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Is it bread or is it cheese?

POSTED December 31, 2009 4:42 p.m.
We Scandinavians have several strange customs, including our hallmark fish dish, which is cod that’s been processed for days in caustic lye. This truly imaginative creation is known as “lutefisk,” which means lye-fish.  
Lutefisk is a jelly-like material with a pH so high it must be soaked in water for days before you stand a prayer of being able to choke it down. Even after the lutefisk has soaked a week, however, with daily changing of the water bath, never let silver touch the lutefisk, or the silver will be permanently ruined. And, as a final warning, if lutefisk remains on a pot or dish overnight, it’s all but impossible to ever remove.
Would you like a second helping?
Although taste and smell are the factors we think about first when it comes to cooking, the texture of food is also a key factor in how we experience the process of eating. From that point of view, the interesting thing about lutefisk is the transformation of fish-texture to jelly-texture.  
And that leads me to explain that we Scandinavians have contributed another, quite different, food to the world, one that has some potential to be quite useful for certain people with special dietary needs.  
Here’s the story.
Some people become profoundly ill if they eat wheat. Folks with celiac disease have an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine sparked by gluten in grains. If you have the disease but avoid gluten, you’re fine. If you eat gluten-bearing wheat, you become sick — sometimes very, very sick.
But if you’re fond of wheat products, you know how discouraging it would be to give up the chewiness of pasta or the light texture of bread.
Enter a food science technician, one Michael Costello by name, at Washington State University. Costello has the bright idea to borrow a traditional Scandinavian food — a good one let me quickly add — and retool it to help replace pasta and bread with a gluten-free substitute.
Finns long ago created a cheese called juustoleipa, meaning bread-cheese. Some say the best bread-cheese is made from reindeer milk, but these days cow milk is the standard ingredient. Juustoleipa is a fresh cheese, meaning that it isn’t aged.  
Unlike most cheeses, the milk used for juustoleipa isn’t fermented. The cheese-maker just curdles the milk and then bakes or grills it to give it a crispy crust. That unusual approach to cheese-making is possible because, unlike virtually all cheeses you have known, juustoleipa doesn’t melt when heated.  
Swedes like the cheese with coffee (true, we like everything with coffee, but this cheese in particular). The custom is to put a few pieces in the bottom of a cup, pour your coffee over them, and enjoy it as what we cleverly call “coffee cheese.”  The cubes stay firm and chewy and don’t melt, hence the idea behind the custom.  
Juustoleipa can become bread-like when it’s prepared in an oven — air gets worked into the cheese as tiny bubbles as it bakes. So, depending on how the cheese is prepared, it can be chewy and pasta-like or chewy but more bread-like. Because it’s really just a fresh cheese, it has a mild flavor that doesn’t detract from any prepared dish. And, of course, cheese doesn’t trigger gluten intolerance.  
Costello teaches cheese-making techniques and has whipped up juustoleipa from time to time for years. But lately he had the idea of using it in ways to help those with celiac disease. He has made several dishes to test out how the juustoleipa might substitute for wheat-products in prepared meals. His most successful concoction is probably his wheat-free lasagna. The juustoleipa, sliced thin, takes the place of pasta — it’s good, chewy, and the richness and oils of cheese is to be expected in lasagna. Actually, I like Costello’s juustoleipa “bread,” too. It’s a bit like eating bread that has been spread with nicely browned butter.  
Perhaps it’s obvious, but we’re not talking low-cal meals. A full slice of juustoleipa “bread” will stave off hunger for a good, long while.  
But it’s sure better than lutefisk.  
— Dr. E. Kirsten Peters is a native of the rural Northwest, but was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. Questions about science or energy for future Rock Docs can be sent to epeters@wsu.edu. This column is a service of the College of Sciences at Washington State University.

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