Sunday, June 21, 2009

My Birthday Cheese Making Experiment

Only a spouse who truly loves and understands me would get me a cheese making kit for my birthday. I am a lucky man indeed. She first read about Ricki Carroll's home chessemaking operation in Barbara Kingslover's locovore manifesto Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life and was convinced I would love making my own cheese.

Carroll runs a cheese making supply company and sells books and other materials to home cheesemakers. Her starter kit for making mozzarella and ricotta comes with a book and DVD as well as various supplies and ingredients, including vegetarian rennet tablets, citric acid, finely cut cheese salt, cheesecloth and a thermometer. Once you have the kit, all you need is a big pot, a slotted spoon or ladle and milk.

As you know if you are a regular reader, I eat lots of cheese, but though I've occasionally heard about home cheesemakers, I'd never contemplated making my own. I've seen artisan cheesemakers in action before and it doesn't look easy. However, Carroll starts you on the easiest cheeses and has done an amazing job of finding recipes that can be replicated in a home kitchen with everyday ingredients.

My first project was the Thirty Minute Mozzarella, a cheese that could allegedly be made in a half hour. The process is amazingly simple. You heat up the milk which curdles upon the addition of citric acid. Then you add rennet and heat it a bit more. The rennet creates the solid curds which separate from the whey. Once they have separated, you ladle the curds into a bowl, salt them and microwave it a few times, stretching the cheese a bit in between heatings. A gallon of milk produces a softball sized mozzarella ball.

I figured that, while it looked easy on TV, the actual process would be a bit harder. Once you get the hang of it, it is remarkably easy, but it took me three tries to make something edible.

The first try was with Trader Joe's Organic Whole Milk. It didn't work, turning into a runny, mess. My hypothesis is that TJ's treats its milk to very high temperatures during pasteurization. The book warned that ultra-pasteurized cheese would not work for cheesemaking, and while TJ's isn't labeled ultra-pasteurized, the result was the same that was warned of for the ultra-pasteurized cheese. So, we took a quick trip to Ralph's for some Altadena and Ralph's brand milk, both of which worked.

The second batch came together as cheese, but had the consistency of rubber. Two hypotheses here. Either I cooked it to too high a temperature or I played with it too much when it was about ready (it was hard to resist stretching and braiding it like taffy; it's fun stuff).

Batch three was a success. I added a bit more salt than recommended for flavor, cut down the heat and resisted the temptation to treat it like silly putty. It was moist and delicious.

The cheese that results doesn't taste much like the fresh mozzarella you get it stores, but was very tasty. It has more of a milky taste than a cheesy one. We ate it plain and on a bruschetta.

The cheese was also not as tasty when cool. Freshly made and warm, it was wonderful and hard to stop eating, but it became a bit hard when cold. I ended up warming it prior to serving.

Next up I'll be making ricotta and will report back. The book actually includes recipes for all manner of cheeses, hard, soft, washed rind, cheddars and more, but many of those appear pretty labor intensive and require presses and other special equipment. For now, I'll stick to the easy ones. What a great, cheesy birthday present!

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