Melbourne, Australia: Most of us don’t need to be sold on the pure joy of eating cheese, nor do we doubt the power of the perfect cheese platter when entertaining friends and family. When it comes to our health though, it’s fair to say cheese has endured a complex history of conflicting messages. Here’s the low down on what you need to know about looking good and feeling great this festive season, without compromising on the fun and deliciousness of cheese.
Cheese is part of the ‘dairy food group’ for a reason – it’s good for you, but it often receives a bad rap because it is a source of saturated fat. Having said that, science shows that not only is cheese not harmful for our health, it’s actually beneficial.
For starters, it’s jam-packed with essential vitamins and nutrients; it’s an excellent source of calcium for bone health, is high in protein and contains vitamin A, vitamin B12, riboflavin, phosphorous and zinc.
In fact, when comparing a serve of milk and yoghurt with a slice of cheddar cheese, cheese has more than three times the amount of protein, less than half the carbohydrate, more than three times the calcium, less than half the lactose and the highest magnesium, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin B2 content.
While you might find some of those nutrients elsewhere – it’s important to think of cheese as a natural whole food, it’s the particular blend of vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and other bioactive compounds and the way they interact with one another that contribute to its unique benefits.
You can eat cheese if you’re trying to lose weight
Yes, you heard right. You can have your (cheese) cake and eat it too; well, perhaps not quite but you can certainly enjoy some creamy camembert, ricotta, cottage cheese, mozzarella and bocconcini – as part of a balanced diet without the worry. Research shows consumption of three to four daily serves of dairy foods, such as milk, cheese and yoghurt (including regular fat varieties), as part of a balanced diet is not linked to weight gain.
What’s more, studies conclude that eating three to four daily serves of milk, cheese or yoghurt as part of a calorie-restricted diet can lead to greater weight and fat loss compared to a calorie restricted diet without the dairy. The increased dairy diet can also aid greater loss of fat around the tummy specifically and assist in the building of lean muscle mass.
There’s no such thing as bad cheese – it’s all good
When it comes to cheese we are spoilt for choice! Each variety has a different flavour and use as well as a unique mix of nutrients:
Ricotta is a delicious base for sweet or savoury dishes. Ricotta contains 11 per cent fat and low-fat ricotta contains less than three per cent fat. It’s also a great source of whey protein (11g per 100g), which can help tired muscles recover after exercise. Ricotta digests really quickly in our bodies and provides an ideal mix of quality amino acids for lean muscle development.
Cottage cheese is the ultimate light cheese (with just three per cent fat), because it contains around 75 per cent water, but remains a great source of protein.
Mozzarella is one of Australia’s favourite cheeses (thanks to our love of all things Italian) and packs a protein punch – 17g per 100g to be exact! Fresh varieties are perfect to include on a summer cheese platter and the bonus is they contain around half the fat of hard cheeses like cheddar.
Camembert is a delicious and indulgent cheese that is a must for entertaining. Nothing beats a creamy camembert! It’s so ridiculously delicious, that it can be easy to forget that it still contains all the same essential nutrients as other dairy foods, including calcium and protein (18g per 100g) and virtually no carbohydrates. You might also like to know that it actually contains less fat than blue cheese or cheddar. Now we’re not talking about double or triple cream varieties, but a little of the regular stuff is certainly not a bad thing.
Labne is so on trend right now, and with good reason! It’s made from strained yoghurt and is a high moisture cheese which makes it naturally lower in fat. Because it’s made from yoghurt, it comes with all the health benefits yoghurt brings – and is absolutely delicious.
Christmas festivities often have us run off our feet preparing food and nibbles for our guests. I for one am usually the one hosting festive drinks, dinner parties, and all other kinds of get-togethers, particularly as there are four December birthdays in my house! I am not complaining, I love it, I love to entertain, but I do tend to suffer with a bit of stress making sure everything is perfect and all my guests are properly looked after. This year, other than Christmas dinner, I decided that I would serve cheese platters – quick, easy and delightfully delicious, but I also wanted to make sure I did it the right way. Sure, you can just plonk a couple of bits of cheese and bikkies on a plate and hand it around, but that’s just not my style – do it right, make it look appetising, have your guests devouring every last morsel.
To make sure I paired and prepared the cheeses correctly, I consulted the experts at Legendairy. Their expertise and knowledge is outstanding, let me share their hints and tips with you.
The Festive Board
If you are looking for a Christmas table centrepiece that brings the ‘wow’ factor, then look no further than a delicious grazing board complete with all your favourite festive treats – from Christmas cake to gingerbread and the Australian cheese to match…yep, you heard right.
Let the cheese do the talking – choose your favourite Australian varieties and pair them with Christmas classics to add a little festive fanfare.
The Cheese – When it comes to choosing cheese, think about catering to a range of tastes and try to offer something everyone will love like a classic vintage cheddar as well as something a little more complex like a washed rind for true connoisseurs. Also consider your textures and offer a range of hard and soft cheeses. If you’re serving cheese at the end of the meal, avoid adding savoury flavours back into the mix, and don’t forget to ask your cheesemonger for advice on what’s ripe and ready for eating!
The Accompaniments – Decorate your board with gingerbread, Christmas cake and mince pies, they’re the ‘tinsel’ on the board as well as the cracker for your cheese. Christmas favourites go surprisingly well with cheese! A classic Australian brie or washed rind matches really well with sweet summer strawberries, cherries and gingerbread cookies. Contrast the creaminess with the crunch of a handful of pistachios, scattered atop the cheese summer strawberries, cherries and gingerbread cookies. Contrast the creaminess with the crunch of a handful of pistachios, scattered atop the cheese.
For something more traditional, try an Australian cloth bound cheddar with fruitcake or mince pies! Something that has to be eaten to be believed – this partnership is an old English one and is a pleasant surprise.
Pair a classic blue with hazelnuts – or try tossing them in toffee to take it to the next level. The sweetness of the toffee will cut through the saltiness of the cheese sending you and your guests to cheese heaven.
Take your cheeses out of the fridge one hour (20 to 30 minutes on a hot day) before serving and cover with a damp tea towel to stop them drying out. Serving your cheese at room temperature means you’re getting the full impact of their texture and flavour.
Matured cheeses are generally at their best when they are closest to their best before date, so keep the date you plan to serve the cheese in mind when choosing the one for you.
If Christmas Day ends up being a hot one, sprinkle a few frozen seasonal grapes on the board to add some refreshing sweetness.
Show your support for Australian producers and choose Australian cheese this Christmas. Whether you find it at your local farmers market, from your favourite cheesemonger or at the supermarket, there is a locally produced cheese out there to suit every palate!
Cheese is a bit like fruit in that it changes with the season and should be consumed when ‘ripe’ for optimal flavour and texture. Ask your cheesemonger for their recommendation on what’s ripe and ready for eating. Make sure you ask to taste it too! If you’re at the supermarket, look for cheeses within a week or so of their best before date as this is usually when they’re at their peak. When choosing whole wheels of soft ripened cheeses like brie or camembert test it like you would an avocado, – if it feels slightly soft, it’s probably going to be ripe and oozy when you serve it. If it’s hard, then it probably needs a little longer to mature.
Interesting accompaniments don’t require too much effort and most pantries are usually packed full of the perfect things to jazz up your cheese board. Think honey on blue cheese or balsamic glaze on a wedge of parmesan. Walnuts go well with almost all cheeses, and add a flourish with fresh or dried fruit, pickled vegetables or a sprinkling of dukkah.
It’s handy to have some cheese on hand for the inevitable and spontaneous drop-ins throughout the festive season. Cheese is the perfect ‘go to’ when you’re unprepared as it takes minimal effort for maximum impact and flavour. Hard varieties like parmesan and cheddar can be stored in the fridge for long periods and they match with just about everything in your pantry.
The cardinal rule of serving cheese is to always serve it at room temperature, so take it out of the fridge about an hour before serving and cover it with a barely damp tea towel to keep the cheese from drying out. Fresh cheeses like mozzarella, burrata, ricotta and labne should be served cool.
So long as it’s not sweating away in the sun, there’s no reason to waste any leftover cheese. There are plenty of things you can do with that little nugget leftover at the end. Ricotta can be sprinkled on spaghetti, cheddar can be grated for sandwiches, and camembert can be served over chicken. This of course assumes there are leftovers to be saved!
Once you’ve used a portioned cheese, wrap it up in some baking paper and put it in the fridge in a container with a loose fitting lid. Don’t forget to keep those more stinky cheeses in a different container! Return small whole cheeses like camembert and brie to their original packaging and pop them in a container in the fridge.
If you don’t have a wooden serving board, add it to your wish list this Christmas! You can also get creative with your presentation as cheese looks great on just about every flat surface, enamel trays, a cake platter or even a washed floor tile will do the trick.
One knife per cheese, please! No one likes bits of blue cheese stuck to the brie. If you don’t have enough cheese knives, use pate or butter knives for the softer cheeses.
So, armed with all this information, I set about preparing my first cheese board for my first lot of Christmas guests. Success! Not only did the board look excellent (so much so that I was reluctant to serve it and have the display ruined) the guests devoured close to every morsel. To be honest with you, I think it was the etiquette of not taking that very last piece of food that stood in the way of my board being completely empty. Everyone made comment on the mix of cheeses, fruits, nuts and gingerbread on the one board and said that they will be doing the same thing in future.
Don’t be scared to mix and match the food on your cheese board, the variety of flavours, if chosen using the information by Legendairy you will find that the combination of textures and flavours will only enhance the flavours of your cheese.