition to the Farmers’ Market offerings (hint, hint).
Next up was the another great spin on late night munchie food – a nacho with housemade chorizo, tortilla chip bits, pickled jalapeno and cilantro, topped with Chef Miller’s spin on Cheese Whiz – Hook’s two-year cheddar whipped somehow to smooth, warm and creamy perfection.
After the Amuse, we reveled in another of Chef Miller’s creations, and one of my husband’s favorite dishes of the evening, charred market asparagus with a rhubarb-hickory nut salmuera on a bed of shaved 5-year cheddar. The sweet, crisp asparagus and the nutty-tart brine balanced the cheese in perfect accord.
Next up, Chef Carlisle’s 10-year cheddar soup. The sublime and rich liquid hit my tongue, then mellowed, leaving sweet and savory notes lingering in my mouth. Chef Carlisle added small flavorful accoutrements around the edge of the bowl to mix in at will (I almost didn’t want to, enjoying the bold cheese flavor so intently, but the slight tart and spicy notes of the chive and beer vinegar garnishes were in fact wonderful). A paper thin cheese crisp added a welcome crunch.
The main course highlighted Chef Aprahamian’s Armenian heritage, showcasing the 15-year cheddar in a small boereg (filo pastry shell typically filled with cheese and nuts) that only served to enhance the delicate yet strong flavor of the aged cheese. Roast veal breast medallion, apricot puree, and a crunch of fresh and slightly bitter turnip all melded in perfect harmony.
Finally it was time for the featured cheese, the Hook’s 20-year cheddar. An ample hunk of the cheese was set before each of us, naked on the plate in all it’s glory (A tough plating job, joked Chef Miller). I swooned, shut out the noises around me, inhaled, then tasted. Amazing. Rich and sexy. A smooth talker. Everything you want in a cheese. The 20-year Tawny port that accompanied it the sultry and sweet partner. What a pair.
Dessert would almost seem overkill, but bringing in the fresh, mild flavors of a curd cheesecake with rhubarb, thin meringue crisps and vibrant basil brought the meal full circle, and brought me back to Earth. But not, apparently in enough time for me to remember to snap a photo.
7th course: Two small bites.
In case you missed the dinner 1. Tony and Julie Hook donated $40,000 from the sale of the 20-year cheddar to Babcock Hall/Center for Dairy Research Building Fund at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and 2. Rumor has it that limited amounts of the 20-year cheddar will be available from the Hook’s this Saturday (May 30) at the Dane County Farmers’ Market. Get in line early.