Top 10 Favorite Cheesy Dishes

By: M.J. Plaster

Macaroni and cheese, a classic cheesy dish, is a favorite among both kids and adults. See more pictures of comfort foods.
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Gooey, creamy, lip-smacking cheese -- what more could you ask for in a comfort food? Chocolate, you say. Actually, chocolate and cheese make an ideal marriage -- think chocolate cheesecake. And in New Zealand, they make a chocolate cheese that has taken Asia by storm [source: Chan]. Yes, chocolate cheese. That's probably not a flavor the first cheese makers considered.

Primitive cheese making dates back as far as 8000 B.C. [source: Brown]. European monks have made cheese since the Middle Ages, and some monasteries continue the tradition today. But it was not until the mid-19th century that cheese making became a full-fledged industry [source: The Dairy Research & Information Center].

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Today, there are more than 400 varieties of cheese [source: The Dairy Research & Information Center]. You can choose from an array of hard smoked, semi-firm, semi-soft and soft cheeses. In the dairy case, you'll find cheddar, Camembert and chèvre, Edam and Emmental, Gouda and Gruyere, Havarti, Manchego, mozzarella and mascarpone, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino and provolone, a variety of blue cheeses and many others.

In 2007, Americans ate 32.7 pounds of cheese per capita. Greece weighed in at number one, consuming 82.2 pounds, with France running a distant second at 51.9 pounds [source: Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board].

Besides being tasty, cheese can also be nutritious -- it contains calcium and protein as well as fat-soluble vitamins and minerals. And there's good news for those of you who are lactose intolerant: Cheese contains minimal lactose, so even if you can't tolerate milk, you probably can indulge in cheese [source: U.S. Dairy Export Council].

Come along as we travel through time, exploring the mystique, the myths and the lore of the top 10 favorite cheesy dishes.

10. Cheese Grits

Have you ever wondered why people sometimes snicker if you order grits, but the conversation takes a decidedly epicurean turn if you order polenta? Grits are perceived as Southern country-folk fare, while polenta implies an international flair, but they're almost identical dishes. Dress them up with a little cheese, and few would know the difference, including most Southerners. The essential difference is white versus yellow corn.

Grits are made from stone-ground white corn, a process that helps to retain the flavor, fiber and nutrients of the corn. Non-instant grits take about 20-25 minutes to cook [source: Shrum]. Add milk or cream and stir in Monterrey Jack cheese and fresh minced jalapeño for a Tex-Mex side dish. Add cheese and leftovers to cooked grits and bake to make a casserole. Get a little fancier in your technique to create a soufflé with down-home Southern flare.

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Cook ground yellow corn and Parmesan cheese, and you have polenta, a wonderfully creamy side dish or a palatable palette upon which to place grilled shrimp, fish, chicken or vegetables. You can even buy it ready to cook.

And just in case you're worried, trust us -- you're not going to sprout a Southern accent the next time you help yourself to the creamy warmth of grits smothered in butter and cheese, so go ahead and dig in to a bowl of genuine stone-ground grits.

9. Cheese Fondue

Fondue is the quintessential cheese party food.
Fondue is the quintessential cheese party food.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Right up there with paisley shirts and slow cookers, fondue burst onto the scene in the 1970s. And, just like paisley and slow cookers, it's back. The original fondue chain restaurants are long gone, but new ones have opened in their place. The menus remain pretty much the same; only the prices have changed.

Disastrous attempts at home fondue parties are a thing of the past. Version 1.0 fondue parties featured sad attempts at homemade fondue. It required a Herculean effort just to score the Swiss cheeses -- Emmental and Gruyere, and when you did, there was the problem of getting the glop in the pot to transform into anything resembling fondue.

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Today, perfect cheese fondue is as close as your pantry or refrigerator. Unlike most packaged products, boxed fondue is the genuine article -- imported from Switzerland, premixed with Emmental, Gruyere and wine -- all typically for less than $10. Warm it on the stovetop for a few minutes and transfer to a fondue pot to create restaurant-quality cheese fondue. To dress it up, rub fresh garlic around the pot before adding the mix and stir in a pinch of nutmeg while heating. Slice a crusty loaf of bread, some apples or pears and a few vegetables, and you've got a dinner party for four in just a few minutes from box to table, with only one pot to clean, leaving plenty of free time for an evening of Twister.

8. Cheese Snacks and Appetizers

Remember when a cheese snack meant stale square cheese and crackers in a cellophane package? Or maybe your college days had you aiming an aerosol can of "cheese spread" straight into your mouth sans crunchy conveyance? Oh and there were those little tubs of pimento cheese swimming in mayonnaise.

We've come a long way, baby! Today's menu of cheese snacks starts with an endless array of cheese dips. Cream cheese dips boast bits of garden vegetables or fruits from the sea such as crab, lobster or shrimp. Happy-hour revelers consume Mexican queso dip by the gallon. Hot and cold blue cheese dips accented with horseradish, smoked almonds or bacon (and sometimes all three ingredients) adorn holiday tables.

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Fried mozzarella dipped in marinara or barbecue sauce and baked brie top the lineup of hot cheese snacks. If you don't want to fuss with wrapping pastry around a wheel of brie, just spoon a seasonal topping such as brandied cranberry compote over the warmed brie for an elegant presentation.

Classic Southern or Italian cheese straws fresh from the oven are irresistible. Make several batches and freeze a batch or two for later use. Slice some chunks of Parmesan and drizzle with balsamic vinegar for an appealing instant snack. Combine extra-sharp cheddar cheese with a little hot mango chutney, form small balls and dip in chopped pistachio nuts. These instant delicacies will disappear before you can plate them.

The next time your junk-food autopilot kicks in, consider a contemporary cheese snack accompanied by some fruit instead.

7. Lasagna

What's the best thing about lasagna? Definitely the cheese -- and the more, the better!
What's the best thing about lasagna? Definitely the cheese -- and the more, the better!
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What's the best thing about lasagna? It's the number of different cheeses that you can use when making this year-round dinner classic. Lasagna relies heavily on ricotta cheese, a cheese that many Italian dishes use in place of cottage cheese. It's lighter and fluffier than cream cheese, with a slightly sweeter flavor, and many find it infinitely more appealing than cottage cheese curds. Classic lasagna alternates layers of ground beef in tomato sauce with ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese, and often, you'll find the addition of Asiago, fontina, provolone and other cheeses. Perhaps the most tantalizing aspect of this Italian casserole is the thick, golden, bubbly top layer of cheese that greets you as you pull it from the oven.

Vegetarian alternatives have become popular, and they make a healthy, light, one-dish summer meal. Seafood lovers can enjoy lobster or crab lasagna. In fact, lasagna has essentially evolved into a big-noodle casserole with fillings of your choice. Even the classic tomato sauce is no longer obligatory. You might try a pesto sauce with vegetables or an Alfredo-style sauce with chicken. The only required ingredients are lasagna noodles and cheese, cheese and more cheese. Beyond those two ingredients, it's a wide-open playing field where you're free to create your own signature dish.

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If you've never attempted lasagna, pasta manufacturers have put lasagna making within the realm of most home cooks. Look for the no-cook lasagna noodles to cut your preparation time by half.

6. Potatoes au gratin

Many kids find au gratin potatoes -- the packaged ones with the powdered cheddar cheese -- sinfully delicious. Siblings have been known to fight over the crunchy, browned topping, leaving the underlying remnants for their parents.

As good as those prepackaged potatoes are, why not try grown-up au gratin potatoes, or Gratin Dauphinois, made from scratch with fresh ingredients. You may find the term scalloped potatoes used interchangeably in the states, but classic scalloped potatoes in France never include cheese, only cream [source: Ordiorne].

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For au gratin potatoes, you can use Gruyere, Emmental, plain old Swiss, cheddar or smoked cheddar cheese -- really, any cheese that melts easily will do.

If you're adventurous enough to make au gratin potatoes, you'll want to abide by a few tips and tricks. Start with a recipe from a known quantity -- a chef or well established cook book. This is not the time to go amateur. The best au gratin potatoes start with Yukon-gold or other medium-starch potatoes to ensure that they absorb and hold the right amount of moisture [source: Brown]. This encourages a luxuriously thick and velvety cheese sauce. Follow the recipe to the letter the first time you make it. The final key to success is patience; don't cut corners on cooking time.

Every good cook tastes along the way, so once your au gratins are ready, be sure to taste a couple of large spoonfuls of the golden crust -- you know, before the kids have at it.

5. Cheesecake

What could be better than a dessert featuring cheese?
What could be better than a dessert featuring cheese?
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Cheesecake is one of those things that many New Yorkers take for granted and visitors can't get enough of, but is it really cake? No, not really -- it contains no flour and nothing to make it rise. Cakes, by definition, contain flour and one or more leavening agents. In many ways, cheesecake is more like a pie, but most cooks would agree that technically it's baked custard [source: Brown]. Common variations include New York and Italian cheesecakes. New York style cheesecakes are made with cream cheese, and Italian style cheesecakes are made with ricotta and/or mascarpone cheese. Crusts vary as well, ranging from the traditional graham cracker crust to crushed cookies or chopped nuts. Essential ingredients include the cheese (such as cream cheese, mascarpone or ricotta) eggs, cream, vanilla and sugar.

Varying styles aren't the only options -- there are many flavors, too, such as chocolate raspberry, key lime, pumpkin and even banana cream. Or, you can top a plain cheesecake with fresh or cooked berries or some kind of glaze or sauce -- caramel, for example, is a popular choice.

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4. Cheese Pizza

Strolling into an eatery in Italy, you might look right at a slice of pizza and wonder exactly what it is. Is it, or isn't it pizza? What you've likely spied is a pizza Margherita -- fresh tomato and mozzarella slices sprinkled with whole basil leaves piled onto a focaccia crust -- coincidentally (or not) the colors of the flag of Italy.

The origin of the Margherita pizza centers on Queen Margherita of Naples. While all agree that this particular style of cheese pizza hails from Naples, various legends surround its actual creation. Some say it was created in honor of the queen, while others say the queen requested a dish to be created for the people [source: Perry]. Either way, pizza has wound its way from Italy to dinner tables and couches all across America. And we're eating a lot of it. In fact, each person in the U.S. reportedly packs away, on average, 23 pounds of pizza every year [source: Domino's Pizza].

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While pepperoni is the most popular topping in America, according to the National Association of Pizza Operators, extra cheese is another very popular topper. And we're not just talking mozzarella and Parmesan -- six-cheese Italian blends are commonplace in the dairy case (and on our pizzas) these days.

3. Grilled Cheese Sandwich

The crispy, toasted outside and the melted, cheesy goodness inside -- now that's sandwich perfection.
The crispy, toasted outside and the melted, cheesy goodness inside -- now that's sandwich perfection.
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How many grilled cheese sandwiches does the average kid eat before reaching adulthood? Regardless of the number, American kids have grown up on the grilled cheese sandwich. Typically, it's a simple recipe: two slices of store-bought bread -- the kind pumped full of air -- and a slice or two of processed American cheese, grilled dry or with a little butter. Sounds appetizing, doesn't it? Well, if you've passed, let's say your 16th birthday, it may no longer hold that "I-could-eat-this-every-day-of-the-week" allure. Lucky for many of us, there's a grown-up version, too.

The store-bought bread gets replaced by artisan bread, and the processed cheese makes way for a variety of real cheeses. And the linguistic transition from "grilled cheese" to the Italian panini has enabled a worldly price when ordering this tasty sandwich in a restaurant.

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Paninis are easy to make at home, taking only a few minutes to prepare. Don't let the lack of a panini maker stop you from making your own. The only hardware required is a frying pan or electric grill and a plate. Ingredients include the bread and cheese of your choice, along with optional meat and spread selections. The secret to making a great panini is generous portions of cheese; you need the tasty, melted, cheese to glue the sandwich together. Lightly butter both outside sides of the bread, and press down on the sandwich with a plate. When browned, turn the sandwich over and repeat until golden on the second side and cheese begins to ooze out of the sandwich. Serve with a side of childhood memories.

2. Macaroni and Cheese

Macaroni or "pasta secca" is dried elbow-shaped pasta. While its origins are unclear, many believe that Marco Polo brought it to Italy. Scholars have disproved this legend, however [source: Wright]. Other versions of macaroni lore credit the Arabs, Etruscans, Greeks or Romans with its invention. No matter who invented it, there's no denying it's been a resounding success - particularly here in the U.S.

How it got here isn't certain, but one story suggests that macaroni and cheese was introduced to the American public by Thomas Jefferson when he brought it back from Italy to Virginia [source: Wright]. Our love for this cheesy comfort food achieved a whole new level after Kraft Foods introduced the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese Dinner in 1937, a boxed macaroni and cheese that appealed to busy housewives in the U.S. [source: Sennebogen]. Once food rationing was instituted during World War II, macaroni and cheese became a food staple and a quick substitute for a meat and potatoes dinner.

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While mac and cheese can stand on its own and has withstood the test of time as a classic American dish, freshening up your favorite mac and cheese recipe is a cinch. You could add some panko breadcrumbs to the top or stir in a little cooked lobster, crab or shrimp. Or try experimenting with different cheeses, and other pasta shapes. For example, penne or farfalle combined with Brie, Gorgonzola, Gruyere and fontina might have a more adult feel.

1. Cheeseburger

Take a lightly toasted bun, add a grilled burger patty, a slice or two of cheese and an American classic is born -- the cheeseburger.
Take a lightly toasted bun, add a grilled burger patty, a slice or two of cheese and an American classic is born -- the cheeseburger.
iStockphoto/Thinkstock

Charlie Nagreen (Hamburger Charlie) of Seymour, Wis., claims to be the first to sell a meat patty on a bun in 1885 [source: Barto]. The Wisconsin Assembly has proclaimed Seymour the "Home of the Hamburger" [source: Stradley]. Others claim that their ancestors were the first to make, sell, eat or mentally visualize a hamburger, and several state legislatures have proclaimed it so. From the time and place of its conception, the hamburger was destined to become the quintessential American sandwich on a bun, emulated around the world.

It wasn't until the roaring '20s that someone tossed a piece of cheese on top of a hamburger [source: Stradley]. By the 1930s, processed cheese accounted for around 40 percent of cheese sales, and much of it ended up on  cheeseburgers [source: Gray]. Fast food cheeseburgers still consist of processed cheese and meat patties on a bun, a mere caricature of a juicy charcoal-grilled cheeseburger.

The 1970s fern bar revolutionized the burger. American cheese was for fast-food joints. Instead, you ordered a custom burger with your choice of cheese -- sharp or smoked cheddar, Swiss, Gouda, provolone or crumbles of blue cheese. Pizza burgers were topped with marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese. And today, the upscale cheeseburger continues to thrive -- you can find turkey burgers topped with Brie, lamb burgers sprinkled with feta and tzatziki and Kobe beef patties nestled under Gruyere.

Need more cheesetastic favorites to satisfy your cravings, check out the links on the following page.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Anson Mills. "What You Need to Know about Grips: History and Cooking Tips." (May 18, 2010) http://www.ansonmills.com/corn1.pdf
  • Barto, Diana. "Happy 100th, Hamburger." Beef Magazine. November 1, 2004. (May 20, 2010) http://beefmagazine.com/mag/beef_happy_th_hamburger/
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  • Chan, Karen. "Taiwanese gobble our chocolate cheese." nzherald.co.nz. July 28, 2005. (May 19, 2010) http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=10337965
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  • Ordiorne, Don. Vice President of Food Service, Idaho Potato Commission. Personal correspondence. (May 20, 2010).
  • Perry, Charles. "A Stone-Age Snack." Los Angeles Times. June 20, 1991. (May 20, 2010) http://articles.latimes.com/1991-06-20/food/fo-1104_1_italian-pizza
  • Shrum, Margi. "Grits: You have to try the organic, stone-ground kind." Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. February 11, 2010. (May 18, 2010) http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/10042/1034918-34.stm
  • Sennebogen, Emilie. "Mastering the Art of Mac and Cheese." The Learning Channel. (May 20, 2010) https://recipes.howstuffworks.com/fresh-ideas/easy-dinner-ideas/mac-n-cheese.htm/printable
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