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Talking Cheese with Dana Cree

By Erika Kubick in Food on Jan 22, 2015 5:30PM

A sourdough crumpet topped with horseradish infused butter, Prairie Breeze white cheddar, radishes, compressed apples, and grated horseradish. Photo Credit Erika Kubick.

Who could ever tire of a simple cheese board at a restaurant? Whether to begin or finish a meal (or preferably both), the typical arrangement is comforting and familiar: a portion of cheese with a few accoutrements and some type of carb. At Blackbird (619 W. Randolph St.), executive pastry chef and cheese visionary Dana Cree honors her cheese plates with a little more attention and finesse. “We basically try to conceptualize a composed cheese course as a dessert, except instead of topping it with ice cream we put a cheese on it,” states Cree. ”everything about it is meant to elevate the cheese.” Her composed cheese plates are beautiful and nonconformist, built to esteem the hero of the plate, an ounce of cheese. Each plate is just as striking as any of Cree’s desserts, composed with a cast of accompaniments in varying colors and textures.

Blackbird features two cheese plates on their dessert menu at any one time, rotating through about ten different American artisanal cheeses each year. The process begins with collaboration between Cree and Lisa Futterman—the director of wholesale at Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread, and Wine—who are constantly talking cheese. The selection process develops in one of two ways. Sometimes, Futterman presents Cree with a selection of cheeses that she is most excited about, from which Cree chooses her favorite. Other times, Cree approaches Futterman with an accoutrement profile or concept already in mind. Most recently, Cree asked for a cheese that, while not necessarily a chevre, would play well with the delicate flavors of beet, rose and guava. Futterman presented her with a variety of bloomy rind cheeses and Cree immediately fell for Manchester, a double-cream cow’s milk dream from Zingerman’s Creamery in Michigan.

The cheese plates on Cree’s dessert menu tend to feature opposite flavor profiles. “We tend to keep one a little more dessert-y, and one a little more savory,” states Dana. At the moment, the savory cheese dish features a sourdough crumpet with pearls of horseradish-infused butter, quince paste, compressed apple, radishes, and grated horseradish. Crowning the crumpet lie chunks of Prairie Breeze white cheddar from Milton Creamery in Iowa. ”It could very easily be a crumpet dish,” says Cree, “but the whole point is that the crumpet is there to act as a pedestal to the cheese.” And it’s successful: neither horseradish nor crumpet overshadows the sweet, nutty crunch of the Prairie Breeze.

Opposite the savory cheddar dish is a sweet fanciful cheesecake topped with St. Malachi, an Alpine-style cheese with a crumbly cheddar-like texture from Doe Run Dairy in Pennsylvania. “When I tasted St. Malachi for the first time, I tasted soy sauce. That was the first flavor that hit me. So we started looking at fermented soy that’s sort of like the cheese of Asia,” says Cree. The plate features a red miso cheesecake adorned with slabs of St. Malachi, a fermented black bean ganache, anise-poached cherries, and anise streusel. On its own, each element carries notes of umami funk, but together they taste like cherry cheesecake.

Red miso cheese cake with St. Malachi, fermented black bean ganache, quince paste, anise poached cherries, and anise streusel. Photo Credit Erika Kubick.

Cree draws inspiration for her cheese plates from just about anything. The idea for her cheddar and crumpet plate blossomed out of a conversation with friends about their affinity for horseradish cheddar. The cheese ball, an appetizer that frequents the best of holiday parties, inspired a plate currently in the works, starring world-renowned Bayley Hazen Blue cheese from the Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont. The new plate will feature a cracker akin to Wheat Thins, almond florentine with a savor similar to Chex-Mix, candied onion rings, and a jam of port wine and onion.

While a simple, familiar cheese board is at home at a place like Avec, Cree intends to keep the more complex composed cheese courses at Blackbird. The elegant plating and intricate flavor profiles of the dishes suit the world-renowned dining room. “As a pastry chef it’s your job to not just be a craftsman of different techniques,” says Cree, “but,in a restaurant setting, to be responsible for culminating an experience.”

If you want to delve deeper into Dana Cree’s mind, check out her fantastic food blog, Thepastrydepartment,com.