Any way you slice it, cheese is all you need to warm up a cold winter night. Cheddar, gruyere, emmentaler and others lend themselves to soups and sauces or star on their own — sliced and fried, or melted into fondue.
Going With The Flow: Melted Cheese
Kevin D. Weeks for NPR
Many moons ago (when I was younger, slimmer and married), my wife introduced me to her favorite snack: a dip made from melted Velveeta and Rotel tomatoes. I know, I know, Velveeta is a cheese purist's nightmare. I agree, but I was young and in love.
Even now, motivated by nostalgia, once a decade I'll buy a bag of Fritos, a can of Rotel tomatoes and a block of Velveeta. After three minutes in the microwave, and with an Amazing Rhythm Aces album on the turntable, I can recapture my 20s for a few minutes. Besides, abomination or not, it's still melted cheese.
Not all cheeses melt equally. Velveeta, being a "prepared cheese product," melts differently than other cheese. It softens, then runs, then skins over when removed from the heat. Even when melted, its texture tends to be rubbery. Real cheeses when heated fall into three categories: flowing, stringy and impervious (or nearly so) to melting.
Feta is an example of a cheese that is not a melter (depending on how the particular feta was made). When I was in college, I had a Lebanese friend who would fry a couple of slices of feta in butter, then stuff them in pita and drizzle them with honey for breakfast. Wonderful stuff. Years later, I discovered the Greek meze (appetizer) saganaki, which is made using a non-melting cheese fried in olive oil and served with a squeeze of lemon.
In these cases, the cheese melts a bit on the outside but largely remains unchanged physically, aside from getting hot.
Most fresh cheeses such as fresco blanco, ricotta and cottage cheese, don't melt so much as liquefy, because they lack the protein structures to keep them cohesive. Most hard, dry cheeses, such as parmigiano and anejo, don't melt either (or at least they don't flow) because they lack the necessary liquid.
Then there are stringy cheeses, like mozzarella, provolone, queso Oaxaca and some of the commercial "Swiss" cheeses. They have long protein chains because of the way they're made (which usually involves a step akin to kneading bread), so they melt wonderfully — who doesn't love a pizza slice that refuses to let go of its mother pie? — but they don't flow.
Finally, there are the flowing cheeses, such as cheddar, Cheshire and gruyere. They melt beautifully on their own and with just a bit of added liquid become a beautiful sauce.
Try this sometime: Make three batches of scrambled eggs, one using 1/4-inch cubes of cheddar, one using 1/4-inch cubes of feta and one using 1/4-inch cubes of Jarlsberg. The feta eggs will have chunks of cheese, the Jarlsberg will melt and the eggs will be gooey and stringy, and the cheddar will melt but leave the texture of the eggs largely unchanged.
When substituting one cheese for another in a recipe, it helps greatly to know what its melting characteristics are. With the exception of saganaki, the recipes below are all geared toward flowing cheeses. They're all outstanding on a cold winter night when the winds are howling, the rain is beating on your door, and the best thing to do is go with the flow.