Never heard of hoop cheese? Probably because it’s rarely available anymore. It’s a traditional farmers cheese, made by draining the whey from a cottage cheese then placing the curd into a round mold (the hoop) and pressing it out. Some are aged slightly to increase firmness, but the vast majority of hoop cheese produced is semi-soft. At one time, hoop cheese was a staple of southern cooking, and more widely available than any other type of cheese. Now, you’ll be lucky to find a wedge or two in you local supermarket. For two distinct reasons;
1. It’s hard to standardize the manufacturing process, and it spoils quickly.
2. It’s not the most flavorful cheese in the world (especially by today’s standards.)
Both of there reasons, in the minds of cheese producers, make it a product that’s not worth their time and effort.
But, for me to be writing this article, there must be some kind of redeeming factor. Right?
Of course there is!
Actually, not only is there redemption for this cheese, there’s also an explanation as to why it was NEVER mass produced, even in it’s hey-day in the deep south. Ask any southerner that was alive before 1960 about hoop cheese, and they’ll probably tell you that they bought it at a market, cut fresh off the wheel. Nine times out of ten, it was actually cut and weighed on a machine that was made specifically for store’s use.
Not only did the store cut it off the wheel, they probably made the cheese in the back-of-the-house. At the very least, someone in the nearby community made it, and sold it to the store for immediate sale. Because the cheese is a fresh farmer’s cheese, and spoils much quicker than the aged cheeses that the store could outsource and keep on hand. It will only keep for about a week or two after it’s been made, and cutting off of the wheel increases the surface area which shortens the spoilage time. So it was in the best interest of the store to be able to get in in the door, and out the door, as quickly as possible with as few cuts as possible. I’ve included a picture of a hoop cheese cutter/scale machine below.
Now, on to taste.
The thing that makes hoop cheese stand out among all the other cheeses in your dairy case, it it’s ability to impart a distinct creaminess to cheese based dishes, while keeping it’s flavor profile limited. I like to use it in combination with a sharp cheddar to offset the bite, and keep my dishes from becoming blocky or sticky. Not to mention, because it has a neutral flavor, it’s WONDERFUL when paired with fruits. It makes the sweet taste of strawberries or melons sing out while giving a firm creamy texture to the palette.
One of my favorite dishes to cook with hoop cheese, is “Apple Cheese.” A casserole that normally pairs cheddar and apples, I add a bit of hoop cheese to give it a creamy texture:
9 apples (peeled and sliced thin)
1 cup of flour
1 cup of sugar
10 ounces of cheddar cheese. (grated)
3-5 ounces of hoop cheese (grated)
1 sleeve of Ritz crackers (crumbled)
1/2 cup of melted butter
Simmer apples in boiling water until tender. Drain and place a layer in a buttered casserole. Combine remaining ingredients and sprinkle over apples. Repeat layering until all ingredients are used. Bake at 350 degrees, 35-45 minutes.
So what’s your best bet for finding hoop cheese?
Occasionally you’ll find it in a local supermarket. But, your best bet will be to find a farmers market. You might be surprised to find that in addition to the vegetables and preserves that frequent the market, local artisan cheese makers often make an appearance too.
Finally, if you’re feeling like worming your way into nouveau southern cuisine in your own home and want an easy recipe, try substituting the mozzarella in an insalata caprese with hoop cheese. Throw in a few good acidic heirloom tomatoes while you’re at it (I prefer a purple heirloom with a nice smoky bite.)