Two variations on classic grilled cheese sandwiches—one with pear jalapeño chutney, one with roasted tomatoes, both with delicious Tillamook cheeses from Oregon. Recipes below.
A few years ago, our friends Bud and Christine were visiting from France. Before dinner, we put out some Tillamook aged white cheddar with crackers. Between bites, Christine kept exclaiming in her charming French accent, “You can’t get cheese like this in France!” Her words alone might have simply referred to the fact that the French don’t make cheddar-style cheeses. But the way she and Bud were happily gobbling it up said it wasn’t just cheddar—it was the Tillamook cheddar.
So when we were invited to interview Tillamook’s head cheesemaker on our recent visit to the Pacific Northwest, we said yes as enthusiastically as Christine, only without the French accent.
Tillamook, Oregon, sits on the Pacific coast, about 75 miles west of Portland. It was there in 1909 that a handful of dairy farmers got together to form the Tillamook County Creamery Association, a farmer-owned and operated dairy cooperative created to ensure that the cheese they produced was of the absolute highest quality. They have done just that, winning countless awards for their carefully made cheeses, even as they’ve grown from the original 10 farms to 110, encompassing virtually all of the dairy farms in the county.
On our way into Tillamook, we passed a number of herds of cows in various fields, and I joked to Marion that they all played on the Tillamook team. Turns out I was probably right. We were greeted at the Tillamook Cheese Visitors Center by Chandra Allen and Kathy Holstad, who told us that pretty much all of the dairy cows you see in the county are part of the cooperative. This allows them to maintain strict quality control over the cheese and, as Kathy says, to produce “a premium product in a commodity category.”
One of the driving forces behind that premium product is Tillamook’s head cheesemaker, Dale Baumgartener. He’s been making cheese for 41 years now, starting in the summer between his junior and senior years of high school. Most of those years have been with Tillamook. For Dale, head cheesemaker is not a desk job—he greeted us in the working whites and protective cap everyone wears on the cheese plant floor. He said we could ask him anything we wanted to know about the cheesemaking process. He cheerfully answered our flurry of questions, but they all boiled down to a single overarching one: What makes Tillamook cheese so good that even French people notice?
“It starts with the milk,” he says. Farmers are paid a premium for quality—milk high in protein and fat. To achieve this, most herds are a mix of Holsteins, Jerseys and Guernseys. The cows spend much of the year pastured; when it turns cold, they’re fed green chop, fresh pasture-like grasses, not feedlot grain. This produces creamier, golden-colored milk. The farmers also adhere to strict animal welfare guidelines, because, as the Tillamook website explains, “Farmer-owners recognize that the health and well-being of their cows is what sustains their families and businesses.”
Once the milk arrives at the Tillamook creamery, it is heat shocked rather than pasteurized, to retain some of the bacteria and help develop the flavor. Carefully maintained cultures or starters are added as well. The cheese curds are then cheddared, a process in which they are slowly turned with paddles to extract the whey or moisture and allow the broken up curds to compress and take on the characteristic dense texture of cheddar.
A big challenge, as Tillamook has grown, has been to maintain traditional practices and quality levels while increasing capacity. The cheese used to be cheddared by hand on open tables. They now use huge, stainless cheddaring machines imported from New Zealand. Dale said it took about a year of fine tuning them before all agreed the quality matched that of their hand-cheddared loaves. And they don’t work faster than hand cheddaring, just at much higher volumes. Blankets of cheese, five feet wide and seven inches thick, take five hours to travel the 40 feet down the cheddaring machine belt.
By the way, makers of commodity cheddar cheeses—the store brand blocks you find in the supermarket as well as some big names—don’t bother with the slow cheddaring process. Many of them don’t bother with aging either. They use additives to copy the flavor of aged cheese, and their cheeses are on trucks headed for stores in as little as 10 days. Not Tillamook. Their medium cheddars are aged 80 days. The extra sharp cheddars may be aged up to three years or longer. At any given moment, they have 70 million pounds of cheese in various stages of aging.
Quality control is constant. Everyone is completely invested in the cheesemaking process. In fact, any employee can stop the line at any time if the cheese seems at all off.
All of this doesn’t just make good cheese. It makes award-winning cheese. Just this year, they took the prize for World’s Best Medium Cheddar Cheese at the prestigious World Championship Cheese Contest. Dale was proud to point out that they don’t ever set out to specifically make cheeses to enter into competitions. Potential entries are identified on the line. And the rest of the batch continues on to supermarkets, where it can be bought by cheese lovers like us.
Grilled cheese sandwiches, two variations on the theme
In trying to decide what to do with the Tillamook cheeses that came home in our luggage, we wanted something that would let the cheese shine. No sauces, no casseroles. The purest way to experience them is on neutral crackers or even in cubes on the ends of toothpicks, but those wouldn’t even count as minimal recipes. So we settled on grilled cheese sandwiches.
In the photo, unfortunately, you mainly see nicely pan-grilled buttered bread. Some things are a bear to shoot and, for me, grilled cheese seems to be one of them. The sandwich on the left pairs smoked black pepper white cheddar with roasted tomatoes; the second, vintage extra sharp white cheddar and pear jalapeño chutney.
For the roasted tomatoes, Marion sliced up the last of our tomatoes from the yard and tossed them with olive oil and black pepper. She then roasted them in a single layer on a baking sheet at 300ºF for about three hours, until completely softened. I’m not a big fan of sun-dried tomatoes; they get too tart and concentrated in flavor for my taste. These roasted tomatoes, on the other hand, are delicious. The flavor deepens, but also becomes more mellow in the slow cooking process. If you can’t find any home grown tomatoes this late in the season, this technique would work beautifully with plum tomatoes.
Pear Jalapeño Chutney
Makes about 2 cups
1 cup rice vinegar (or cider or white vinegar)
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
2 large jalapeños, seeded and finely chopped (see below)
3 tablespoons finely chopped yellow onion
3 firm ripe pears, peeled, cored and diced
juice of 1 lemon
Combine vinegar, water and brown sugar in a heavy saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring to dissolve brown sugar. Add jalapeños and onion and cook for about 8 minutes. Stir in pears, return to boil and reduce heat to medium. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice.
The chutney will have lots of liquid in it. That’s okay—it was needed to cook the fruit. When adding to sandwich or for other uses, use a slotted spoon to drain most of the liquid. Chutney can be made ahead and will keep up to 2 weeks in the fridge.
A quick note: I completely seeded one of the jalapeños, but only seeded half of the other one. This made the chutney a little fiery on its own, but when combined with the grilled cheese, it calmed down considerably. Let your heat tolerance be your guide.
Making the sandwiches
A rustic crusty white bread is ideal for grilled cheese, flavorful but not too assertive. An Italian bread or country white or sourdough are all good choices. You’ll also need butter, whatever toppings you like to add (including the ones we used or none at all) and, of course, some very good cheese. Tillamook cheeses are available throughout the country; to see if you can find it near you, check the Tillamook County Creamery Association website.
Assemble the sandwiches. To cook them, you’re going to butter the bread, not the pan. Brush one side of each slice of bread with the melted butter, making sure to coat the entire surface. Place one slice of bread buttered side down on a plate. Place a generous layer of cheese on it. You can slice it thinly or grate it coarsely—we grated it this time, wanting it to help bind our other ingredients. Use 1-1/2 to 2 ounces of cheese per sandwich. Add toppings, if you’re using any. We used a few tablespoons of the tomatoes on one, the same amount of the chutney on the other. Top with the second slice of bread, buttered side up.
Grill them. They cook quickly; grill them one at a time so you don’t crowd the skillet. Heat a large, lidded, dry nonstick skillet over a medium flame. Transfer the assembled sandwich to the skillet, cover and cook for 1-1/2 to 2 minutes. Turn the sandwich and cook uncovered for another 2 minutes or until bread is browned on both sides and cheese has melted. If necessary, turn again until desired brownness is achieved on the bread. Transfer to a plate and serve.