Friday, November 19, 2010

Really Simple, Really Good, Homemade Cheese

A month (maybe two) ago I was exploring mexico in my kitchen and came across the Mely's entry for homemade Mexican cheese or queso fresco. Two thoughts immediately popped in my head: "Damn, I love queso fresco" and "I've made cottage cheese before, so let's go." The first attempt was fantastic, with me managing to make a cheese ball and soft ricotta-style cheese from the same gallon of milk. I felt like a superstar - or almost, because I used white vinegar to separate the curds and whey and probably used too much: the cheese ball definitely had a vinegar aftertaste that increased the older it grew. (Just a few days, no aging cheese here.) No worries, because the next time I used lemon juice and was all ready to make some paneer (which is basically the same as queso fresco, in that they both are simple unaged cheeses; paneer tends to not have salt added), but it was not to be. The lemon juice just wasn't making my milk separate and no amount of reheating & resting saved it. So we were even: Cheese 1 - Sarah 1.
I happened to have 3 liters of milk in the fridge that I had no use for (a common occurrence for everyone, right? Right?) and attacked it with my trusty white vinegar. Oh yeah, that got the magic going. After letting the solution sit for about an hour I drained it, added some chopped jalapeno (actually Lebanese pepper, but it's pretty close) and red chili paste, then twist and let it drain for another couple of hours. In your face, lactose. Well, almost. Obviously I am still on a learning curve as I wasn't able to pull off the ricotta bit again, so we'll call it even: Cheese 2 - Sarah 2.

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Making cheese at home is easy, though it's definitely a weekend task if you are troubled with other time constraints, such a full-time job. If you can find rennet then it can make your cheese-making endeavors even easier; I can't, so the acid of either white vinegar or lemon juice (it works for some people) does the trick for me. I add about a tablespoon of salt to mine, which may sound like a lot, but a gallon of milk makes almost a pound of cheese; I can barely taste the salt in mine. You can keep the taste simple or add some peppers, herbs, roasted garlic - it's your cheese, after all. Have fun.

Apparently Christmas is on my mind.

Simple Homemade Cheese
 Inspired by mexico in my kitchen

3-4 liters whole milk (I used 4 the first time and 3 this time, which probably explains why I didn't have any curds left to make the soft cheese. 4 liters is 1 gallon.)
1/2cup white vinegar
1tbsp salt (I use table, because Kosher salt isn't sold here - I think it's the name - but either will work.)
Cheesecloth or muslin

1. Pour milk into a large saucepan and heat to 110F (you can keep your finger in it for a few seconds before it feels too hot.) Stir occasionally so milk will not stick to bottom of pan.

2. Pour in vinegar and stir for a few seconds to encourage curd formation. Remove and cover; let stand for one hour.

3. Drape cheesecloth over a colander, which should in turn be over a large bowl or pan (something that will hold almost a gallon of whey liquid.) Slowly pour in curds and whey. Gather edges of cheesecloth to make a sack and squeeze to remove excess whey.

4. Open cheesecloth "sack" and add salt (plus any other flavorings); mix with your hand. Gather cloth into a sack again and hang from a wooden pole (I used the handle of a wooden spoon) or the kitchen faucet for 2-3 hours to allow all whey to drain. You could press the cheese flat by weighing it down with a heavy pan (think: cast iron); this will have to be done on a cooling rack over a flat pan to ensure the whey properly drains.

5. Remove cheese from the sack and refrigerate. Enjoy!

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