Not too many years ago, you could have any cheese you wanted on a pizza as long as it was mozzarella. Sure, there might be grated Parmesan or Romano on the table to sprinkle on top, but that was about it. Going beyond pizza, mozzarella made its way onto the table, showing up in dishes like chicken or veal Parmigiana. In the realm of pasta, the cheeses of choice were, yes, you guessed it — Parmesan. Ricotta was another basic cheese, essential to lasagne, manicotti and stuffed shells. The interesting aspect to all of this was that cheese combinations always boiled down to the same few.
Then the clouds parted, and in on rays of sunshine rode a whole new approach to cheese usage and combinations with the intent of developing flavor profiles that added even more pizzazz to pizza, pasta and beyond (such as the trend-popular panini and ubiquitous sub sandwich).
Indeed, before we could smile and say “cheese!” we were enjoying the flowing tastes of a four-cheese pizza and pasta with multiple cheeses. Savvy operators were among the first to understand that a pizza could be a lot more interesting if provolone was added to the mozzarella. How about adding some Parmesan? Wait, let’s add some Romano. Presto! A four-cheese pizza. That’s a fine-tasting four-cheese blend, but before long it was rather basic again, so the repertoire was expanded.
Think about how many different cheeses are available, and you will quickly understand that coming up with tasty cheese combinations is simply a matter of how many you wish to keep on hand. Other factors have influenced how we use various cheeses and in what combinations. For example, the rising popularity of Mexican food gave issue to blending cheeses with a Latin flare and flavor. The same thing happened when Mediterranean cooking came on strong. In each instance, it wasn’t long before “new” cheeses and cheese combinations took center stage in this interesting play that could easily have been titled “Cheeses That Please.”
We are all familiar with the basic four-cheese blend — mozzarella, provolone, Parmesan, Romano. And, believe me, there is nothing wrong with using that blend on pizza or for a four-cheese pasta dish. However, with the wealth of interesting cheeses out there, it is good to think beyond the proverbial cheese block. In another story on cheese on page XX, I talk about using provola, or smoked mozzarella, along with fresh mozzarella to fashion a classic Neapolitan cheese flavor. It works beautifully and you should give it a try.
In my 1995 cookbook “The Ultimate Pizza,” I explored quite vigorously the idea of cheese combinations. For example, in the chapter on cheese I list no fewer than 20 different cheeses that could be used on pizza. From Asiago to Tallegio I was looking at the idea of combining cheeses on an aggressive scale, but using common sense. And common sense is what it comes down to when looking at cheese blends.
It is important when coming up with cheese combinations to consider the predominant flavor that each cheese would bring to the taste party. At the same time, combining two strong cheeses doesn’t work, because the flavors cancel each other out. For example, blending a bleu cheese with smoked Gouda wouldn’t work because both of those cheeses have an aggressive flavor. However, combining bleu cheese with Havarti delivers, because each cheese strikes a different flavor note.
Similarly, a combination of Fontina and Gruyere is ripe with a buttery and nutty taste. This combination of cheeses works great for a panini and oven-toasted sub sandwich. Another factor to keep in mind when combining cheeses as a pizza topping is color. For example, I do a brunch pizza (recipe to follow) that incorporates cheddar, Monterey Jack and Asadero. The cheddar adds flavor and color, the Monterey jack a mild counterpoint of flavor, while the Asadero, which is a great melting cheese, brings in a tangy flavor similar to provolone. If you want a great pizza for brunch service you need to try my brunch pizza below.
Also, when considering cheese combinations keep in mind the other toppings and how the cheeses flow and are compatible with what else is on the pizza. For example, I do a chicken/ blue cheese /Parmesan pizza. That combination of cheeses gives a real flavor boost to the chicken.
As always, common sense must prevail. I am seeing some recipes come out where five and six cheese combinations are used. When you get that many cheeses going it gets expensive and there is a flavor overload (and the average customer won’t get it anyway).
Some interesting cheese blends for a pizza topping include Fontina and Gruyere, smoked gouda and Parmesan, Muenster and Blue, Feta and mozzarella. On an antipasto tray I would include aged or mild provolone, Asiago, fresh mozzarella and Gorgonzola.
Bruno’s Brunch Pizza
Yields: Makes 14-inch pizza. Scale up in direct proportion
¾ pound chorizo
1 14-inch pizza shell
½ cup canned refried beans, thinned with 1 tablespoon warm water
¾ cup medium-hot bottled salsa
6 eggs lightly beaten
¼ cup chopped cilantro
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
¼ cup shredded Asadero cheese
In a sauté pan over medium heat, cook the chorizo, breaking up the larger pieces, about 5 minutes. Drain all the fat from the pan. Reserve.
Spread the refried beans over the pizza shell, leaving a ½-inch (one-half inch) crust edge. Spread the salsa over the beans.
In a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, scramble the eggs just until they are set and no longer runny. Spread the eggs loosely over the salsa. Sprinkle the cilantro over the eggs. Combine the three cheeses and sprinkle evenly over the eggs. Sprinkle the reserved chorizo over the cheese, pushing it into the cheese with your fingers.
Bake until the crust is golden brown and the cheese is melted and bubbly.
This pizza will hold nicely on a buffet table for up to an hour.