Bloomy Cheese 201 aka Gateway Cheese™: Brie

If I brought a soft, creamy cheese with a white rind to your house this weekend, you’d almost certainly hug me and say delightedly, “You brought Brie!!” And you might be right. But, then, if it’s me you might well be wrong because there are dozens, even hundreds, of Brie-like cheeses out there that are not actually Brie. The technical name for this style is bloomy rind, and over 80% of what’s sold in the U.S. is purchased between Halloween and New Year’s Eve. Forget “fall.” We’re entering Bloomy Rind Season.

Naturally you may now be wondering what makes a cheese a bloomy rind? And, how is that different from Brie? All Bries are bloomy rind, but not all bloomy rinds are Brie. Bloomy rind is a cheesemaking style characterized by several key techniques and results. Bloomy rind cheeses are made very gently so the large, soft curds retain significant amounts of moisture. They are typically formed into relatively small cheeses-anywhere from four ounces to, at most, six pounds that are not intended for long periods of aging. Bloomy rind cheeses are sold at a few weeks to a few months of age. Most distinctively, white mold spores (penicillium candidum or penicillium camembertii) are introduced during cheesemaking. These mold spores are oxygen loving and bloom like microscopic flowers on the exterior of the cheese. Over the course of several weeks that mold forms a thin, soft, white skin (or rind) on the surface of the cheese. This is the reason why many people associate the aroma of Brie-ish cheeses with mushrooms—the fungal smells are built into that molded rind! The resulting cheese is soft and creamy, with an edible white rind and relatively mild flavors of butter, cream, salt and mushroom. Over time, the molded rind breaks down the fats and proteins in the cheese, creating runnier texture and giving off ammonia. Too much time, and the cheese’s interior turns to liquid, while the rind becomes mottled brown rind. Together, these deliver bitter flavor and intensely Windex-y aroma. That’s when the cheese is past its prime and doesn’t taste good. 

Brie happens to be the poster child for bloomy rind cheeses. Traditionally, Brie was made in northern France in six-ish pound discs—long on diameter and short on height—and served in pie shaped wedges. That’s still the case today, but Brie doesn’t have to be made in France, nor does it have to made in these large, flat wheels. In fact, most of the Brie sold in the United States is now made here in convenient, eight-ounce rounds sold in their own wooden box.  La Bonne Vie is an American-made brand that offers Brie in both wedges and rounds. A French alternative, and one that is beloved by every single person I’ve ever served it to, is Fromager d’Affinois. Translated, it’s the cheese from Affinois and there are a few special qualities only this cheese possesses. First, the milk undergoes a special filtration prior to cheesemaking which contributes to the most gloriously smooth, spreadable texture you can imagine. It’s like eating room temperature butter. Second, the rind on this cheese is masterful. Many people don’t care for the rind on Brie because it can be chewy, bitter, or ammoniated. Not Fromager d’Affinois. The rind is soft, thin and marvelously mild. It allows you to really focus on every bite of whipped, creamy indulgence. 

While firmer styles of cheese like Jack, Havarti and Cheddar are better known for flavored varieties the buttery neutrality of Brie is an ideal foil to various additions. You can do this yourself at home, by taking a round of Brie, cutting in in half so you separate the top and bottom rind, and layering pesto, herbs, coarse ground pepper, honey, fig jam or, (should you be so lucky as to have this option) freshly shaved truffle. For those of us who aren’t looking for extra work there are French Bries with flavors already added (like for Couronne) or mushrooms (check out Champignon). Another Brie-as-meal option to consider is Brie en Croute. Side the sidebar for more on this heavenly marriage of Brie, various sweet and savory additions and the magic of a warm oven.

What about Brie-like cheeses that go by other names? Again, they all share that edible, white molded rind and soft, creamy texture but each cheese brings its own personality to the table. Brie’s earthier-tasting cousin is Camembert. Originally, while Brie was made in big, flat discs, Camembert was made in small, half-pound rounds. That delivered a different texture, with Camembert traditionally being denser and springier than sticky, high moisture Brie. Being smaller, Camembert is more impacted by the edible rind. Both the aromatics (more mushroomy pungency) and the flavor (more broccoli taste) are more intense than Brie. Today, however, Camembert can be made domestically and when it is it tends to be milder than its French inspiration. Look for La Bonne Vie Camembert and mix up your holiday gatherings with a blind tasting of Brie versus Camembert!

Other favorites of mine (and every other cheese-eating person I’ve encountered) are the triple crème cheeses. Triple crème, or triple cream, is a cream-enriched Brie-type which, when made in France, must by law contain 72% butterfat. La Bonne Vie makes several triple cream Bries in both rounds and wedges, and then the French produce several brands, each sold under its own name. Saint Andre, Excellence and Delice de Bourgogne are a few to look for. With these cheeses you can expect an abundance of cream—in both flavor and texture. Fat tends to mute flavor and, in general, triple cremes are less about the mushroom aromatics of the rind and more about well-salted butter. They are luscious, they don’t run and that total mouth-coating richness is superb with sparkling wine. The effervescence of Champagne or Prosecco works like a knife, slicing through the fat, refreshing your palate and making it that much easier for you to eat more cheese. Similarly, pairings that introduce crunch are great—my go-to is a fruit and/or nut laced crisp that gives me textural contrast and little bites of sweetened fruit. 

While the triple crème is a French-invented adaptation of a bloomy rind, you can trust the Americans to introduce some really novel and delicious variations to this style. Nearly all bloomy rinds are made of cow milk, but this style of cheesemaking doesn’t require cow milk. One of the pioneering makers of artisan cheese in America, a woman named Mary Keehn out of California, invented her signature recipe Humboldt Fog in the 1990s. Her farm, Cypress Grove, continues to produce this goat milk bloomy rind today. The wheel looks more like a layer cake than like a cheese. The rind does break down the cheese’s outer layer, creating a gooey texture, but the interior stays flaky and fresh, with a clean, lemony flavor and tangy finish that marries beautifully with the fungal-tasting rind. Perhaps even better for special gatherings and celebrations is Humboldt Fog’s cousin, Truffle Tremor. Here, that moist, crumbly interior is heavily laced with grated black truffle. Talk about earthy. 

American artisan cheeses are often more expensive than their mass-produced and imported counterparts. That’s due to the extremely labor-intensive work of making and aging them. One of my top five favorite cheeses in the world falls into this camp, and there’s no better time to splurge on Jasper Hill Harbison than now. Each small wheel of cheese is painstakingly bound in the cambium (still growing, under the visible bark) layer of a spruce tree. These strips of wood are harvested on the farm’s property and imbue each wheel of cheese with the woodsy complexity of a freshly cut Christmas tree. The cheese can be served whole, the white rind carefully cut away and the pudding-like interior served with a spoon. 

It's always important to eat cheese at room temperature. Served cold, all the complexities and nuances of flavor are stifled and the texture is more likely to be firm, or, worse, gummy. But it’s especially essential when enjoying bloomy rind cheeses that you give them at least an hour out of refrigeration. This style of cheese is singularly known for its kinship to butter and, often, for its subtle flavors. If the cheese is cold you’re denying yourself the pleasure of sharing this lusciousness with the people you love.

Sidebar: Brie en Croute

Brie en croute (aka Baked Brie) moves the cheese course firmly into meal territory, taking a round of Brie, layering it with sweet or savory additions and swaddling the whole package in puff pastry. From there, it’s twenty minutes in the oven at 425 to a flaky, golden crust that contains molten Brie swirled with various accoutrements.

The trick to really exceptional brie en croute is balancing the buttery richness of the cheese plus the buttery richness of the pastry dough. You’ve got a lot of fat and protein as your base, and I rely on contrasting flavors for balance. Because, let’s be honest, who wants just a few bites of gooey, melted cheese? I want to enjoy the whole thing. For that, I turn to sugar, acid and spice for contrast and complexity.

Rouse’s makes three brie en croutes that cover the full spectrum of harmonized pairings. For those with a sweet tooth, I love the unexpected surprise of caramelized onion jam Brie en Croute. Instead of the one-note sugariness of honey, slow cooked onion breaks down into a savory but caramelized jam that nestles up perfectly with the white button mushroom flavor of Brie. It’s sweet but not cloying, and reminiscent of milder, more buttery French onion soup.

On the other end of the spectrum, Terrapin Farms bacon jam introduces smoke and spice, thanks to the addition of jalapenos. This version of Brie en Croute ensures every bite delivers salt, fat, acid, and heat, making an unexpectedly compulsive eating experience.

My favorite, however, is the sour cherry Brie en Croute. Again, I’m always leery of dumping a bunch of too-sweet stuff into melty, buttery Brie and flaky, buttery pastry. It’s too rich, too mouthcoating. Here, the addition of sour cherry jam delivers sweetness but also refreshing tartness. Like Champagne with your triple crème, the acidity refreshes the palate so you are primed to go back for more. 

Whichever version appeals to you, do include some crunchy sides for dipping. Crackers, super crusty bread, breadsticks and fruit/nut crisps are all go-tos. But I also think of this as a fondue and serve lots of fresh, crunchy fruits and veggies. Apples, pears, cherries and pomegranate seeds bathe happily in the sour cherry incarnation, while broccoli, cauliflower, and pickled veggies lean in especially well with onion or bacon jam. Happy dipping!