Cheese to Write Home About

Well, this is turning out to be a dairy-rich week.  You'd think, from these posts, that I'm lounging around all day, surrounded by tubs of cheese and butter.  In reality, I have turned down seeing two girlfriends this week.  I've been getting to school by 7:30, leaving around 2, coming home for lunch and a power nap, teaching lessons until 8, and then facing a wreck of a house and a most aggrieved cat.  Every year I forget how much work it is to teach, especially if the classes are new (this year, 2 out of my 3 are.)

How do I deal with stress?  I cook.  Seriously.  It is such a gift to be able to focus on something simple and beautiful that has the added bonus of being sustenance for your next busy day (or two.)

We buy raw milk from an out-of-state farmer (it's illegal here in Maryland . . . socialists . . . ) and although it is the most delicious and healthy milk you can find, it has one disadvantage: it spoils quickly.  Purists will tell you that soured raw milk is actually better for you, as it has more beneficial bacteria and is more easily digestible.  They're probably right.  But I just can't drink it sour.  So when the milk goes bad, I usually have to pour it out.  At $7 a gallon.

No more!  I discovered recently that raw milk separates when it sours.  This means that when you heat it, it separates very easily into ricotta curds and clear whey.  (If yours doesn't separate, simply add about 1/4 cup of white vinegar; this won't affect the taste, but will help the milk curdle more easily.  This is also how you'd make ricotta from sweet milk.)  Strain the curds through a yogurt strainer or colander lined with several thicknesses of cheesecloth.  You now have sour ricotta cheese, which can be used to make this cheesecake, which will CHANGE YOUR LIFE:

Ricotta Cheesecake

(Recipe from the Martha Stewart Baking Handbook, which you should purchase immediately, if not sooner)

  • 1 1/2 pounds ricotta

  • 3/4 cup sugar

  • 6 eggs, separated

  • 1/4 cup flour

  • Zest of 2 lemons

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

Generously butter and sugar a 9-inch springform pan.  Puree ricotta until smooth; stir in egg yolks, half the sugar, flour, zest and salt.  Beat egg whites until foamy; sprinkle remaining sugar in gradually while beating to stiff, glossy peaks.  Fold in ricotta mixture.  Try not to eat ALL of the batter before pouring it into the pan (at this point you can smell a little of the sourness, but it tastes totally normal) and baking at 375 until firm and deep golden brown on top, about 1 hour.  Serve to the friends you can't believe are moving away, and try not to cry.

If you are lucky enough to have a gallon of un-soured milk, you absolutely must try making your own mozzarella.  (Don't try to make mozzarella with soured milk.  Trust me.  It doesn't work.)  Homemade mozzarella is embarrassingly easy and tastes exactly like the stuff you pay $10 per pound for at the store.  Here's the short version:

Add 1 1/2 teaspoons citric acid to 1 cup of water.  Stir into a gallon of milk.  Heat to 90 degrees, turn off and add 1/4 of a rennet tablet dissolved in another 1/4 cup of water.  Cover for five minutes; the cheese will have formed a custard-like curd.  Cut it into squares in the pot, heat again until about 200 degrees, and ladle the curds into a colander.  Dunk them in hot water until they're melty and stretchy, then knead and stretch until they look like real cheese!  Add salt if you want to (you'll want to.)  If there's any left after "tasting" it with your starving husband, store in a container of water in the refrigerator.  Specialty ingredients can be found at some fancy grocery stores or here, where you can buy a cheesemaking kit rather inexpensively.