Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: Wisconsin II - Fried Cheese, Please (or "Reason #453 Why Americans Are Fat")

Wisconsin is Cheese Country, dontcha know?  The state's first cottage industry factory was set up in the 1840's by Anne Pickett - the first of now countless cheese factories in the Badger State.  Okay, not exactly countless: today, milk from 12,000 dairy farms and over 1 and a quarter million cows lead to an annual cheese supply of 2.6 billion pounds of cheese - over a quarter of all cheese produced in the United States [Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board 2012].  While the rest of us have definitely eaten Wisconsin cheese in our lifetimes, we probably haven't eaten straight-up cheese curds - not from Wisconsin, not from anywhere.  The folks in Wisconsin eat these things, apparently, with great frequency.

Official Name: State of Wisconsin
State Nickname: The Badger State
Admission to the US: May 29, 1848 (30th)
Capital: Madison (2nd largest)
Other Important Cities: Milwaukee (largest), Green Bay (3rd largest), Kenosha (4th largest), Racine (5th largest)
Region: Midwest, Upper Midwest, Great Lakes; East North Central (US Census)
RAFT NationsWild Rice
Bordered by: Minnesota (west); Lake Superior (northwest); Michigan (upper panhandle) (northeast); Lake Michigan (east); Illinois (south); Iowa (southwest)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: badger (animal, though these aren't typically eaten anymore); corn (grain); dairy cow (domesticated animal); honeybee (insect, for the honey); milk (beverage); muskellunge, or "muskie" (fish); sugar maple (tree, for the maple sap); white-tailed deer (wildlife animal)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: typical Midwestern cuisine; German, Central European and Scandinavian foods; dairy, especially cheese and fried cheese curds; Wisconsin-style fish boil (usually done on a massive scale for many people); beer brats (bratwurst cooked in beer and grilled, usually on a "Sheboygan roll", a typical bratwurst roll from Midwest); beer, beer and more beer

Since I've never been to Wisconsin, one would expect that I have never eaten this comfort food that is pretty much confined to Wisconsin and (likely) the states surrounding it.  You would, however, be wrong.  I have had these things once before, at the Museum of American History in Washington, DC.  Big surprise there: their cafeteria, for what it's worth, was serving stereotypical dishes from different parts of the country: North Carolina BBQ, New York cheesecake, and wouldn't you know it, Wisconsin fried cheese curds.  I had never heard of such a thing, so I had to order this.  A medium-sized steaming bowl for about $5 (these are museum cafeteria prices after all) was too much for me to finish.  Hell, it was too much for me to even make a dent into!  And it's nothing complicated or exotic: it's just breaded fried cheese.  

The curds are just the hard parts of the soured milk, often fried (in the Midwest) or eaten over poutine (in Canada) and is sometimes referred to as "squeaky cheese".  And until I started this project, I had no idea you could buy them in the store.  I've never really seen them.  Then again, I never saw pork roll here either but people swear it's been sold in Baltimore for a while (must be all those New Jerseyites).

Ex-pat Wisconsinites will be happy to know that you can indeed buy cheese curds in the larger supermarkets here.  I found mine at Wegman's.  What Wisconsinites will not be happy about is that our locally available squeaky cheese comes not from Wisconsin but from New York.

And a million Cheeseheads boo and hiss, dontcha know?

Seriously, I normally try to buy the ingredients for these posts from the actual states in question, or at least something from that part of the world.  For New York, I sought out actual u-bet chocolate syrup for a chocolate egg cream.  For Vermont, I got actual Vermont cheddar to make muffins.  Idaho?  Real Idaho huckleberries (too expensive for me to do that again).  Alaska?  Real Alaska salmon (frozen, inexpensively, through Trader Joe's).  Virginia?  Virginia peanuts and ham and Chincoteague oysters (not that these last few things are that difficult for someone in Maryland to obtain).  But cheese curds from Wisconsin just weren't happenin', sadly, so I had to go with the next best thing.

The Recipe: Fried Cheese Curds

The recipe I used comes from the website [date unknown], which also has extensive links on where to find cheese curds in Wisconsin, a fascinating biography of the humble cheese curd, and even an entertaining FAQ about whether or not the squeaking of the curd means it hurts when you eat it.  (Huh?)  I'll say one thing: if biting it hurts. I can't imagine how much worse being dipped in egg batter and fried at 375°F must feel.

Assemble the following:

* cheese curds (otherwise you can't make fried cheese curds.  All I could find were Yancey's Fancy New York artisan cheddar cheese curds, for about $4.50 for the bag at Wegman's)
* eggs (had them)
* baking powder (same)
* flour (hat that too)
* milk (bought some fresh at Giant)
* salt (had this)
* oil for frying (peanut oil in this case, which has a fairly high smoke temperature.  I ran out of the rice bran oil from H Mart, which is comparable in smoke temp)

Put your dry ingredients in a bowl.

Whisk them together with your eggs and milk.

Meanwhile, heat your oil in a skillet or deep fat fryer to about 375°.

Now is the time to coat your cheese curds in your batter.  Make sure they are fully coated.

Drop t hem in the hot oil for a few minutes.  Some will leak if they are not completely covered. Not fun.

I left mine in for about three to four minutes.

Drain on a paper towel.

I can't say I am a "fried things" person.  I like fried foods but usually in the form of chicken or shrimp or other things you typically fry all over the country.  These cheese curds were hot and not nearly as gooey as I had assumed they would be (though I remember the ones at the museum not being gooey either).  If you need to reheat these, for the love of God do not do it in the microwave.  Reheat them in an oven set too about 200° - 250° for about 15 minutes.  They are crispy with a nice firm cheese center.  I'm not sure what to dip these in.  I used whole seed brown mustard.


Beer Institute.  "State Per Capita Consumption 2003 to 2011" (PDF available).  Copyright 2012, All rights reserved.

Bostwick, William & Jessi Rymill.  Beer Craft: A Simple Guide to Making Great Beer.  Rodale: New York, 2011.

Bratwurst Pages.  "Classic Wisconsin Beer Brats".  Bratwurst Pages, 2003.  Copyright 2002, 2003 Bratwurst Pages, All rights reserved.

Croswell, Jonathan.  "How to Cook a Bratwurst in the Oven".  Livestrong, 2011.  Copyright 2011, 2012, All rights reserved.

Door County Today (YouTube channel: DoorCounty Today).  "History of the Door County Fish Boil".  Posted March 15, 2012.

Fisher, Joe and Dennis.  "Wild, Wild Rice!"  Brew Your Own, October 2000.

Fulton, April.  "Will Beer And Brats Break Through Wisconsin's Partisan Divide?"  The Salt: What's on Your Plate.  Posted June 12, 2012.  Copyright 2012 National Public Radio, All rights reserved.

Midwest Living.  "Wisconsin Fish Boil".  Midwest Living, 2012.  Copyright 2012 Meredith Corporation, All rights reserved.

Mr. Beer.  "Instructions, Premium/Deluxe Editions".  Copyright 2011 Catalina Products LLC, All rights reserved.

Spencer, James, and Steve Wilkes (YouTube channel: basicbrewing). "Basic Brewing Video - Doctoring Mr. Beer - January 7, 2012".  Posted January 7, 2012.

Splendid Table.  "Episode 487: The Japanese Grill", July 30, 2011, Segment 21:46 – 28:35 (William Bostwick talks home brewing).  Copyright 2011, 2012 American Public Media, All rights reserved.

Vics, Drew (YouTube channel: Cryptobrewology).  "Brewing Mr. Beer American Devil IPA".  Posted January 25, 2010.
Wisconsin Brewer's Guild.  "Wisconsin Brewer's Guild".  Copyright 2009-2012, All rights reserved.

Wisconsin Historical Society.  "Dictionary of Wisconsin History: Pabst Blue Ribbon beer advertisement, 1940 (WHi-56371)".  Copyright 1996-2012, All rights reserved.

Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.  "Cookin' Up Wisconsin Curds".  Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, 2012.  Copyright 2012, All rights reserved.

Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.  "History of Wisconsin Cheese".  Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, 2012.  Copyright 2012, All rights reserved.
Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Wisconsin" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Wisconsin".


alexis said...

Old cheese curds are an abomination. Curds should squeak against your teeth, and they lose this squeak in about 48 hours. If the curds aren't fresh, frying won't improve them!
I'm currently in WI, and fried curds are eaten with ranch dressing or ketchup, or a variety of spicy sauces (sriracha mayo & 'tiger' sauce).

I hope your curds were fresh!

John said...

If only I had known! I don't know if the ones at the Museum were squeaky but these were somewhat. Hopefully I can obtain unquestionably fresh ones if I do this again!