Lilith Spencer spent her college years studying food, mircobiology and eventually focused her senior theis on cheese -- her all time favorite thing to eat.
She's tended the counter at Cheesemongers of Santa Fe for two years, taking her love of cheese into her professional pursuit.
We asked Lillith if there are rules to making a cheeseboard (she doesn't like rules) and the advice she gives novice cheese buyers. Check out Lillith's take on a traditional dessert cheeseboard here.
This post is part of our Holiday Cheers to Cheesemongers series, for more monger spotlights, click here. For more holiday recipe and pairings inspiration, thumb through our recipe collection here.
Name: Lilith Spencer
Hometown: Santa Fe, New Mexico
Cheese shop: Cheesemongers of Santa Fe
How long have you been a cheese monger?
What brought you to the cheese counter?
Cheese has always been my favorite thing to eat. When I started studying food in college, I wound up getting into microbiology, which eventually led me to focus on cheese for my thesis. I found work at the cheese counter of my local co-op during that time; it was a way for me to learn about cheese from a different angle.
Let’s talk about cheese.
What’s the most common question you get asked behind the counter?
"Do you have any local cheeses?" Followed by, "what's your favorite cheese?"
What should a novice cheese buyer look for in a cheese?
Aside from making sure that the cheeses are well-kept (no inappropriate molds growing; cleanly wrapped; kept at an appropriate temperature), I always recommend looking for new cheeses that have something in common with a cheese you already love. For example, if you love Manchego, see if you can find any other aged sheep's milk cheeses that look interesting. I find that folks tend to get hung up on where a cheese is from ("I like Manchego, Manchego is from Spain, I must like Spanish cheeses") rather than how it's made, but the style a cheese is made in will be far more indicative of what it will taste like, and whether or not you will like it. There are lots of visual cues (rind color and texture, the presence of holes in the paste, the amount of veining in a blue cheese) that often (but not always) indicate a particular flavor profile or texture, so I recommend learning what some of those signs are and using them to navigate even the biggest, fanciest cheese case.
What do you say to a customer who declares that they, “Don’t like goat cheese,” or are put off by an appearance or aroma of a cheese?
I ask them what kinds of goat cheeses they've had that didn't work for them; usually I can find a goat cheese in a different style that they do like. For example, if they don't like super-tangy fresh chèvre, they might like a soft-ripened goat cheese that's mellowed out and gotten a bit earthier and sweeter, or an aged goat Gouda that tastes nice and caramelly. Folks seem to be getting accustomed to the fact that some cheeses look a little wild, but that all sorts of molds are, depending on the context, totally fine, and that some cheeses are strong-smelling or funky-looking but not necessarily pungent in flavor.
What advice do you have for novice cheese buyers who are building their first cheeseboard? Are there rules?
I don't like rules, but I do like to think about balance. Pick cheeses that are different from one another in flavor and texture, and go for pairings that are versatile. Unless you're specifically serving a dessert board, I think it's important to employ both sweet and savory pairings. Think about textures in your pairings, too: chewy dried fruits, crunchy nuts and crackers, smooth spreads, meaty olives, crisp fresh fruits and vegetables...play with the contrast between the textures of your cheeses and your chosen accompaniments.
What's one thing about cheese, cheesemaking or the cheese world that would surprise or excite an average cheese buyer?
I find that a lot of my customers are excited to learn that the rinds on most cheeses are, in fact, edible! A whole new world of flavors opens up once the rind comes into play. Talking about rinds usually leads to a bigger discussion about the roles played by molds, yeasts, and bacteria in cheesemaking, and I think that the most surprising thing to a lot of my customers is just how complex the microclimate of a cheese really is.
Describe your board and the inspiration behind it. Explain why your particular pairings work well.
I've always enjoyed helping customers put together dessert cheese plates. It's such a lovely idea, ending a meal with cheese. I always urge folks to keep it simple—Stilton with a bit of Port, Parmigiano with Prosecco, seasonal fresh fruit with something creamy and decadent...but for this, I wanted to go full-on indulgent, and really let the worlds of cheese and dessert collide.
The Coupole trifle is something that to me, embraces the cakey-creamy nature of the cheese. I was thinking of a Victoria Sandwich, the English treat made of sponge cake layered with lemon curd, whipped cream, and jam. Coupole is rich and dense, and the sweetness and brightness of the lemon curd and raspberry jam cut through that beautifully, but the cheese is also quite tangy, which helps bridge the gap between the fruity flavors and the milky ones. The cookie crumbles add a bit of crunchy texture and a toasty flavor, contributing to the overall cake-like experience.
Bijou has always reminded me of a perfect little marshmallow, and so the s'mores idea wasn't a huge stretch for me. Brushing the Bijou with honey before broiling really gives it a golden-roasted color, plus you get a nice dose of that honey flavor we associate with graham crackers. I went with a nice dark, toasted bread instead of traditional graham crackers because I wanted this to be something you could have not just for dessert, but even as a special breakfast. Chocolate is always an excellent pairing with soft-ripened goat cheeses, the way that the bittersweet, nutty, and earthy flavors of the chocolate combine with the smooth, doughy, milky notes in the cheese—it's almost like having chocolate cake with cream cheese frosting!
"A Date with St. Albans" was inspired by a pie I made once, which had bourbon-soaked dates set into a creamy custard. It was one of the tastiest treats I'd made, and St. Albans is so very custardy itself that I thought the same treatment of the dates would work well here, too. The bourbon carries with it some of the brown-sugar notes from the dates as it seeps into the cheese while it's heating up. I think that this particular flavor combination, of brown sugar from the dates and butter from the cheese, is what ties the whole thing together. The boozy bourbon flavor helps cut through the richness nicely, and keeps it all from being too cloying.
The "Croque Bonne Bouche" is a play on the French "Croquembouche," a tower of cream puffs drizzled with hardened threads of caramelized sugar. There's something I love about the caramel+cheese combo: two different kinds of preserved milk, one using culture, time, and salt, and one using heat and sugar. I like to taste the common milkiness between the two. Because the cheese is salty, you get the delightful effect of salted caramel, as well. Coating the rolled-up balls of Bonne Bouche in crushed pecans added the crunchy texture and toasted, nutty flavor otherwise missing from this creation, and also made it a lot easier to actually build the tower.