So much cheese… so little time

You never know when good fortune will cross your path.  For some time now I’ve been making my own yogurt, thanks to the ease and convenience of the ole Instant Pot. Once committed to the process, my results have become far superior to any of the usual store bought varieties.  When I discovered one  batch could yield two distinct styles I got even more excited:  I’d have a quart of fine yogurt for daily use, plus a good supply of thick, creamy Greek yogurt worthy of cheese status.

During my early Greek yogurt period, I came across Home Cheese Making (3rd edition) by Ricki CarrolI, while browsing books at a used book sale. (Ricki has a 4th edition coming out  December 2018).  It looked nearly new (good/bad sign, whatever), I added it to my stack and brought it home.  Several days later, I opened the book and knew this was no mistake. I haven’t met a cheese that I didn’t like, and here was an opportunity to see where all this could possibly go.

Ricki’s well laid-out book takes a complicated subject and breaks it down into manageable chunks. It’s geared to the novice as well as the skilled cheese maker, with a wide range of cheeses to consider from soft fresh cheeses like queso fresco, mozzarella, and feta, to ripened cheeses like cheddar, gouda, brie, and much more.  Here, I could begin to understand and more fully appreciate the art of cheese making—and I was ready.

You can get started in cheese making with a few basic kitchen supplies.  A good digital thermometer is a must, plus a colander, cheesecloth, a long spoon or spatula, the usual measuring cups and spoons, a long knife for cutting the curd, a stainless steel pot, and a reliable cooking unit that maintains a steady temperature.

Each cheese requires specific additives for its success. Some of the basics are: a starter such as yogurt, a mesophilic or thermophilic starter; liquid rennet for coagulation; calcium chloride for curd formation; lipase powder for flavor; and cheese salt.

Sourcing cheese making supplies can be a hassle, but I’ve had good luck with Ricki’s website, New England Cheese Making Supply Co. It is a reliable resource for cheese making information and supplies.

Since cheese making can be intimidating, I centered on a realistic mindset:  cheese has been around for centuries, surely I can figure this out.  Granted, there’s a large learning curve—at this point I’m happy mastering fresh cheeses.  I’d tinkered with ricotta and mozzarella before, and I welcomed the opportunity to give them another try and add them to my cheese line-up. I was starting over but making progress—they both turned out well.  ✓✓

Thus far, my biggest success comes from making feta cheese.

I was intrigued by the additional brining process, since feta’s flavor develops more fully the longer it ages in brine.  This small extra step felt like a giant leap into cheese making. ✓

If you happen to read the previous post,  Feta Focus, you’ve absorbed a few feta details.  Essentially, Greek feta has earned its own provenance: much like a European wine appellation, it must be made with either sheep and/or goat’s milk. I’m keeping it simple at this point, I am happy  staying with familiar and readily available:  whole cow’s (not ultra-pasteurized) milk.

Feta cheese is fairly simple to make. I used a sous vide with my first batch, which was entirely unnecessary. The second time, I filled my well-scrubbed kitchen sink with 90° hot water, placed the covered milk-filled stainless steel pot into the warm water bath, and stirred occasionally until it reached 86°.   That’s when the starter culture and ultimately the rennet are introduced and the curd making process unfolds.  I added more regulated hot water as needed to maintain the temperature. Once the curds have formed, the process moves along fairly quickly.

It’s important to allow time for the curds to drain well.

Once draining has slowed significantly and forming a mass, the cheese is placed in molds for shaping and further straining.  It’s then briefly placed in a brine solution for a quick rest to stabilize the feta before turning out onto a mat to dry.  

The cheese is then returned to the brine for aging and storage. The feta is ready to eat in 4 to 5 days. 

Homemade Feta Cheese

Ingredients
1 gallon whole milk (avoid UHT or ultra-pasteurized milk), sheep and/or goat’s milk
1/8 tsp. lipase power, for flavor (diluted in ¼ cup unchlorinated water, let stand 20 minutes)
1/8 tsp. calcium chloride, for curd formation (diluted in 1/4 cup unchlorinated water)
1/4 tsp. mesophilic starter culture, MM100, bacteria to convert lactose to lactic acid
1/2 tsp. liquid rennet, to coagulate milk (diluted in 1/4 cup cool unchlorinated water)
1/4 cup salt for brining/storage

Utensils:  Digital thermometer, large stainless steel pot, large spoon & perforated scoop, colander, measuring cup & spoons, curd knife like a boning knife, cheesecloth or butter muslin, 2 perforated molds, sushi mat.

Instructions

  1. Warm the milk in a stainless steel pot to 86°F. As milk is heating, stir in the diluted lipase and the diluted calcium chloride.
  2. When brought to temperature, sprinkle in the starter culture and stir Cover and let milk ripen for 1 hour.
  3. Add the diluted rennet and stir gently with spoon in an up-and-down motion (not a stirring motion) for several minutes. Cover and let set undisturbed at 86°F for 1 hour until it has gelled, separates from side of pot, and there is a clean break in the curd when sliced with a knife.
  4. Using a long knife cut the curd at an angle. Turn the pot and slice into 1/2-inch cubes all the way to the bottom. Repeat if necessary. Let rest for 10 minutes.
  5. Gently stir the curds on and off for 20-30 minutes. As the curds firm and retract, stir more briskly.
  6. Line a large colander with a double layer of cheesecloth or butter muslin and place a bowl under it to catch the whey. Scoop in the curds and let excess whey drain off 2 hours.
  7. Once dripping has stopped divide into 2 cheesecloth lined perforated molds and weigh down. Turn often in molds to drain for 4-6 hours, regularly rotating to weight evenly until no more liquid collects.
  8. To stabilize feta, place the blocks in brine and weight down to keep submerged  1 Tbsp. salt per 1 cup unchlorinated water to cover for 4-5 hours.
  9. Remove feta to mat, cover loosely with cloth, refrigerate for 1-3 days to drain and air dry. Turn several time daily. Brine can be filtered and reused.
  10. Return feta to storage brine. Refrigerate 4-5 days, or up to 30 days. Yield: 1 pound.

Feta Focus

Feta is a fresh, briny cheese often associated with foods rooted in the sun-drenched Mediterranean cuisines – think olives, capers and vegetables like eggplant, zucchini, cucumbers, and tomatoes.  Here in the US, feta is often made from cow’s milk which produces a pleasantly mild, slightly tart cheese.

To be called feta in the European Union, it must originate in Greece and be limited to sheep and or goat’s milk, thus offering a rich panorama of flavors and textures. Depending on process and aging time in brine, Greek feta can vary in saltiness, range from soft to hard textured, and taste from tart to tangy.

One popular treatment is to submerge bite-sized feta cubes in olive oil along with assorted herbs, garlic and such, and allow the marinade to infuse into the cheese; the longer the better.  That is certainly lovely with a robust cheese that responds to big flavors, but beware of overpowering a mild flavored feta.  To better showcase feta’s more subdued qualities, I prefer to deconstruct the whole concept.

For this simple method, begin with a block of feta, slice it for easy serving, sprinkle it with herbs and seasonings, and drizzle it lightly with olive oil. Cover it and allow the flavors to meld for an hour or so in the fridge.

When ready to enjoy, bring the marinated feta to room temperature, perhaps drizzle with a bit more olive oil if it appears dry, and garnish with fresh herbs.  Serve with an assortment of olives, crusty bread, pita crisps or crackers, pass a bowl or crunchy radishes, and call it good!

Herb Marinated Feta

Ingredients
1 lb. fresh feta cheese
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon savory, rosemary, or oregano
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
Fresh thyme
Accompaniments: assorted olives, fresh bread or pita crisps, crunchy radishes

Instructions

  1. Slice the feta and arrange it on a serving plate.
  2. Sprinkle the cheese with herbs and red pepper flakes. Drizzle lightly with olive oil.  Cover and chill for an hour or longer.
  3. To assemble, drizzle with a bit more olive oil if it looks dry, dust with grinds of salt and pepper. Garnish with fresh thyme, assorted olives.
  4. Serve with crunchy bread, crackers or pita crisps, and a bowl of fresh radishes.   Serves 4.

Friday Night Special

There are times when admittedly, my meals are a little wacky.  They can be downright self- indulgent and make little sense to others.  Especially on Friday nights.

It’s the end of the official work week and it’s time to relax. There are no rules!  My refrigerator looks deranged with a mere mishmash of odds and ends and pathetic leftovers. Since I will likely do a grocery shop over the weekend, I resist a stop—and prefer to pass on fast foods.

In my experience, there’s always a pizza in the works. Like another stand-by, the taco, a few toppings can become a full meal.  To that end, I like to stock at least one pan-size portion of pizza dough in the freezer. It easily defrosts in the microwave and is ready to go in no time. Occasionally, I have even stashed a pre-baked crust in the freezer. It’s a matter of gathering up a few compatible toppings and tucking it all in the oven for a quick bake.

That was the situation this past Friday night, between Christmas and New Year’s. Thanks to the holidays, my fridge was ripe pickings for fabulous toppings. No pathetic odds and ends here; I had a little hard Spanish chorizo, a collection of fontina and other cheeses, pasilla peppers, sweet onion, Greek dried olives and — fresh green tomatillos.

Tomatillo Sauce 1Whatever.  I treated the 8 tomatillos as if they were treasured San Marzano tomatoes. I removed their husks, chopped them up, and made a fast sauce with onion, garlic, jalapeno, oregano. I simmered it briefly, then ran the immersion blender through it until thick and cohesive. The results: a light, bright sauce worthy of this splendid occasion.

Turns out, the sparkling sauce brought all of these disparate characters together.

The final topping was another gift that kept on giving, too.  I had a little cheese mixture left from making stuffed mushrooms earlier in the week: a combination of shredded mozzarella, Parmesan, green onion, garlic, herbs and Panko. These amazing bread crumbs kept the stuffing light, absorbed moisture, and allowed for a beautifully browned top. Who knew it would one day end up on my pizza?

20171229_194857

It’s another Friday Night Special…  and that’s the way it goes.

Friday Night Pizza

Ingredients
1 pizza crust
Tomatillo Sauce
2 tablespoon olive oil
½ onion, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, partially seed, chop
2 cloves garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon dried oregano
8 fresh tomatillos, husk and chop
½ teaspoon.dried thyme (or Herbes de Provence if available)
½ cup chicken bouillon
Salt and pepper to taste
Toppings
1 pasilla pepper, seed and cut into strips
½ cup hard Spanish chorizo, cut up
½ smoked ham chunks (if available)
½ sweet onion, cut into strips
A handful of dried Greek olives, or other
1 handful shredded fontina cheese
1 cup cheese combo: mozzarella, parmesan, green onion, garlic and @ ¼ cup Panko
Dried oregano

Instructions

  1. For Tomatillo Sauce: in saucepan over medium heat, add olive oil and sauté the onion until soft. Add the pepper and stir, then the garlic and allow to cook until aromatic.  Add the dried herbs, then stir in the chopped tomatillos.  Just barely cover with chicken bouillon and allow to simmer until thick, about 7 minutes.  With immersion blender, whirl until the sauce is thick, cohesive and still has texture.
  2. Prebake pizza crust at 425° in lower 1/3 of oven to set, about 7 minutes.
  3. To assemble: cover the crust with a coating of some of the sauce. Top with a layer of green pepper, then the meat selection, the onion, olives, and cheese.
  4. Sprinkle with dried oregano and bake another 12 minutes or until browned and bubbly. Cut into portions and serve hot.  Serves 2.

 

Time for Reflection and Cheese Madeleines

It’s the weekend following Thanksgiving, and time for turkey soup. This year’s version includes shallot, garlic, assorted veggies, farro, and of course turkey. Wholesome and light, the perfect prescription for over indulgence.

Such a moderate and sensible approach wasn’t destined to last long. It only took a moment of reflection, also left-over from Thanksgiving, to realize the soup would need something else to go along with it. From there, it didn’t take long to zero in on one of my old favorites, something that I haven’t had a chance to make for a while.

In no time, I was deep in cheese madeleine territory. While the soup burbled away, I pulled out my recipe and got going. I have had a soft spot in my heart for the French shell-shaped cookie ever since I eyed a barely used madeleine baking tin at a garage sale—long before their silicone counterpart hit the marketplace.madeleine tin
They only take a few minutes to prepare and about the same amount of time to bake. Since the original cookie often relies on an egg-sugar emulsion, I have taken some liberties with the cheese low-sugar version, but they are still kissed with butter.madeleine in shell
Sweet or savory, there’s something fleeting and magical about these light well-constructed pillows of bliss. Soft but crispy, solid but ethereal, mild but elusively rich… I’m beginning to rant like Proust.

Madeleines and Turkey Soup
Madeleines and Turkey Soup

What wouldn’t taste better with a few of these?

Cheese Madeleines

Lacking madeleine baking molds, substitute mini muffin pans or tiny tartlet molds.

¼ cup semolina flour or fine polenta, sifted
½ cup cake flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
2 tsp. sugar
1 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
pinch nutmeg
1 egg, room temperature
½ cup milk, room temperature
1 tbsp. melted butter

1 – 2 tbsp. melted butter for molds

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray madeleine molds with baking spray and then brush lightly with melted butter.
  2. Sift dry ingredients, whisk to blend, and toss in the cheese and nutmeg to thoroughly coat.
  3. In a medium bowl whisk the egg well and slowly whisk in the milk. Gently stir in the dry ingredients combining well; slowly stir in the butter until it is all incorporated.
  4. Spoon tablespoonfuls of the batter into molds, about ¾’s full, and bake 12 minutes or until they begin to brown. Using tip of knife, release from mold and turn it over. Allow to cool briefly before moving to rack to cool. Wipe out molds, brush again lightly with butter, and repeat. Yield: 10 to 12 large madeleines.

Chile-Cheese-in-a-Hole

September will forever remind me of Hatch Pepper season in New Mexico and Texas.  Much like the nostril tingling smell of burning leaves in the fall, the air becomes heady with the nostalgic scent of roasting chile peppers.

I felt the need to honor the season by roasting my own poblano peppers―not quite the same as Hatch peppers, but good enough.  I’ve also written here about my endless tinkering with cheese stuffed peppers and my obsession with new variations on chile rellenos―something beyond egg batter dipped and fried.

Since we have a growing Latino community here, I was thrilled to find a market with a cheese counter selling bunches of long thick strands of Oaxacan quesillo.  The cheese is quite similar to Italian string cheese, which would also work using multiple strands. Cut into appropriate lengths, the widths handily fit into a roasted chile.

Today’s version is a take on the charming British Toad-in-a- Hole, or sausage encased in Yorkshire pudding.Hole chile cheese1 I’ve always had a special weakness for these babies, but balk at their soufflé-like tendency to sadly deflate into nothingness.

I remedied that situation and now have a puffed and perky pepper oozing with melting cheese. It cuts into tidy wedges; no muss, no fuss. Chile Cheese Salsa Hole

Not exactly Latino influenced, but still, it is quite tasty with fresh homemade salsa.  Of course, what isn’t more tasty with salsa?

Chile Cheese in a Hole

Ingredients

1 Tbsp olive oil, divided
1 onion, peeled and sliced
6 poblano or pasillo peppers, charred, skinned, and seeded
3/4 lb. Oaxacan or string cheese

Batter
3/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
3 eggs lightly beaten
3/4 cup milk
1 cup grated cheddar cheese, divided

Directions 

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
  2. Sear the chiles over a hot flame or broiler until blistered on all sides. Place in plastic bag to loosen skin.  When cool, peel the skin away.  Make a slit in the side of each and remove the stems and seeds, keeping them as whole and intact as possible.  Set aside.
  3. Slice the cheese into 6 – 2 ½” lengths and wrap the peppers around the cheese fingers.
    Rub a pie plate or other similar ovenproof dish with part of the remaining olive oil.  Add the sliced onion, drizzle with remaining oil and distribute the slices evenly in dish.  Bake in 450 degree oven for 10-15 minutes until they begin to take on color
  4. .Meanwhile prepare the batter:  combine the flour and salt in a medium bowl and make a well in the center.  Combine the beaten eggs and milk and pour into the flour mixture, beat until well blended.  Fold in half of the shredded cheese.
    Remove the onion from the oven and set the peppers into the dish like spokes in a wheel, wide ends out, with onions between the chiles.  While the dish is still hot, quickly pour in the egg batter and return to oven; it will not completely cover the chiles.
  5. Reduce heat to 425 degrees and bake until it is puffy, about 15 minutes.  Remove and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top.  Return to oven and bake another 10 minutes,, until it is inflated, the cheese melts, and the top is firmly set and it is taking on color; a total of 20- 25 minutes.
  6. Serve immediately, while fully raised.  It will deflate somewhat but will remain puffy.  It is also good served at room temperature.  Serves 4 or more.

The Good Egg

Lately I’vEgge been brushing up on my soufflé making skills.

I’m one of those who love eggs, and I am relieved to be rid of the considerable guilt that egg consumption carried with it for many years.  Science has once again determined that eggs are not the great culprit that we feared.

The cholesterol scare has subsided and The Good Egg’s reputation is repaired – if not elevated.  For the record, blood cholesterol levels are more affected by the saturated fats consumed rather than by cholesterol itself.   Those fatty phospholipids in the humble egg only further serve to diminish the absorption of the yolk’s cholesterol.

Since most of the yolk’s fat is of the non-saturated variety many health professionals now take the stance that regular egg consumption does not affect the average person’s blood cholesterol level.

souffle, oven IMG_0147Sunday Brunch.  A soufflé was the obvious solution this weekend when deciding what to do with an over-abundance of fresh spinach.

Now that I’ve gotten my ratios and rhythm down on soufflé making, the results have been pretty spectacular.  Problem is, I’ve been so concerned with savoring its fragile beauty that getting photos has been a secondary issue.  This time I was prepared, but the result may look strange… since the soufflé was still in the oven.  I wasn’t taking any chances.

souffle 1 IMG_0152
Another Reason to Celebrate.  Not only did we have a delicious soufflé, but we also had beautiful thinly sliced, cold-smoked Norwegian salmon to go along with it.   No question, the combination was utterly exquisite.

Spinach and Cheese Soufflé

Inspired by the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten

Ingredients

  • 1 ½ Tbsp. butter
  • 3 Tbsp. all purpose flour
  • 1 ¼ cup milk
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ¼ tsp. grated nutmeg
  • white pepper, dash
  • 4 large egg yolks, room-temperature
  • l lb. fresh spinach, washed, stemmed and patted dry
  • 2 green onions, trimmed and chopped
  • 1 cup grated cheddar or parmesan cheese, 4 ounces
  • 5 large egg whites, room temperature
  • 1/8 tsp. cream of tartar

 Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Butter the inside of a 2 qt. soufflé dish.  Wilt the spinach leaves and the green onions, then squeeze together to remove moisture and chop thoroughly.  Scald the milk.
  2. In a small pan over low heat, melt the butter; when it begins to bubble stir in the flour, and cook and stir for about 2 minutes.  Remove from heat and slowly whisk the heated milk into the roux, then add the salt, nutmeg and white pepper.  Return to heat; cook and whisk until it begins to thicken, 1 to 2 minutes.  Continue to whisk over low heat for approximately 8 minutes ― until the whisk leaves tracks with sauce.
  3. Remove the sauce from heat and allow it to cool slightly, then whisk in the egg yolks, one at a time.  Stir in the cheese and the spinach mixture and transfer to a large mixing bowl. The base can be held at this point until ready to finish the soufflé.
  4. Place the egg whites and cream of tartar in the bowl of a mixer with whisk attachment and beat on low for 1 minute.  Add a dash of salt and increase speed slightly for another minute.  Increase speed to high and whip until firm, shiny peaks form, approximately 1 to 2 minutes longer.
  5. To combine, whisk ¼ of the beaten egg whites into the spinach-cheese sauce to lighten.  Gently fold in the remaining whites.  Pour the mixture into the prepared dish and smooth the top. Place it in center of the oven and reduce heat by 25 degrees. After 25 minutes, if the soufflé is browning too fast, cover with foil and reduce heat by another 25 degrees.  Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until it is puffed and brown.  Serve immediately.  The center will be soft, airy and moist; the exterior browned and crunchy.  Yield:  3 to 4 servings