Thursday, January 23, 2014

Say This 10 Times Fast: Awesome Wausome Wafers From Wausau

You know that feeling when you discover a new food you never knew existed but after consuming twice the number of recommended servings in one sitting, promptly decide you can no longer live without it? Yeah, that happened to me this week with cheese crisps, courtesy of a man named Brian Gunning from Wausau, Wisconsin.

In between working more than a decade as a graphic designer, marketing consulting and mobile computing inventor (he holds a patent for a Batman-belt-like inventory device), Brian has been secretly cooking cheese into perfect circles of pure crispy bliss for years. He started in 2000, as a bachelor in downtown Madison, who for fun would fry cheese in a skillet until it turned crispy.

"I remember being really excited and taking my first batch of cheese to work one day, and the people I worked with were absolutely revolted that I would do such a thing. So needless to say, I gave up on it for awhile," he said. Luckily for us, he perservered. Fast forward a few years, now married with children, Brian started packing his kids' lunch and including the ever popular Goldfish crackers. "Have you ever looked at the nutritional value of Goldfish? They’re terrible for you," he said. "So instead, I put some cheese on the griddle, and the kids liked it. So I started packing cheese crisps in their lunches instead."

Today, Brian is still cooking cheese, and as it turns out, he's gotten incredbily good at it. After setting up an 800-foot commercial kitchen near Wausau using stainless steel equipment he scored from a bankrupt Krispy Creme (thank you failed donuts!), he's unveiled his new Wausome Wafers (Wholesome + Awesome = Wausome) to a select number of specialty food stores in Wisconsin, where they're taking off like an out of control grease fire. Well, maybe that's not be best way to put it, but you know what I mean.

So what exactly are Wausome Wafers? Pure and simple, they are fried cheese (well, actually baked, but they seem fried - I got sort of lost in Brian's scientific cooking explanation - there's a reason I'm an English major). No gluten, no carbs, and sugar free. Think Parmesan crisps, only better, using different kinds of cheese made only in Wisconsin.

The first two Wausome Wafer flavors to hit the market are Clever Cheddar and Hug & Kiss Colby/Swiss. The Clever Cheddar is made entirely from cheddar crafted at Bletsoe's Honey Bee Cheese Factory near Wausau. It's a straight-forward cheese crisp that's surprisingly addictive, containing the perfect amount of cheddary goodness. Then there's the Hug & Kiss Colby/Swiss. The cheese is made by Decatur Dairy (Colby Swiss was invented by Master Cheesemaker Steve Stettler) and it's sweet, with a bite of swiss, "right in the kisser." It comes out lacey but marbled, smooth but sharp, a true Wisconsin original.

Brian has four more flavors in development, including Soupa Gouda, Party Havarti, Such Bliss Swiss, and Forever Cheddar (an aged cheddar crisp). When I asked about his recipe development process, he said his market research is simple.

"I take them to church and put them out at the potluck and stand in the background. Then I watch the expressions of people who eat them. Typically, if they turn out well, the little old ladies devour them. They gather them up in a napkin and run off to someone else and say, 'You have to eat this!' Then I know I've got a winner," he said.

Each crisp is 1-1/2 inches in diameter and packaged in just about the cutest, best-ever designed packaging you've ever seen. Because the crisps are fragile, the boxes are triangular, with each lid acting as a spring cushion. And in a novel marketing concept, each box tells the story of the cheese and the cheesemaker, not the story of the product creator.

"I wanted to tell the stories and celebrate the cheeses and cheesemakers, because without them, this product would not exist," Brian says.

And what about the name? Turns out it's a combination of factors. The first was the City of Wausau's attempt to rebrand itself with the ever-creative tagline of: "It's Wausome." Shockingly, the slogan failed, but a local high school kid did adopt "wausome" as his Twitter handle and made a few t-shirts. It was Brian's mother-in-law who suggested Brian adopt "Wausome Wafers" as the product name, and it was a mentor at the county entrepreneurial center who gave him the tagline: "Wholesome + Awesome = Wausome."

"So basically, I stole the name from a high school kid, my mother-in-law and a teacher. I'm surrounded by creative people. It's a good thing," he said. "I added my skills of knowing how to brand something to make it personable and effective, then added my background in supply chain and an obsession with eating fried cheese late at night."

Wausome Wafers are shelf-stable with a 6-month shelf life. Brian encourages consumers to not only enjoy the wafers, but to then visit the cheesemakers' websites and also purchase the cheese from which it was fried to a crisp. "I'm just helping cheese realize it’s true potential,” he says. And I would argue he's accomplished that goal.

To get your very own box of Wausome Wafers, visit Vino Latte, Lil Ole Winemakers Shoppe, and Downtown Grocery in Wausau. They'll also be available in Madison at Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale starting Saturday, and at Fromagination early next week. Once you have your very own box, you'll be saying it with me: Wausome Wafers are awesome!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Want To Be A Wisconsin Cheesemaker?

Good news aspiring cheesemakers! Wisconsin Cheese Originals announced today applications for its 2014 Beginning Cheesemaker Scholarship are available. The $2,500 award will help one aspiring cheesemaker earn his or her Wisconsin cheesemaking license and make new artisan, farmstead or specialty cheeses.

As you know, Wisconsin is the only state in the nation to require cheesemakers to be licensed, a lengthy process that can take as long as 18 months, requires the attendance at five cheesemaking courses, and 240 hours of apprenticeship with an existing licensed Wisconsin cheesemaker.

Applications for the 2014 Wisconsin Cheese Originals Beginning Cheesemaker Scholarship are available for download at www.WisconsinCheeseOriginals.com. Applications are due March 20. The recipient will be chosen by a review committee and notified by April 7.

Wisconsin Cheese Originals has awarded $10,000 in scholarship monies to beginning cheesemakers since 2010. Past program scholarship recipients include:

2013: Jennifer Digman owns and runs Krayola Sky Dairy, a goat dairy in Cuba City. She successfully obtained her cheesemaker's license in 2013 after earning the Wisconsin Cheese Originals scholarship. She works at both Uplands Cheese and Roelli Cheese as a professional affineur (cheese aging specialist). Digman has dreams of building her own on-farm creamery to craft fresh, hand-dipped chevre, aged mixed milk artisan cheeses, and hand-washed Alpine-styles. She hopes to pass the operation down to her two young daughters.

2012: Anna Landmark owns and runs a small-scale sustainable farm with her husband and children in Albany, Wis. In 2013, Anna successfully launched Landmark Creamery and began making seasonal sheep, cow and water buffalo cheeses, using the facilities at Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, Wis. At the 2013 Wisconsin Cheese Originals Festival, her Bawdy Buffalo, a water buffalo Taleggio-style cheese, was named one of the best up-and-coming American Original cheeses in the nation.

2011: Rose Boero, a dairy goat breeder in Custer, Wis, successfully obtained her cheesemaker's license after receiving the scholarship in 2011. Today, she makes a variety of goat's milk cheeses at Willow Creek Cheese and teaches beginning cheesemaking classes in her home for amateur cheesemakers. She is developing plans to build her own cheese plant at her dairy goat farm, where she and her husband have raised Toggenburg dairy goats for 25 years.

2010: Katie Hedrich Furhmann, a goat's milk cheesemaker, obtained her license after receiving the first Wisconsin Cheese Originals Scholarship. At the 2011 U.S. Champion Cheese Contest, she took Best in Show for her goat's milk cheese, LaClare Farms Evalon, and was named the 2011 U.S. Champion Cheesemaker, the youngest cheesemaker to ever earn the title. In 2013, she and her family built a new farmstead cheese plant on their farm near Pipe, Wis. She launches new cheeses annually.

For those of you not in the know, Wisconsin Cheese Originals is an organization I started in 2009. Our motto is: Have Fun. Do Good. Eat Cheese. We are a membership organization sharing information about Wisconsin artisan cheeses through a variety of events, all in the spirit of celebrating Wisconsin cheesemakers. You can join for just $35 a year and be invited to tours, dinners, classes and super cool tasting events. More info on becoming a cheese geek here: Wisconsin Cheese Originals.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Screw Velveeta, Eat Juustoleipa

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
As Kraft continues to perpetuate its "Velveeta Shortage = World is Ending" public relations campaign to drive sales for the Super Bowl -- seriously, show me a store where the shelves are bare of processed cheese -- I say it's time to start a new trend here in Subarctica and eat warm cheese that does not consist of milk and whey protein concentrate. 

Yes, I made up the term Subarctica to represent where I live in Wisconsin, even though we appear to be on the tail end of an arctic polar vortex blitz featuring temps of minus 20 degrees F for the past week. So it seems to be a good time to talk about something warm. And what's better than warm cheese?

People, I give you the best warm cheese outside fresh curds from a vat. Called Juustoleipa (pronounced oo-stah-lee-pah, with the first syllable rhyming with the word who), this cheese originates from Scandinavia, where the fine folks in northern Finland have been making it from reindeer, cow and goat milk for 200 years. 

In Wisconsin, you'll sometimes see it labeled as Bread Cheese, because a) that's how Juustoleipa translates in English, and b) the cheese is actually baked (like bread) during the cheesemaking process. Made without a starter culture - a process similar to making feta - Juustoleipa is merely fresh curds pressed into blocks. It it then briefly baked. The result is a squeaky cheese with a mild, buttery flavor. The best part is the splotchy brown crust, formed when heat from baking caramelizes the sugars on the outside of the cheese. The cheese is made to be grilled in a skillet or warmed in an oven (it doesn't melt when heated) and eaten for breakfast with coffee and maple syrup or honey, or after a meal with jam or jelly.

Juustoleipa first came on the scene in Wisconsin back in 2002, when scientists at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR), via funding from the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, worked to recreate the original Finnish recipe in an effort to preserve a traditional, ethnic cheese and develop a safe manufacturing method to share with small Wisconsin cheese factories and farmstead operations. Cheese Scientist Jim Path, now retired from CDR, traveled to northern Michigan, where he found an elderly couple producing it in tiny quantities, and then to a farmstead in Finland just 150 miles from the Arctic Circle where he studied the manufacturing technique.

In September of 2002, CDR hosted a seminar attended by 28 Wisconsin cheesemakers and 10 Wisconsin Master Cheesemakers that included a hands-on demonstration of making Juustoleipa. The idea was that the cheese would be ideal for a small factory or start-up.

Today, you'll find six different Wisconsin cheese companies crafting it under a variety of names.
  • Carr Valley Cheese Bread Cheese (in Traditional, Garlic, Chipotle and Jalapeno flavors)
  • Babcock Hall Juustoleipa and Jalapeno Juustoleipa
  • Pasture Pride Cheese Juusto (in Traditional, Italiano, Jalapeno, Chipotle flavors, as well as with Nueske's Bacon), Guusto (goat's milk version) and Oven Baked Cheeses filled with 5yr cheddar, Parmesan, and aged goat cheese
  • Bass Lake Cheese Juustoleipa (Cheesemaker/Owner Scott Erickson is the only certified master cheesemaker in Juustoleipa)
  • Brunkow Cheese Brun-uusto Cheese
  • Noble View Creamery Juustoleipa (in Traditional, Jalapeno and Habanero flavors, and with bacon)
So while here in Wisconsin we enjoy all the taste of Juustoleipa, we haven't yet adopted its cultural practices. Legend has it that in Finland, mothers of "eligible women" - I love that phrase - used to offer suitors a cup of coffee with the cheese and, if the man liked the cheese, he married the girl. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me. Who wouldn't want to marry a man who didn't like cheese?

As a side note, if you're looking for a way to taste all of these Juustoleipas, I've created an "Juustopalooza" event in the specialty cheese department at Metcalfe's Market-Hilldale in Madison on Saturday, Feb. 1 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. We'll be frying up 3 different Juusto cheeses for you to sample with many more available for sale. See you then!