Wisconsin Cheese Makers Adopt Juustoleipa As Their Own

Photo by Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, Inc.

Imagine having the fate of your marriage depend on the quality of your mother’s cheese-making skills. That’s how it used to be in Scandinavia, where, legend has it, mothers of unmarried daughters once offered suitors a cup of coffee with homemade juustoleipa, and if the man complimented the cheese, he got the option to marry the daughter.

Today, the unique cheese, once made from reindeer’s milk, is a signature cow’s milk cheese of Wisconsin. Crafted at about a half dozen cheese factories in the state, juustoleipa (pronounced YOO-stoh-LAY-pah) is a party mainstay, warmed on a griddle and served warm as an appetizer.

Often labeled as “Bread Cheese” or “juusto,” the cheese is sold as a flat rectangle or square, and sports a splotchy brown crust. After pressing curds into blocks, the cheese forms its unique crust when heat from baking caramelizes the sugars on the outside of the cheese. Made to eat warm, it does not melt and imparts a squeaky note with a mild, buttery flavor. In its home country of Finland, Laplanders often eat it for breakfast, dunking it in their coffee or enjoying it with maple syrup or honey.

So how does a cheese invented 4,000 miles away become a popular part of Wisconsin’s specialty cheese-making scene? It all stems back to 2002, when a now-retired scientist at the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research in Madison began a journey to recreate an original Finnish cheese. The result was the preservation of a tradition and a new opportunity for Wisconsin cheesemakers.

Photo by Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

Jim Path, retired specialty cheese co-ordinator, first came across juustoleipa at a few scattered farmstead dairies in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and learned it was slowly disappearing as descendants of original settlers in those isolated Finnish communities dwindled. In his job at the Center for Dairy Research, Jim, who could trace his ancestry back to Lapland in northern Finland, was charged with helping small Wisconsin cheese companies innovate new specialty cheeses. Juustoleipa seemed like a potential ideal cheese for small cheese-making companies and farmstead start-ups as it required no aging, was relatively simple to make, and was virtually unknown to American consumers.

It was Jim’s research of this “new” cheese that led him to Michigan, where he found an elderly couple producing juustoleipa in tiny quantities. They connected him to a farmstead in Finland just 150 miles from the Arctic Circle, and he traveled there to study the original manufacturing technique. He returned to Wisconsin and, in September of 2002, hosted a seminar at the Center for Dairy Research, which was attended by a record number of 28 Wisconsin cheesemakers and 10 Wisconsin master cheesemakers. The workshop included a hands-on demonstration of making juustoleipa.

As a result, at least six different Wisconsin cheese companies are today crafting juustoleipa under a variety of names, including the Babcock Hall Dairy Plant on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus, which makes both traditional and jalapeno flavors and sells its juustoleipa in large, plastic-sealed rectangles with its well-known Bucky Badger label.

Carr Valley Cheese also crafts what it calls “Bread Cheese” at the company’s Fennimore cheese factory and offers juustoleipa-style cheese in original, garlic, chipotle, and jalapeno flavors. Then there’s Pasture Pride Cheese in Cashton, with its version of juusto in traditional, Italian, jalapeno, and chipotle flavors, as well as a version peppered with Nueske’s bacon. The factory also makes Guusto (a goat’s milk version) and “oven baked cheeses” that are juusto filled with five-year-aged cheddar, parmesan, and aged goat cheese.

In northern Wisconsin, Master Cheesemaker Scott Erickson makes juustoleipa at his Bass Lake Cheese Factory in Somerset. In fact, Scott is the only master cheesemaker in America certified in juustoleipa production (he is also certified as a master cheesemaker in cheddar, colby, monterey jack, and muenster).

Photo by Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board

One of the area’s best-known and much-loved cheese factories is Brunkow Cheese in tiny Fayette, near Darlington in southwest Wisconsin. The factory is famous for its Bruun-uusto Baked Cheese, which it fries up every Saturday at the Dane County Farmers’ Market in Madison, wafting the scent of baked cheese across the Square. Brunkow’s flavors include plain, pizza, jalapeno, bacon, and garlic. The company also makes a limited availability version with hatch pepper.

Two new Wisconsin cheese factories to take on juustoleipa are Noble View Creamery in Union Grove, where owner Jay Noble crafts the cheese in traditional, jalapeno, habanero, and bacon flavors, as well as Specialty Cheese Company in Reeseville, which offers its “Just the Cheese brand Frying Cheese”—a trademarked title—in original, jalapeno, pineapple and mango, and garlic. Owner Paul Scharfman compares his fruit-flavored juusto to “french toast without the toast” and his garlic juusto as “cheesy garlic bread without the bread.”

While juustoleipa may not equate into a marriage proposal in the United States, the cheese continues to grow in popularity. It seems that no matter by which name or trademarked title it goes by, juustoleipa is in America’s Dairyland to stay.

Jeanne Carpenter is a cheese geek and food writer living in Oregon, Wisconsin.

The following recipes are courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Bitter Greens Salad with Roasted “Bread Cheese”
Servings: 6

6 thin-sliced fruit and nut baguette, drizzled with olive oil and salt
2 c. dried black mission figs, quartered
3 c. red wine
1 oz. (about 2 T.) shallots, chopped
1/4 c. fig vincotto vinegar or balsamic vinegar
1 c. canola-olive blend oil
12 oz. Wisconsin juustoleipa cheese
2 ripe Anjou pears, seeded and julienne
8 oz. baby arugula or mixed salad greens

Preheat oven to 325°F. Make the fruit and nut croutons by slicing the fruit and nut bread; drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake until toasted (about 10 minutes). Set aside.

Combine the black mission figs and red wine in a small sauce pot and simmer until the figs are soft (about 15 minutes). Turn the heat off and reserve the figs in the wine. Chill.

Combine the shallots and vinegar in a bowl. Slowly whisk in the olive oil until emulsified. Season to taste.

Preheat oven or broiler to 375°F. Cut the bread cheese into 3 equal pieces. Place the cheese on a cookie sheet and bake until soft (about 5 minutes). If using a microwave, cook for 30 seconds until soft.

Final Preparation:
Drain the figs, reserving the wine. Combine the pears, figs, and arugula. Toss with dressing, season to taste. Divide among 6 salad plates. Place crouton on each salad. Top each with 1/2 slice of the warm cheese. Season with pepper and drizzle some reserved red wine over salad. Serve immediately.

Balsamic Bread Cheese Kabobs
Servings: 3-4

1/2 c. balsamic vinegar
4 slices french bread, cubed
1 c. cherry tomatoes
6 oz. Wisconsin juustoleipa (bread cheese), cubed
Basil leaves and/or chiffonade (shredded), for garnish

Reduce balsamic vinegar (add vinegar to small saucepan over medium heat). Bring to boil and simmer until thick and reduced (about 4–5 minutes). Preheat grill to medium-high heat.

Thread bread, cherry tomatoes, and juustoleipa alternately onto skewers, beginning and ending with bread. Place skewers on preheated grill and cook until cheese has softened and warmed through (about 3–4 minutes) turning at least once.

Serve immediately. Drizzle with balsamic reduction and garnish with basil if desired.