Friday, March 6, 2009

The Milky Way

My husband has always stood by the claim that if he ever had to get a tattoo, it would be a loaf of bread and a slab of cheese; two passions in life that will never go out of style. I’ve got his back on this one. What could be more primal and delicious than the magic of fermentation to raise and set such delicate foods?

This all hit home while reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver. I was swept away with a passage about family pizza night. No, no… not a Boboli with bagged cheese and a sauce packet… making pizza from scratch. Dad would gingerly proof the dough in the late afternoon from a little yeast and flour. The kids would prep the toppings of choice. And Mom would make the cheese. Yes, make the cheese.

I was curious. They swore of a 30 minute mozzarella recipe that birthed little white balls of fresh (and inexpensive) real cheese that melted and browned beautifully in the oven. I could not resist the pastoral sales pitch.

After a quick purchase on cheesemaking.com, the website of the self-proclaimed Cheese Making Queen, Ricki Carroll, I was set.

The first and perhaps, most important part of making cheese is the milk. Grocery shelf milk is typically “ultra-high pasteurized” meaning is it heated to a really, really high temperature to cook out all its beautiful, tiny enzymes. These little guys are necessary to make cheese (and for all you lactose intolerant people out there, also to properly digest your milk… Hello! It’s no wonder you clog up like a disposal after Thanksgiving… your milk has been killed!). But I digress… Fresno State pasteurizes their milk, but not to scorching hot temperatures, so it works like a champ. The other option is of course the local folks at Organic Pastures, whose raw milk has the full spectrum of flora and fauna needed for cheese.

Once you’ve got your milk, you start in on the chemistry. It’s a matter of a little rennet (some little vitamin-like tablet that’s a digestive enzyme), citric acid (a sour powder), salt, and water. Mix, heat, and then the whole thing sets up like a giant pot of silky white custard. From there, you separate the curds (future cheese) from the whey (strange translucent yellowed liquid that secretly tastes really good). For mozzarella, you heat the curds until they are almost unbearable to touch and then stretch the whole mess like taffy to twirl into little balls. Ricotta, you simply hang in a little cheese cloth for about 30 minutes and voila!

I confess, the mozzarella took about 45 minutes on the first attempt, but honestly, it was a milky miracle to make something so complex and enigmatic in a matter of minutes! The taste was fresh and silky, moist and gentle. And the ricotta was firm and mild, a distant cry from his store-bought, soupy, gelatin enhanced cousin. Let’s just say, I’d do it again… and I’m game for giving lessons.

Take back your kitchen and learn to pull off a couple of tricks that would have wowed your great grandma or your high school chemistry teacher. Now… if you could just learn to make the perfect loaf of bread…

- Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll at www.cheesemaking.com
- Organic Pastures Dairy Company at www.organicpastures.com
- Fresno State Dairy at www.auxiliary.com/AGF/farmmarket

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