My best friend just gave me the best birthday present, like, ever. A can of cheese. She knows me well.
Cheese isn't actually easy to gift. Unless you're presenting it to a host or for a housewarming, you can't necessarily count on the gift givee consuming it in a timely manner or storing it properly. Wedges under the Christmas tree? Not so much. In short, it can be an awkward gift. But this cheese, in a can, is another story altogether. And to my delight, it's one of the better American-style cheddars I've ever had. (Not that I'd expect any less from my bestie.)
There are a lot of great things about this cheese — namely, of course, its taste — but what may come close second is its backstory. Washington State University students make Cougar Gold Cheese at the WSU creamery dedicated to cheese and ice cream. They makes a total of eight cheeses — all variations on the classic Cougar Gold cheddar — and 20 different ice creams.
The creamery is entirely self-funded, and all revenue goes directly to the running of the creamery, student salaries, and research. A portion of the profits goes to educational support of food studies students at the university, too.
As for the cheese, it's pretty spectacular. I've always been a huge cheddar lover — in all its various styles — but sometimes, especially with a strong beer, a straight-up, sharp American-style cheddar is pretty righteous. This one is searingly sharp, but with such milky sweetness and mellow finish, it's a dynamic combination of flavors, arguably brought on by the unique cultures they use to specifically support the cheese's ability to age in a tin can.
Each "wheel" ages for at least a year in the can before being sold. Mine was made in March 2008, according to the lid. And I even know who made it. A certain skilled Jeff, says the imprint. Thanks, Jeff. And lucky me, for getting some cheese that's even more aged than what's typically released. All the more developed and robust in flavor.
The texture of the cheese is great, too. Tons of those crunchy, crystalline bits of amino acid clusters, and an amazing structure that just breaks along natural fault lines into wonderfully snackable chards. It'd make a great melter for a grilled cheese or in some mac, but I almost feel that the cheese should be treated as an eating, rather than cooking, cheese. You've gotta love the tin can presentation, too.
Speaking of the can, check out some of the creamery's ideas of what to do with it when it's empty. And if you're interested in learning more about the making of the cheese, there's a pretty informative YouTube video on the subject. You'll learn a lot about the cheddaring process, too.
The cheese is available at stores in the Pullman, Washington area, and at the Washington State Connections store, in the Westlake Mall in downtown Seattle. But for most of us, the best way to get a hold of the cheese is by ordering it online from Washington State directly.
To be honest, I'd probably never think to order cheese online. Finding great cheese in New York just isn't that hard, and paying for shipping seems a silly thing, when typical transport of a cheese for me costs no more than a subway ride. And I'd probably never advocate for buying cheese online, either, unless it's truly difficult to find great cheese in your area.
But I think I just may do it. The prospect of never eating this cheese again is just too sad. It's seriously that good. At $18 for a 30 ounce can, it's not a bad deal, and if you love cheddar as much as I do, it might be just the right thing to have stored away, ready to make an impressive appearance at any given moment, especially since unopened, it lasts indefinitely.
And if you can bear to part with the can, it makes a great gift.
• Find it! Cougar Gold Cheese can be ordered online at the Washington State University Creamery website for $18 a can plus shipping.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an Assistant TV Chef and food stylist on The Martha Stewart Show.
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(Images: Nora Singley)