Leek, celery root, and gjetost gratin with aioli and caraway crackers
Leek, celery root, and gjetost gratin with aioli and caraway crackers Credit: Julia Thiel

The Chef: Jason Hammel (Lula Cafe)

The Challenger: Duncan Biddulph (Rootstock)

The Ingredient: Gjetost

Gjetost tends to inspire strong reactions. Google it, and you’ll find blog posts waxing poetic about the sweet whey cheese (also known as brunost). The first commenter on one particularly effusive post, though, takes another view: “The only positive use for Gjetost is as a starter for your compost heap. Beware.”

Invented about 150 years ago in Norway, gjetost is made from whey, milk, and cream boiled together until the milk sugars caramelize. “It’s really creamy and super sweet, kind of like if dulce de leche was a cheese,” Jason Hammel said. Both cow’s and goat’s milk are used, and he thinks the goat’s milk contributes to the cheese’s characteristic taste, adding “this barnyard quality to the sweetness. It tastes like dulce de leche with some farm funk tossed in.”

Lula Cafe chef Jason HammelCredit: Julia Thiel

Hammel thought about making his own gjetost, but he was using cow’s milk and didn’t think the whey tasted sweet enough. He’d gotten a commercially made version from his friends Patty Rasmussen and Larry Anderson, who own the Scandinavian restaurant Tre Kronor and serve the cheese there, and said, “the product that we got was just so much better than what we were working on.”

Because the cheese is so sweet, Hammel said, “it needs to be tempered with some kind of bitterness. It needs other textures to it, because by itself it’s a little cloying, the sweetness of it.” He decided to make a leek and celery-root gratin, cooking the vegetables slowly in a pan with butter and white wine.

“We were thinking the dish needed some spiky, bitter, dark quality to go along with the creamy richness that’s going on, so we decided to add currants,” Hammel said. He also used rue, an herb whose taste he described as “marjoram meets thyme.” Once everything was cooked down, he added cubes of gjetost and let them melt in with the other ingredients. “It’s almost like a simple biological form in here,” he noted as the sticky melted gjetost began to bind everything together into a mass. “Kind of amoeba-like.”

Hammel made an aioli to go with the gratin, and broiled both in a salamander with bread crumbs on top: “the whole top is going to get caramelly and bubbly and rich, and a little brown at the edges.” He served the dish with some caraway crackers he’d made, garnishing it with preserved lemon and dill.

The gjetost made the dish fairly sweet, Hammel said, “but it melds in really nicely. . . . I think it’s really well balanced in here. Doesn’t it suggest something that I’m about to have a second bite? I think Larry and Patty would be proud of me right now.”

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Who’s Next:

John Anderes of Telegraph Wine Bar, working with ash. “It has multiple meanings, and that’s why I like it,” Hammel said. “It’s not one thing. Wood ash, but it could also be the ash of something cooked on a fire that has a vegetable component to it.”