FRESH OUT OF THE cheesemaking vats, cheese curds squeak when you bite them and have a milky, mild flavor. Coated in crumbs or batters and deep fried, they transform to crisp-shelled, melty morsels that are hard to resist.
But I couldn’t help but wonder: Why are most curds on the market so much the same?
“Most curds on the market are cheddar,” explains Master Cheesemaker Chris Renard of Renard’s Cheese and Rosewood Dairy in Door County. “Some makers add flavorings after the curds are made, and a few sell other varieties of curds, but I think cheddar is better-eating. The shape and texture work well for deep frying, and the cheddar taste is very popular.” Renard’s sells a million pounds of fresh cheddar cheese curds every year—a huge difference from when Chris was growing up in the ‘70s and Renard’s sold only 20 pounds a week.
Another reason Renard says cheesemakers usually only market cheddar curds is that others, such as those for Muenster cheese, are more granular, with smaller shapes that wouldn’t work as well battered and fried.
Curds can have subtle differences in taste, depending on everything from the quality of the milk, to what the cows were eating, to the microflora that exists in every cheesemaking facility. But bigger flavor differences come from the style and make of the cheese—especially if another animal’s milk is used.
This got me thinking about fried cheese curd origins. As much as Wisconsin might wish to claim provenance for the snack, that distinction goes to the ancient Romans. The oldest surviving work of Latin Prose, De Agri Cultura (On Farming), written by Cato the Elder in 160BC, included a recipe for globuli, little globs of cheese curds rolled in flour, fried in hot fat, drizzled with honey and a sprinkle of poppy seeds. And since the Romans preferred milk from goats and sheep over cows, it’s likely globuli were made using curds from those milks.
So it was that armed with a few pounds of goat’s milk curds from LaClare Family Creamery in Malone, WI, I set out to create this dish: goat’s milk curds with a tempura shell, finished with a drizzle of honey, finely snipped herbs, and lavender blossoms. I was skeptical about goat’s milk curds at first, thinking they’d be soft as chevre and too goat-y in flavor. But as it turns out, they have a surprisingly firm texture and mildly tangy flavor. And with fresh herbs, lavender, and honey they are delicious!
You’ll use seltzer water (Lemon LaCroix works great!) in the batter with cake flour—don’t worry that it’s thin, this makes for a lovely fine crust that fries up quickly. Be sure to use very fresh curds, and for meltiest interiors, eat as soon as they come out of the fryer basket.
For the Goats-Milk Curds:
• High-heat oil (rice-bran, peanut, or grapeseed) for deep fat fryer
• 2 pounds fresh goat’s milk curds (available from LaClare Family Creamery)
• 1 cup cornstarch (for coating curds before dipping in batter)
• 1 1/4 cups cake flour sifted with 1 tablespoon cornstarch
• Pinch of salt
• 1 1/2 cups Lemon LaCroix sparkling water (or plain seltzer water)
• 1/2 cup honey
• 1 teaspoon each finely snipped fresh rosemary and thyme leaves
• 1/2 teaspoon fresh lavender blossoms (or substitute finely chopped dried culinary lavender, available from Fragrant Isle Lavender Farm)
Follow manufacturer instructions to fill deep-fat fryer with oil. Preheat to 360 degrees.
Place 1 cup cornstarch in wide shallow bowl. Set aside. In a second bowl, whisk 1 tablespoon cornstarch with 1 . cups cake flour and a pinch of salt. Whisk in sparkling water. Individually roll cheese curds in cornstarch, shaking off excess starch. Dip coated curds in batter (the batter will be thin) and add to fryer basket. Fry four or five curds at a time, being careful not to crowd the basket. Fry about two to three minutes per batch, until bubbling has subsided a bit and fried curds are golden. Remove fried curds to paper toweling to blot oil. Place in serving dish. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with snipped herb leaves and lavender blossoms. Serve immediately.