Cheese Encounters

2013 May: Cheese EncountersI have been involved in a complicated relationship for 14 years. My partner is fickle, moody, unstable and inconsistent, but I can’t get rid of her. Because of her voracious greed, she takes all my money, squanders it and I never see it again. Unfortunately, my customers adore her and cannot get enough of her, but they don’t understand the cost I bear to keep her around.

Her name is cheese.

My usual mozzarella/provolone cheese mix costs me from 60 to 70 percent of every single pizza and because I use more than 1,000 pounds each week, I am at the whim of the volatile cheese market. To put it bluntly, cheese affects the money I feed and clothe my kids with. I wanted to cut back on the halfpound I place on each large pie, but instead I decided to do the opposite of what any sane person would do. I added Artisan cheese to my menu mix! By embracing these cheeses, my menu-mix has exploded and my customers can get real gourmet pizzas and I get more sales. Before we get started, here are a few tips when starting an artisan cheese program:

  • Price. Just because a wonderful cheese is expensive by weight doesn’t mean it’s too expensive to use. Strong cheeses are perfect to use with your existing cheese profile and it doesn’t take much!
  • Preparation. Most purveyors have ready-shredded cheeses and American-made variants of European cheeses. If you get cheese by the block, buy a professional cheese shredder and grate it yourself — it doesn’t take much time!
  • Marketing. With the increased sophistication of diners these days, your customers will be wowed by these new and intense flavors. They see these cheeses on cooking shows every day and, from my personal experience, they may not be able to pronounce these cheeses right but are usually bowled over by the taste!

Here is a list of cheeses that I have marketed on pizzas in my pizzeria. I have used all of these cheeses on top of a smaller amount of my existing cheese mix:

  • Ricotta. Too awesome to describe! Chef Jeff Freehof did a wonderful article on this at www.pizzatoday.com. This versatile cheese is relatively easy to make yourself — and if you do, you should be marketing that fact.
  • Asiago. This Italian cheddar named after the town in Italy comes shredded at 27 cents an ounce and adds a great pungent compliment to chicken, basil pesto, bacon, onions, ham and is even strong enough to complete a killer taste profile with pepperoni.
  • Feta. The Greek Pizza will always be a fab seller in any pizza joint. I get the cow’s milk feta crumbled in two- or five-pound bags for 27 cents per ounce and pair it with a béchamel sauce for feta cream or with spinach, tomato and black olive. Our Avalanche “Godzilla” Pizza that won “Best Pizza in the USA” at the World Pizza Championships in Italy features feta with sun-dried tomato, spinach and chicken. I also use local feta paired with applesauce, mint, honey, grapes, nuts, local paw-paw or zucchini.
  • Goat Cheese (Chevre). This creamy goat cheese is less aggressive than feta but the nuanced sour taste is perfect for dolloping on fruit pizza with cherry, apple, apricot and strawberry. I sometimes stretch this expensive cheese folding it into ricotta for use with basil, bell peppers, fennel, garlic and broccoli. This cheese does burn if you have a high-heat conveyor oven, so watch out!
  • Manchego. All my Spanish dreams come true with this cheddar-like cheese. Great with cilantro pesto, roasted red peppers and anchovies, I serve it with homemade chorizo meatballs, provolone and Valorosso tomatoes for a psycho- delicious pie. Manchego with quince paste and Marcona almonds is a favorite.
  • Yellow Cheddar. A stalwart on my menu with a Hawaiian pizza or rock the house pairing it with ham or bacon. Cheddar comes in 20-pound cases for 13 cents an ounce for regular or up to 20 cents for aged cheddar. Beware — the cheap stuff burns, especially in a conveyor oven.
  • Gorgonzola. Never underestimate the public’s appetite for stinky cheese! Just like anchovies, this major taste sensation is very economical — between 15 and 22 cents an ounce — and melts you right to the bank with traditional “agra dolce” (Agra-DOLchEE- meaning sweet and sour) effect with fresh pear or apple, figs, honey, walnuts and prosciutto. Mint, nuts, cream and mushrooms and balsamic are also great with gorgonzola. (I use Stilton also. It is a British version of the killer, creamy blue taste.)
  • Fresh Mozzarella. I’ve learned to transform any pizza using a base of my cheese mix and small chunks of fresh mozzarella for a cool look. Most fresh mozzarella in brine can be had for close to 20 cents per ounce. I like the mozz logs because they don’t leach that white water all over a pie.
  • Burrata. This pricy mozzarella ball filled with fresh sticky cream can be obtained for 90 cents to $1.12 an ounce and is now made in Wisconsin. At that price, it’s imperative that you broadcast this as Burrata. It’s perfect for dolloping on any Italian pizza after the oven with garlic, basil, tomato, vin cotto or balsamic.
  • Gruyere: This is my new best friend, even at 70 to 93 cents per ounce. The outstanding strong taste pairs with onion, fresh spinach, ham, chicken, apples, garlic and arugula. (This is the cheese of fondue.)
  • Fontina. At 28 cents per ounce, fontina is best used sparingly or with another cheese. It is great with salami, fruit, ham or with truffle oil. Fontinella, which is a younger, less expensive cheese, melts great but doesn’t have that grassy, fruity quality of aged fontina.
  • Brie. Excellent name recognition! Only a few slices after the pie exits the oven will sell like gangbusters.
  • Mascarpone. Mix with a grainier ricotta to dollop and tastes like creamy heaven.
  • Other cheeses like Finlandia Swiss, Emmental, Colby, Pepper jack, Gouda, Muenster, Pecorino, Piave Vecchio and Tellegio are also great sellers.

So, if you’re tired of the same old cheese run-around, go rogue and create havoc using artisan cheeses to spice up your menu mix and your bank account.

John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio. He is speaker at International Pizza Expo and a member of the World Pizza Champions.

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