Saturday, January 28, 2012

Weekend Cooking: Cheese Please!

a mouse's dream

According to Chuck Hughes from Chuck's Day Off, there is a renaissance of artisan cheese making happening in America right now, and I really have to agree with him. In the '80s it seemed like there were only three kinds of cheese: Velveeta, Kraft, and Philadelphia. Admittedly I was pretty young in the '80s, so my recollection might not be that great, but nowadays you can get so many different specialty cheeses in the grocery store. That definitely wasn't around when I was a kid.

When I was living in Oklahoma, there was a fromagerie--aka cheese shop--in the town I lived in, and I started to become obsessed with all trying all the different types of cheeses that were available. Then, while watching The Big Cheese one night, I started to wonder if there was a way to make cheese in a home kitchen. Although I doubted it (I figured you needed raw milk and specialized equipment I definitely wasn't going to buy), I put the question out on twitter. I probably could have googled it, but sometimes I just like to ask questions on twitter to see what will happen. Sandy from You've Gotta Read This said she'd just gotten a book called Artisan Cheese Making at Home that looked like something I'd be interested in.

artisan cheese making cover

My library had it. Yay! This book has absolutely fabulous, delicious-looking photographs that make me crave cheese like a crazy person, and recipes for everything from marscapone cheese to Stilton; as well as yogurt, butter, and recipes for dishes to make with your home-made cheeses. It's also very informative about the types of cheeses you can make and starts out with the easier stuff (ricotta, butter, yogurt, etc.).

That being said, I had the same problem with this book that I did with many of the bread-making books I looked at last year: even though the recipes are scaled-back for home kitchens, they still require a lot of special equipment and ingredients. In other words, it's written by a chef (Mary Karlin, in this case) who is writing what are "simple recipes" from the perspective of a chef, which is still way more time, money, and work than the average person wants to put into it.

pear galette

Just for example, Karlin's recipes are in what she calls "small batches" of ONE OR TWO POUNDS of cheese. Do you know how long it would take my family to eat a whole pound of cheese, assuming they would even agree to eat it? That is not a practical-sized batch for the average household. Another pet peeve of mine: her butter recipe requires a food processor, which 1. isn't listed in the required equipment chapter, probably because she just assumes EVERYONE must have a food processor; and 2. is something I don't have. Even Karlin's simplest recipes require ingredients I've never heard of. Take the ingredients for her ricotta recipe, one of the first in the book:
1 gallon pasteurized or raw whole cow's milk
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon citric acid powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
What the heck is citric acid powder? How many people just have that sitting in their cupboard? The recipe also calls for sterilized equipment, nonreactive-strainers, -bowls, and -pots, and butter muslin instead of cheese cloth. Cuz that's totally necessary.

Fortunately, Sandy also gave me a link to a simpler ricotta recipe she found in Food & Wine magazine by Helm Sinskey; otherwise I never would have attempted to make cheese. By comparison, this recipe uses easily-found ingredients and the batch is 1/2 the size of Karlin's:

    1.    2 quarts whole milk, preferably organic
    2.    1 cup heavy cream, preferably organic
    3.    3 tablespoons white vinegar
    4.    1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

    1.    In a medium pot, warm the milk and cream over moderately high heat until the surface becomes foamy and steamy and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the milk registers 185°; don't let the milk boil [note: at high altitudes, milk will boil at this point. wah-wah]. Remove the pot from the heat. Add the vinegar and stir gently for 30 seconds; the mixture will curdle almost immediately. Add the salt and stir for 30 seconds longer. Cover the pot with a clean towel and let stand at room temperature for 2 hours.

    2.    Line a large colander with several layers of cheesecloth, allowing several inches of overhang. Set the colander in a large bowl. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the curds to the colander. Carefully gather the corners of the cheesecloth and close with a rubber band. Let the ricotta stand for 30 minutes, gently pressing and squeezing the cheesecloth occasionally to drain off the whey. Transfer the ricotta to a bowl and use at once, or cover and refrigerate.

Make Ahead The fresh ricotta can be refrigerated for up to 4 days.
Notice that this recipe also uses less salt and more cream than Karlin's. I followed this recipe (halving it), and it turned out fabulous! Very fluffy and creamy. It takes about three hours to make, but only thirty or so minutes of that requires your attention. Here are some pictures:

Making the cheese:

making cheese

Of course, once I'd made the ricotta, I had to figure out what to do with it. Here are some of my recipe attempts:


I decided to make this after Memory from Stella Matutina said she liked ricotta with honey. This has honey and pepper sprinkled over it. It was okay, but a little bland, and not very filling.


I got this recipe from Real Simple. It's ricotta, butter, lemon zest, parsley, tarragon, and chives. I added a ton of herbs and pepper, but it was still very bland--okay, but definitely missing something.


This bruschetta was pretty good. I squeezed out the tomato's juices into the bread, then chopped the tomatoes, which made them easier to eat. The basil and prosciutto added a lot of flavor.


This is a pretty similar recipe to the bruschetta, but adapted for pizza. This was by far the best of the snacks I made. The only thing I would change is to add more tomato paste.

I also wanted to try making a dessert with the ricotta, and chose this recipe from Noshtopia for ricotta chocolate pudding. I had my doubts about turning cheese into a chocolate pudding, but it was really good!

So that was my cheese-making experience. It went pretty well (I count any cooking experiment that doesn't end with me in the ER a success at this point), and I am definitely encouraged to try to make different cheeses and butter. However, I don't think I'll be trying the recipes in Artisan Cheese Making at Home any time soon. They probably do taste better than the very basic cheese and butter recipes I've found so far, but I'm looking for easy at this point. It's a great resource if you're an experienced cook ready to put a lot of time, patience, energy, and money into making cheeses; but I think for the average person it's more like a book of food porn than something for practical use.

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up over the weekend.


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