One small nibble and I was intrigued. With the next small nibble, I was hooked.

Sarah Spring, cheese maker and owner of Spring Day Creamery in Durham, had just unpacked her wares at her first winter market in Lewiston. I left quite happily — a new customer with marinated cheese curds and a small tub of garlic/herb fromage blanc in tow.

Spring is a retired school teacher who began making batches of cheese in 2005 for her own use — to share with family and friends. In 2008, she became licensed and inspected by the Maine Department of Agriculture and in the years since has built up a loyal following of customers at several farmers markets.

Her appreciation of fresh cheese started during the 15 years she lived and worked in France. She lived in a small village in the Brie region, she said. “You never saw a table that didn’t have at least seven cheeses on it!”

Along with learning many culinary techniques, she said she became “really hard-wired” to cheese. As soon as she began her cheese-making endeavors, she realized she had found her calling. Upgrading from what was possibly the smallest workspace ever — barely the size of a large closet — her garage was converted last year into a much larger, full-fledged and efficient commercial creamery.

Spring currently makes both “fresh” and “aged” cheeses. Fresh cheeses, she explained, take approximately 48 hours to prepare. They include:

— Feta

— Curds, either plain or marinated, which are an early stage of fresh cheddar cheese prior to being pressed or aged. Curds are easy to eat as a snack, sprinkle on a salad or pizza, or toss into omelets and quesadillas. To watch Spring prepare fresh cheese curds, go to www.sunjournal.com.

— Fromage blanc, a spreadable cheese (either plain or flavored), which is similar to cream cheese and is interchangeable with goat cheese.

— Fromage frais, which is a bit firmer than fromage blanc and is molded into a round shape. Spring will often roll it in an herb coating, or will marinate it in olive oil. She said it is great crumbled into a salad.

Fresh cheeses, she said, are uncooked and are not meant to last a long time in your fridge. She advises they be eaten within one week. With so many ways to use them, including spreading on bread or crackers, this shouldn’t be too difficult to accomplish. She shared three of her favorite ways to use fresh cheese in cooking: a French version of macaroni and cheese, a fromage blanc cake and pasta with fresh cheese and basil.

And to immediately give a gourmet slant to your meals using fresh cheese, here are a few super-easy ideas: Place a dollop on top of smoked, baked or poached salmon; drop a few spoonfuls into a salad and toss to coat (can be used in place of salad dressing); put on top of pizza; bake in your favorite quiche recipe; spread on just about any sandwich; and use instead of ricotta cheese in your next lasagna.

When it comes to ripened or aged cheeses, Spring has done much research — and a lot of trial and error — to come up with her cheese formulas, with much success. She has entered two of her mainstays into the American Cheese Society’s national competition. Last year, she won second place for her Spring Day Blues, an aged cheese.

This year’s huge surprise was a first-place win in the Original Recipe — Cow’s Milk category with her mild-flavored (but with a slightly “stinky” aroma) semi-firm cheese called La Vie en Rose. Earning her both a blue ribbon and a certificate, she refers to La Vie en Rose as a cross between Brie and Muenster.

Amazingly, she considers cheese making easy — “if all the conditions are right! But there are so many variables that can affect the quality,” she pointed out, referring to subtle variances in weather, temperature, moisture in the air and different qualities in milk. “Every aged cheese I make is different,” Spring said.

A quick sampling of Spring’s cheeses includes, among others:

— Evangeline, a mild cheese with a slight “mushroomy” taste. Wrapped in a truncated pyramid shape, with a thin sterile vegetable ash layer on the outside. Referring to is as a “bloomy rind,” she tries to ease peoples’ fear of eating the rind by pointing out it is completely edible and is “part of the experience of the cheese. It’s part of the taste!”

— Brie, Le Petitou and Mini Moi, all mild in flavor, can be eaten at all stages of ripeness. They are fabulous wrapped in pastry or phyllo dough, and baked until soft and creamy.

— Truman Day Tomme, aged with a natural rind, similar to mild cheddar.

She proudly points out the distinctive differences between local, small-batch cheeses and grocery-store versions: The cheese is made roughly 20 miles from where you live, is made using fresh milk from local farms, hasn’t sat on a shelf for any notable length of time and didn’t require shipping or transporting to get to Maine.

Spring Day Creamery cheeses will be available at to two markets this winter: in Lewiston (sponsored by Lots to Gardens and held at St. Mary’s Nutrition Center) beginning Thursday Nov. 15 from 5 to 7:30 p.m. and the Saturday market at Fort Andros in Brunswick, from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.

When her production output can keep ahead of her market customers, she is periodically able to supply local specialty stores or restaurants, such as Forage in Lewiston or Treats in Wiscasset.

Sarah Spring’s pasta with fresh cheese and basil

(Adapted from “A Mediterranean Harvest” by Paola Scaravelli)

Serves 4

2 large tomatoes, chopped

1/4 cup chopped fresh basil

4 ounces fresh cheese (fromage blanc or chevre) in small pieces

2 garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 tablespoons cream or plain yogurt

1 pound pasta (if available, fresh is best)

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (or pecorino romano)

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Combine the tomatoes, basil, fresh cheese, garlic, olive oil and cream in a serving dish.

Cook the pasta al dente in 4 quarts of salted water. Drain and add to the serving dish while hot. Add parmesan and pepper, and mix.

Spring Day Creamery’s mac and cheese — A French version

(Adapted from cuisineAZ.com)

Serves 4

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

8 ounces of garlic/herb seasoned fresh cheese (fromage blanc or chevre)

1/4 pound bacon, cooked, drained and broken into small pieces

8 ounces cream or half-and-half

1 egg

Butter

Ground pepper

1 pound of penne or macaroni, cooked 2 minutes less than indicated on package, and well-drained

Mix the cheese, cream and egg in a bowl. Add the bacon pieces and ground pepper.

Put precooked pasta in a buttered baking dish. Dot with butter and pour the cheese mixture over all. Bake for 20 minutes.

Fromage blanc cake with berry coulis

(Adapted from the “Moosewood Cookbook” by Molly Katzen)

4 eggs, separated

2 pounds (4 cups) plain fromage blanc

1/2 cup sugar

1/3 cup flour

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

Dash of salt

1/2 teaspoon orange and/or lemon rind

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Butter a 10-inch spring-form pan and dust with flour.

Beat egg whites until stiff.

In separate bowl, beat together the fromage blanc, egg yolks, sugar and flour.

Stir in the extracts, salt and citrus rind(s). Fold in the beaten egg whites.

Pour into a prepared spring-form pan. Bake 50 minutes. Turn off the oven, open the oven door and wait another 15 minutes before removing cake. Best served chilled. Top with the following blueberry coulis or other fruit topping of your choice.

Blueberry coulis

2 cups of blueberries, fresh or frozen

4 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Put ingredients through the food processor. Strain to remove skin and seeds.

Simmer in a sauce pan until the sauce thickens a bit. Adjust sugar and lemon juice if desired. Refrigerate until cold and pour over the cooled cake.

When: Sunday, Oct. 7

Sponsor: The Maine Cheese Guild

Where: Here is a partial list of several participating creameries in the upcoming Maine Open Creamery Day. For specific details or the complete list, go to: www.mainecheeseguild.org.

Balfour Farm

461 Webb Road, Pittsfield

213-3159

www.balfourfarmdairy.com

Pineland Farms Creamery

92 Creamery Lane, New Gloucester

688-6400 or 688-6411

www.PinelandFarms.org

Silvery Moon Creamery

At Smiling Hill Farm

781 County Road (Route 22), Westbrook

699-3170

www.silverymooncheese.com

Sunflower Farm Creamery

12 Harmon Way, Cumberland

829-8347

www.sunflowerfarm.info

Turner Center Creamery & Nezinscot Farm

284 Turner Center Road, Turner

225-3231

www.nezinscotfarm.com

Winter Hill Farm

35 Hill Farm Road, Freeport

869-5122

www.winterhillfarm.com

What, pray tell, is ‘coulis’?

Coulis (pronounced as coo-lee) is French for a “strained sauce.” The sauce can be either sweet or savory, usually made from either pureed fruits or vegetables. They must be thick and evenly textured. If made with fruits, they may be cooked or uncooked; with vegetables, they are typically cooked by way of roasting or simmering to soften them up before pureeing them into a sauce. Coulis usually accompanies a main dish or dessert — as a glaze, a topping or underneath as a base. A coulis can be used as a beautiful garnish, especially for gourmet meals.


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