Sunday, December 02, 2007

Blessed are the Cheesemakers!

Last year about this time, I was baking loaf after loaf of the infamous no-knead bread, though I was one of the last food bloggers to jump on that crusty bandwagon. And then I caught the Dorie Greenspan fever long after every other baker in the known universe was ankle-deep in World Peace Cookies. This year, I find myself again the fervent convert to a new religion (well, not really...I've been a believer all along), and once again, I find myself running behind the pack. Oh well, better late than never, non?

I could go on and on about Barbara Kingsolver's amazing memoir, Animal Vegetable Miracle: A Year of Food Life, but I'll try to keep it as brief as I can (which is hard for me, as you well know). Kingsolver, mainly known for her fine fiction, chronicles her family's decision to move from the arrid Southwest to a family homestead in Kentucky where they vow to live as "locavores" for a year. That is, they will eat locally, consuming only the food they grow or make themselves, or food that has been sourced within the radius of an hour or two. They do this for many reasons, such as maintaining their health, improving the taste and nutritional value of the food, preserving rare heritage varieties, ensuring humane treatment of animals, saving money, reconnecting with each other and with the land, etc., but mostly to reduce their carbon footprint by living on food that has not used a ton of fossil fuels to be transported to them from California or countries south of the border.

In short (too late), it's a MUST-READ. It is fascinating, informative, engaging, and compelling, and all delivered in Kingsolver's charming style that manages to be both eloquent and down-home approachable at the same time. It is, in fact, the book that I wanted to write, that I should have written, but she beat me to it--and of course, did it way better than I ever could, damn her! This book is my bible (fundamentalists, please note the purposeful small "b" used), and I was raising holy hands and shouting "Amen!" all through it. Not only is the book very issues-driven and highly contemporary, it is also about organic gardening, and poultry-keeping, and cooking, baking and canning, specifically advocating the importance of slow food and seasonal eating--basically, everything that I hold dear, and indeed, what this blog is all about.

Barbara's daughter, Camille, is a co-author of the book, and she offers weekly seasonal meal planning and sample menus, along with wonderful-sounding recipes (these are also found on their website). I haven't had the chance to try more than one of the recipes, but there are several others that I have in my mental hopper and in the queue for preparation in the near future or, more to the point, when those things come into season. I thought I'd start with something I can make year-round, thanks to my lucky proximity to a dairy farm (right behind me), where I can get fresh milk whenever I want it--as long as I keep the farmer in homemade baked goods, which is an excellent and equitable arrangement as I see it. ;-) Yes, may the Kingsolvers help me, I made CHEESE!

It should be said that I went through a brief but fanatical cheesemaking phase a couple of years ago, and I got very good at simple, soft cheeses like Neufchatel, farmer's cheese, mascarpone and cottage cheese. But as I didn't have a cheese press (nor the funds to purchase such a pricey item nor the handyman skills to make one), I wasn't able to advance to the hard cheeses. I also wanted try my hand at making mozzarella, but every demonstration that I'd seen on t.v. with all the pulling and shaping of the cheese by hand, seemed beyond my skill set, so I never had the courage to attempt it. But the Kingsolvers have Pizza Night every Friday night, and they make theirs with Barbara's husband Steve's homemade pizza dough, seasonally-available toppings, and of course, homemade mozzarella that they swear can easily be made in 30 minutes right at home. So I said to myself, if the Kingsolvers can make mozzarella, so can I! And I'm here to tell you, so can you! My first shot at it took me 45 minutes, but it turned out perfectly, and perfectly delicious! It was tender and buttery, and as a bonus, I made ricotta from the leftover whey after making the mozzarella, and dear heavens, it was the must luscious spread we've ever had on crackers! I can only imagine what it would do for a white pizza or lasagna, especially in concert with the homemade mozzarella. YUM!!

I will share the recipe and techniques so that you can try it yourself. I'm sorry that I don't have pictures of the whole process, but I accidentally left my camera in the car, and it got so cold that the batteries went dead. By the time it warmed up enough to use, the cheese was done (more evidence of its speed and simplicity!). But the Kingsolvers use Ricki Carroll, the so-called Cheese Queen's recipe, and she has great pics of the process on her website if you need to reference them. Ok, here you go, and don't blame me if you never buy mozzarella from the store again--blame the Kingsolvers!

30-Minute Mozzarella
(Source: Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and/or Ricki Carroll's Home Cheesemaking)

1 1/2 teaspoons citric acid (I got mine in bulk from the health food co-op in town) diluted in 1/2 cup cool, unchlorinated water
1 gallon whole milk, NOT "ultra-pasteurized" (my neighbor only brought me about 2/3 of a gallon from the barn, so I used 2% to make up the difference, and it turned out fine)
1/4 teaspoon liquid rennet* diluted in 1/4 cup cool, unchlorinated water
1 teaspoon salt (non-iodized, kosher flake salt--I used canning salt myself)

1. Pour the milk into a large, heavy-bottomed stainless steel pot and turn the burner on medium-low. While stirring, add the citric acid solution to the milk at 55 degrees and mix thoroughly.
2. Heat milk to 88 degrees, when the milk should start to curdle.
3. Gently stir in the diluted rennet with an up-and-down motion, while heating the milk to between 100 and 105 degrees. Turn off the heat. The curds should be pulling away from the sides of the pot; they are ready to scoop out (approximately 3 to 5 minutes). The curds will look like thick yogurt and have a bit of shine to them, and the whey will be clear. If the whey is still milky white, wait a few more minutes.
4. Scoop the curds with a slotted spoon and put into a 2-quart microwavable bowl. Press the curds gently with your hands, pouring off as much whey as possible.
5. Microwave the curds on HIGH for 1 minute. Drain off all the excess whey. Gently fold the cheese over and over (as in kneading bread) with your hand or a spoon. This distributes the heat evenly throughout the cheese, which will not stretch until it is almost too hot to touch (145-degree inside the curd). You may use rubber gloves to do this if you're a wimp, but I think it might impart a slight off-taste to the cheese...just my humble opinion.
6. Microwave two more times for 35 seconds each; add salt to taste after the second time (optional). After each heating, knead again to distribute the heat.
7. Knead the cheese until it is smooth and elastic. When the cheese stretches like taffy, it is done. If the curds break instead of stretch, they are too cool and need to be reheated another time or two.
8. When the cheese is smooth and shiny, roll it into small balls (I made two myself) and eat while warm. Or place them in a bowl of ice water for 1/2 hour to bring the inside temperature down rapidly; this will produce a consistent smooth texture throughout the cheese. Although best eaten fresh, if you must wait, cover and store in the refrigerator.

Yield: 3/4 to 1 pound.

Troubleshooting: If the curds turn into the consistency of ricotta cheese and will not come together, change the brand of milk; it may have been heat-treated at the factory to too high a temperature (=ultra-pasteurized).

*There are several different kinds of rennet. The most common kind derives from an enzyme in the stomach of a calf. Naturally, this might vex the vegetarians and animal-lovers, so there are also vegetarian rennets available made from plant sources or from fungi (microbial rennet). I have used the animal-based rennet in the past, but this time, I acquired vegetarian (microbial) rennet from the co-op for about $6. It worked equally as well. Some cheesemakers even use rennet (Junket) tablets easily found in in the grocery stores, but some consider it less powerful and harder to portion for use (1 tablet=1 teaspoon liquid rennet). However, even refrigerated, liquid rennet loses its potency quickly and must be replaced every six months or so, while Junket tablets last pretty much indefinitely on the shelf. So, it's your call. They all work.

After making the mozzarella, you can make ricotta cheese by reheating the leftover whey in the pot to almost boiling (you can do this right away without letting it sit overnight as the citric acid makes it acidic enough), letting it cool, then gently scooping out the curds and letting them drain through cheesecloth (I use a flour sack towel). Now I don't know from the Cheese Queen, but for the details of the ricotta how-to, let me direct you to my personal cheese god (again, to the pious, note the lower-case and that I do not blaspheme, but merely preach my own lactobacillic gospel), a chemistry professor in Cincinatti named, most improbably, Dr. David Fankhauser. He has an incredibly comprehensive virtual library of cheesemaking online (with step-by-step pictures of most of his recipes and methods), and I encourage you to check it out at your leisure, especially once you catch the cheesemaking fever. as you are sure to do after making 30-minute mozzarella!


The Cookbook Junkie said...

I really want to make cheese. I even looked into buying the basic supplies but it will probably take me as many years to get around to making cheese as it did for me to get around to canning.

Randi said...

I've never made that no knead bread. I suppose I should, but I try to stick to whole wheat breads.

Anonymous said...

My heavens; we are neighbours! I just made mozzarella tonight (got my citric acid at the same co-op, I bet), but not as successfully as yours. Although I have a microwave, I don't care to use it and so heated the curds in hot whey. Mine is rather yellow looking and is quite rubbery. Have any ideas as to what I did incorrectly?

Herself said...

I found you through googling and was really happy to learn the news that indeed I had not failed at mozzarella, but my milk was just being a jerk.