Jessica Sennett and Steve Earthman love to watch people’s reactions when tasting Cheese Caramels for the first time. They describe five stages in the process: 1) curiosity, when people see the caramel; 2) disbelief when they put it in their mouth; 3) shock from the sensory overload; 4) awe from the satiating flavor combination; and 5) euphoria because, as Jessica says, “tyrosine plus sugar equals heaven.” One memorable customer’s reaction: “You have just blown my world.” Another just kept repeating, “I can’t believe you went there, but you went there, you went there…”
Jessica likes introducing people to new things, and she’s no stranger to experimentation. For over a year she’s been designing and testing cheese storage units for her company Cheese Grotto. The boxes, slated to hit the market next year, will help consumers store cheese in ideal conditions at home. The caramels are a side project for the full-time student and cheesemaking instructor, but they reflect her entrepreneurial spirit. “It was such a simple notion,” she says, “and I wondered, how come nobody’s done this before?”
It was Steve Earthman who encouraged Jessica to start making and selling the caramels regularly, joining forces with her to make it happen. The duo now uses the kitchen of Brooklyn-based 61 Local, a bar and restaurant that also serves as a kind of community incubator, sharing its own kitchen space with employees who pursue entrepreneurial food-related ventures. This video provides a behind-the-scenes look at caramel-making in the kitchen of 61 Local during Thursday night off-hours, while the bar is bustling upstairs.
The experiment began last summer, when Jessica began using Mimolette in the caramel-making process because of its reputation as “cheese candy.” But better melting properties and more savory characteristics led her to settle on Gruyère—specifically Gruyère Reserve, aged at least one year. Younger versions of Gruyère get overpowered by the caramelized sugar, while more mature versions develop those brothy characteristics that can stand up to the caramel’s sweetness.
Jessica and Steve follow standard caramel-making steps (heat sugar slowly until it browns, then add butter and cream), but they fold the cheese into the cream and butter before adding that to the hot sugar. A cloud of steam erupts when the cheese mixture hits the sugar, carrying buttery, savory, burnt-bottom-of-the-fondue-pot aromas that hint at the epic tasting experience to follow.
After letting it sit and cool, the mixture is poured into a loaf-shaped mold. It can be cut into squares for sale, shaped into small balls, or melted on any number of foods. The taste is surprisingly full and complex, a brilliant balance between everything that’s great about caramel and everything that’s great about cheese. “It kind of just explains what cheese is a little bit, without even saying it,” says Jessica. “It brings out properties in cheese that people aren’t even necessarily aware of.”
The caramels are a special release product that will be available before the winter holidays and Valentine’s Day. Pickup for the winter holiday release will be this coming Sunday, December 20 between 11 am and 1 pm at 61 Local in Brooklyn.