I know when most of you think of holiday foods you think of candy, cookies, spiced nuts, eggnog, fruit cake, and other sweets. I do too, but I also think about all the wonderful cheese creations that can be made and enjoyed.

Foods that I repeatedly see on many holiday tables are cheese balls, spreads, specialty cheeses and finger foods. I am sure there are enough different kinds of cheeses that you could eat a different one each day of the year. To me the holiday season is a good time to spend more on your favorite cheese and try new varieties.

I’ve heard many people question why cheese costs so much when cow’s milk is inexpensive. There are many parts to this answer, but a large part is the labor and quantity of time involved. All cheeses start out with pasteurized milk. The milk is coagulated by adding bacteria that cause it to curdle or separate into solid curds and liquid whey.

The vast difference in taste and texture depends on three factors: the source of the milk, the treatment after coagulation and the aging process. Most of the world’s cheeses are made from cow, goat or sheep’s milk. One cheese that does not rely on any of those three factors is Italian buffalo milk mozzarella.

The flavor of cow’s milk is affected by what the cows eat, the season and the region. Milk from cows that have grazed on pastureland in the summer tastes different from winter milk from grain fed cows. The microorganisms in the soil and food in a given region also contribute to the flavor of the cheese. This partly explains why cheese made by the same method in different regions may not taste the same.

The cheese most commonly used in holiday cheese balls and spreads is cream cheese. Cream cheese is classified by its texture as a soft cheese. Soft cheeses are uncooked and unripened (or barley ripened). They are often not molded, but simply spooned into tubs. Soft cheeses are usually very mild and creamy. Since cream cheese is so mild, it will take the flavor of all the ingredients you add to it.

Most of the cream cheese you buy is wrapped in a foil-type product that prevents it from drying out. You will find at least three types of cream cheese in the market: regular, one that has 30 percent of the fat reduced and a non-fat variety. I find there is a difference in the creaminess and texture between the three varieties. As the fat is reduced or removed, the cream cheese becomes rubbery or stiff. When selecting cream cheese, think about what you are making. Sometimes you can use one of each to save some calories.

Try this tasty “Cattleman’s Spread” cheeseball recipe at your next holiday gathering.


1 c. Chopped Pecans

2 T. Butter or Margarine

2 (8 oz.) pkg. Cream Cheese, Softened

1 c. (8 oz.) Sour Cream

1/2 tsp. Garlic Powder (Optional)

2 (2-1/2 oz.) pkg. Dried Beef, Chopped

4 tsp. Dried Onion

Crackers and Breadsticks

In a skillet, sauté pecans in butter until golden; set aside. In a mixing bowl, beat cream cheese until smooth. Add sour cream and garlic powder; mix well. Stir in beef and onion; spread into a greased 8-inch square baking dish and top with pecans. Bake uncovered at 350 degrees for 20 minutes, or until heated through. Serve with crackers or breadsticks.

Mary Ann Lienhart Cross is Health and Human Sciences educator with Purdue Extension Elkhart County. She can be reached at 574-533-0554 or lienhart@purdue.edu.

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