This Finnish Cheese Is Hard to Pronounce and Easy to Love
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Cheeses of the World calls juustoleipä (YOO-sto-lay-bah) “one of the most unusual cheeses on the planet.” And if there is anything I love, it is an unusual cheese. Juustoleipä is a Finnish word that translates to “cheese bread,” which further increases its appeal as the holy union of two of my favorite food groups.
The bread signifier has more to do with texture than flavor. To make juustoleipä, curdled milk is baked or grilled until it has a toasty brown skin. Juustoleipä is an example of a “squeaky cheese,” which has everything to do with the way it rubs against your teeth and not whether you can play a block of it like a DJ scratches a record (trust me, I tried). Because the milk is never fermented, the pH stays low, so when juustoleipä is heated the inside becomes gooey without falling apart or melting.
In fact, juustoleipä-lovers say warming it up is the only way to eat it. Patty Koenig is the General Manager at Carr Valley Cheese, a family-owned Wisconsin cheese plant that has been around for over a century. Koenig offers juustoleipä samples to visitors of the cheese factory—but only if she’s nearby to toast them. “You have to serve it warm, it releases so much more flavor,” Koenig says. She recommends pairing it with jam, syrup, or marinara sauce. It can also be cut into cubes to top a sweet or savory salad.
Laplanders traditionally make juustoleipä with reindeer milk, but Carr Valley Cheese makes it with cow and goat’s milk in flavors like jalapeño and garlic. Koenig is a fan of the original. “I like the plain because you can do so many things with it,” she says. Some Fins even like it with their coffee—either dunked, or as cubes in the bottom of the cup. Regardless of how you consume it, it’s pretty much the ultimate breakfast hack.
Anna Vuoria, Advisor for Cultural Affairs and Creative Industries at the Consulate General of Finland in New York, has fond memories of the way juustoleipä was prepared in her Northern Finland childhood. “There, the traditional way to cook Leipäjuusto [another word for juustoleipä] is to bake it in the oven, with a bit of cream, and when it’s warm and a bit crunchy on the top, you serve it with berry jam,” Vuoria says. “The perfect match is cloudberry jam.” (IKEA, hello.)
Julia Schneider and her partner Jason Byrnes put a gastropub twist on the juustoleipä she sells from her food truck, Muttley Royale, in Jersey City. They cut the cheese into sticks that can be dipped into homemade cilantro aioli or marionberry jam. For Schneider, juustoleipä was a relatively recent discovery. “I just happened upon the bread cheese two years ago. It caught my eye because you could grill it, but it’s milder than halloumi. It’s very versatile.” She made a little sign for her truck explaining that juustoleipä is like “mozzarella sticks without the breading.” The explanation definitely helps.
Juustoleipä seems to evoke curiosity followed by fierce loyalty. “No matter who tries it they always buy it,” Koenig says. I can now count myself as one of these fans, having bought a package of Carr’s Bread Cheese at the grocery store. One day, I ate it cubed with blackberries. The next I stress-ate it from a tupperware next to my bed—both of which I can highly recommend.
Carr Valley Cheese has called their product Bread Cheese for over a decade. Its visibility in American grocery stores caused Bread Cheese to become a de facto term for juustoleipä, like Coke or Xerox. Koenig says they’ll soon be rolling out a version for optimum snack-ability: individually wrapped sticks called Bread Cheese Singles.
To paraphrase John Keats: “Soft cheeses are sweet, but squeaky cheeses are easier to dunk, therefore, ye squeaky cheese, squeak on.”