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Cheese Pairings - Recommendations from the Cheese Queen

Mackenzie Lindahl is Bemidji Minnesota’s very own Cheese Queen and a favorite on 91.7 KAXE/90.5 KBXE’s Morning Show. Mackenzie is cheese buyer and perishables manager at Harmony Natural Foods Co-op, where she has worked for 17 years. She earned her crown because…well…she loves cheese!

“I like that there are so many different varieties. I love the passion with which cheesemakers go about their business. I love that it’s living and changing. I love how it works with other food. I love how it makes people feel,” she says. “I was 21 when I started working at Harmony, and back then I also worked the Wild Hare Bistro. One of the owners, Moni Schneider, she really cultivated in me an awareness and a passion for cooking, cheese, and entertaining. She got me hooked up with some different programs that took me to Wisconsin. I got to visit cheesemakers many times, and I still get to do that. I’m still hooked up with the right people.”

Mackenzie brought a gorgeous spread of cheeses and accompaniments into the KBXE studio for a Wednesday morning cheese tasting with Morning Show hosts Katie Carter and me, Maggie Montgomery. Her theme was Valentine’s Day.

“In planning what I wanted to bring in for you today, I wanted to get people inspired for pairing cheese with other things in a sort of Valentine’s theme—what goes well together; what is a little more romantic or special; how you can love yourself by treating yourself right. So I brought three cheeses that I love.

“I brought the Sartori Dolcina Gorgonzola, made in Wisconsin. With that I brought some pears and some honey and a Minnesota IPA to taste with it, from Indeed Brewing.

“Then I brought the Fini Aged Cheddar, made in Wisconsin, aged in Minnesota. It hangs out with blue cheeses as it ages, so it kinda has that pairing note to it already, in its essence. That also pairs really nicely with honey.

“I also brought the Crave Brothers Mascarpone, a Wisconsin farmstead cheese. It is an Italian style cheese commonly used to make tiramisu. So I did bring some ladyfingers to dip with that. I brought some chocolates—some chocolate truffles—to taste with that as well. I brought some blackberries for a little freshness with the cream, and some pecans.”

For tasting, Mackenzie said it’s easier on the palate to start with the mildest, creamiest cheese and work up in intensity. “You don’t want to blow out your taste buds right off the go…I’m going to start you off with a dollop—a healthy dollop—of Mascarpone. I’m going to put it on a ladyfinger and I’m going to drizzle a little honey on it…because it’s just too decadent and awesome!”

The flavor was rich, creamy, sweet, and mild.

“Mascarpone is a very versatile product. You can use it just like you would use heavy cream in recipes. It’s simple and basic, so it pairs nicely with fresh fruit—for simple, clean, bright, or creamy-rich applications. It’s just made with curdling milk cream with a little citric acid. It has a very high fat content. It goes in all the dessert directions you would want to go, so it’s kind of Valentine’s Day—very ‘desserty’. It’s perfect to add to your coffee too.”

Crave Brothers is a several-generation farmstead operation. The cows that the milk comes from live on the cheese-making facility. Besides Mascarpone, they also make fresh mozzarella, cheddar cheese curds, and rope string cheese. “They’re very focused on the products that they make, with really high quality and freshness. They also do a really good job using all the parts of the cow’s life. They even use the manure to make energy as part of their process. They’re a really cool operation. They’re cutting edge in Wisconsin.”

Mackenzie also brought Fini Aged Cheddar. “This cheese is made in Wisconsin at Maple Leaf Cheese. Then it is brought over to Faribault Minnesota where there are natural St Peter sandstone caves that, ages ago, people hollowed out and caved into, and turned into a cheese-making and cheese aging facility. The Caves of Faribault is the cheese-making company name, and they make Gorgonzola and blue cheeses. They’re known for really great blues. This cheese ages nearby to those blue cheeses. So it takes on a dankness and richness…you can kind of feel another flavor profile going in in there in addition to the ‘cheddariness’. This cheese makes THE best cheese sauce!”

We tasted this cheese with Bar Bell Bee Ranch wildflower honey. “All these cheeses go well with honey,” Mackenzie explained. “It’s really a common, classic pairing. It adds a lot of sparkle.”

Lastly, it was time to taste the “scary one”—Sartori Dolcina Gorgonzola. Both Katie and I expressed reluctance. The cheese was on a plate with sliced pears and pecans. “This is a very classic pairing,” said Mackenzie. “Gorgonzola and pears. You’ll see it in salad recipes. Walnuts or pecans are also common pairing suggestions with blues. And in my notes for Gorgonzola they said, for a beverage, IPA. [For pears], I brought Boscs. They’re really crisp. I brought that for the contrast to the rich creaminess of the blue.”

The Gorgonzola was delicious, and the crisp sweetness of the pears added a light, fresh touch.

Mackenzie clarified that Gorgonzola is indeed just a type of blue cheese. “Blue cheeses are different based on the bacterial cultures. Dolcina Gorgonzola as higher fat, which adds to the creaminess.” According to the Sartori website, it was “first born in the town of the same name near Milan in 879 a.d.”

The live tasting session is available below, and additional discussion includes food safety with cheese, warming cheese before eating, and Harmony Food Co-Op's cheese pairing class. All the cheeses are carried by Harmony Co-Op in Bemidji.

When asked “why pair cheese with other foods,” Mackenzie said, “I dunno. Why do we want to get together to talk about things? It’s just more interesting together. Taste it one way, taste it another way, kind of see where your palate goes! Food should be entertaining and interesting—I mean, we have to eat right? So why not do it in a fun way, an inspired way, a learn-something-new way?”

Spoken like a true Cheese Queen!

Maggie is a rural public radio guru; someone who can get you through both minor jams and near catastrophes and still come out ahead of the game. She pens our grants, reports to the Board of Directors and helps guide our station into the dawn of a new era. Maggie is a locavore to the max (as evidenced on Wednesday mornings), brings in months’ worth of kale each fall, has heat on in her office 12 months a year, and drinks coffee out of a plastic 1987 KAXE mug every day. Doting parents and grandparents, she and her husband Dennis live in the asphalt jungle of East Nary.