You may be inclined to think that oral traditions are nearly extinct in the English-speaking world, but how many of you know the following nursery rhyme?
Little Miss Muffet
Sat on a tuffet,
Eating her curds and whey;
Along came a spider,
Who sat down beside her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.
I assume that most of you who know the rhyme need a review of what a tuffet is: a piece of furniture covered in cloth and used as a low seat or a support for the feet. Since I didn’t grow up on a dairy farm, this rhyme was my introduction to curds and whey. Bright orange, cheddar cheese curds are easy to come by in Wisconsin. They are the tasty product of the process triggered by introducing rennet (an agent containing the enzyme rennin that is derived from the stomach of a mammal of your choice) into hot milk. One of my earliest memories is visiting a cheese factory and discovering the delightful squeak that occurs when you bite into a curd. But curds are just half of the equation – where there is yang, there must be yin. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I tasted whey for the first time. On my first trip to Austria, I drank Lattella, a drink made of whey mixed with fruit juice. It tastes much better than it sounds and is readily available.
I’ve seriously thought about making my own cheese for at least six years. Frankly, I am amazed it has taken me this long to try it out. It’s so easy! But then again, I do things at my own tempo, molto adagio. I started physically preparing for cheesemaking over a year ago when I bought unbleached cheesecloth. Then about two weeks ago, I tried out this recipe for saag paneer, an Indian dish also known as palak paneer that pairs spicy spinach with paneer cheese, a fresh cheese made of cow’s milk. Instead of paneer, I used Halloumi, a brined cheese from Cyprus made of milk from sheep and goats (though cheaper versions will often use cows’ milk) as well as my own mixture of garam masala. It turned out delicious. The next time I made saag paneer, I vowed, I would finally make my own cheese.
There are two basic ways to make cheese. Both involve milk, of course. The difference is in how you curdle the milk. Either you introduce an acid of some kind (lemon juice or vinegar), and make farmer’s cheese, Topfen, or queso blanco or you add rennet and end up with Cheddar, Emmentaler, Parmigiano Reggiano, or Gorgonzola. The rennet cheeses all require aging of some kind, but the acid cheeses are served fresh and are more convenient for the average cook because they take around twenty minutes of actual preparation time to produce. Paneer is made almost exactly like farmer’s cheese.
I used the Farmer Cheese recipe in Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation for my paneer. First I brought 680 ml of milk from non-silage fed cows to a boil (Who says German words are always longer than English words? “680 ml Heumilch” is much shorter!).
After tiny bubbles appeared over the entire surface and the milk was boiling, I removed it from the heat and added 21 g / 4 tsp cider vinegar a little bit at a time, stirring with the whisk until the milk curdled.
Next, I transferred the curds to the cheesecloth lining a sieve, sprinkling it with 1/2 tsp salt and mixing it in so more whey is released and the final cheese is solid – a plus when cutting paneer into cubes to fry. If you want farmer’s cheese, simply omit the salt. The greenish, protein-rich whey drained out into the bowl below. Whey can be reheated to make ricotta (which literally means recooked), substituted for milk in most baking recipes, added to a vegetable ferment as a starter, or used in place of water to soak grains to prepare them for cooking. Ours won’t go to waste.
The cheese can be hung up to dry or it can be weighted down for twenty minutes to several hours. I left mine hanging overnight and transferred it to the fridge this morning. Since it already started to smell slightly ripened, next time I’ll transfer it quicker because I like my fresh cheese fresh. No spiders are going to scare me away from eating my first homemade cheese!