Hanukkah is a holiday of legends, and many of its modern traditions stem from ancient lore. One lesser-known tale accounts for the custom of serving cheese and dairy products during the Festival of Lights.
As the story goes, when the Syrian warrior Holofernes arrived in the town of Bethulia en route to conquering the land of Judea, a beautiful young widow named Judith seduced him and fed him copious amounts of wine and cheese. After Holofernes became drunk, Judith seized his sword and beheaded him, thus saving her people from peril (the event was depicted in a painting by Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi).
Latkes and jelly doughnuts are staples at most Hanukkah celebrations, but the story of Judith’s bravery is a great reason to add an elegant kosher cheese plate to the mix. In recent years, kosher cheeses have come a long way from the large blocks of bland, one-dimensional domestic cheddar, muenster and Swiss, which were, at one time, the kosher consumer’s only options. Now, an increasing number of cheeses are imported from Europe and Israel, or made locally in small batches by using raw milk and artisan or organic cheese-making techniques. While some are made with kosher animal rennet (the lining of a cow’s stomach, which helps the cheese coagulate), more cheese makers — including Redwood Hill Farms in Sebastopol, Calif., and Five Spoke Creamery in Westchester County, N.Y. — are using vegetable enzymes. “The quality of the milk and the complexity of the enzymes are two factors contributing to better quality in some kosher cheeses,” Alan Glusgoff of Five Spoke said. Here are a few things to remember when putting together a cheese plate:
Similar to wines, cheeses can be served beginning with the lighter choices, then moving on to stronger (read: stinkier) options. Serve cheeses in an assortment of colors, textures, shapes and heights to lend visual appeal to your plate. Add variety with cow’s, sheep’s and goat’s milk cheeses, and use cheeses from different parts of the world. Serve several different accompaniments with your cheeses, such as crackers and fresh baguette slices, lightly toasted nuts, tart preserves, dried fruits and chutneys. Arrange accompaniments next to their appropriate cheeses for ease of pairing. Remove a wedge or slice from each of the plated cheeses to encourage guests to help themselves. Remove cheeses from the refrigerator at least an hour before serving (two hours or more for Brie, Camembert and other soft-rind cheeses); cheese is best served at room temperature.
The following is a list of kosher cheeses recommended for assembling an appetizing cheese plate. There really are no wrong combinations — just go with what you like, and have fun. It’s Hanukkah, after all.
Considered by many to be the original artisan cheese, Parmigiano Reggiano is savory and perfectly salty, with the signature crystalline crunch that comes from its unique aging process. Serve with a drizzle of good-quality balsamic vinegar.
Five Spoke Creamery
Red Vine Colby
This raw cow’s milk vegetable-rennet cheese is one of four cheeses manufactured by a small producer based in Westchester County using milk from a Pennsylvania farm. Some of the producer’s nonkosher offerings are sold to such top New York City restaurants as Per Se and Chanterelle. Serve with toasted walnuts or pecans.
Royal George Double Gloucester (England)
Available in the United States since 2005, this authentic English cheese is a mildly tangy, cheddarlike delicacy made from the milk of grass-fed cows. Serve with crisp apple or pear slices.
Maese Miguel Manchego
Available kosher for the first time, this sheep’s milk cheese is one of Spain’s most prestigious offerings. Nutty, salty and slightly tangy, it’s great served with a classic Spanish membrillo (quince paste, available in better cheese departments).
Cosse Noir de Gabriel Coulet Roquefort (France)
Cave-aged in France’s Rouergue district, this cheese is not for the faint of heart. It’s smooth, salty, pungent and assertive. Spread on a baguette with a chunk of fresh honeycomb, a drizzle of Tupelo honey or dried cherries.
These party-ready cheese balls are made by the Barkan family in northern Israel and are one of the few artisan Israeli cheeses available stateside. Rolled in a variety of savory herbs such as paprika, black pepper, garlic and parsley, they’re tangy and creamy, begging to be spread on a crisp cracker.
Meyenberg Smoked Goat’s Milk Jack
Meyenberg is far too large a company to be considered an artisan cheese maker, but this cheese is worth a taste. Complex, creamy, smoky and mild, it’s a surprise for sheep’s cheese.
Redwood Hill Farm Camelia (California)
This is an unctuous, Camembert-style cheese that is mild and buttery like the best Camemberts but easier to digest. It’s made using vegetable rennet, sea salt and small-batch artisan techniques.
While availability is sometimes spotty, many of these cheeses can be found at Fairway or Zabar’s markets in New York City, at kosher markets or online at www.igourmet.com.
Adeena Sussman is a food writer, recipe developer and cooking instructor based in New York City.