Fresher Than Fraiche

Yes, it’s true.  I make cheese at home.  I know that this sounds excessive and may push me over the edge into the realm of crazy survivalists, but I really make cheese for the same reason that I do all of my unusual cooking projects–because it’s fun. 

I first made cheese because of a friend.  I’d invited my college dance partner and his then-girlfriend to visit me for Thanksgiving, and, at the time, he was known far and wide as an extremely picky eater.  One thing that I knew he did enjoy was the fresh cheese he ate for breakfast every day; he didn’t make it himself, but someone in his family did.  In an attempt to provide him with an acceptable breakfast, I threw caution to the winds, trawled the Internet for instruction, and made fresh cheese. 

It took absolutely no effort at all–milk and lemon juice were my only ingredients, an old pot, a slotted spoon, a colander and a cheap thermometer (a meat thermometer, actually) were my equipment.  It took me about 20 minutes to heat up the milk in the pot, stirring it occasionally with the spoon.  When it reached 165 degrees, I added the lemon juice.

Foosh!  Instant cheese!  The lemon juice coagulated the milk into big, fluffy white curds and thin, greenish whey, exactly the color I always imagined the moon would be if it really were made of green cheese (even though I realize now, of course, that it wasn’t really green cheese they were referring to, but new cheese.  Leave me alone: I formed my original idea when I was five).

I poured the contents of the pot into a colander lined with paper towels and watched the whey drain off, leaving the curds behind.  After most of the whey had precipitated out, I let the mixture sit in the fridge for a few hours, until it was about the consistency of the cheese I remembered from my friend’s house.

His visit came.  The cheese was approved.  I sighed with relief and moved on.  But I had made cheese!  I felt so cool!  I knew I had to try it again. 

I made that lemon cheese for several years–for using in cheesecakes, for filling lasagnas, for eating plain, with fresh fruit or chopped herbs–but had never branched out until about two years ago.  One day I idly noticed that a cheesemaking class being given at an event I was already attending.  More idly still, I decided to take the class.  The instructor made lemon cheese, using almost exactly the same recipe I do, and mozzarella, using minimal ingredients and even more minimal time.  Mozzarella?  This was something I definitely had to try.

I bought the book she recommended (Cheesemaking Made Easy by Ricki Carroll).  I perused the websites the book suggested.  I bought the cultures and rennet and cheesecloth.  I made mozzarella–it was really good.  Then I made feta–it was not so good.  Then I tried it again with modifications that made sense and it was fabulous.  I’ve made chevre, leipajuusto, queso blanco, panir, sour cream, creme fraiche, yogurt, cream cheese, cultured butter, whole milk ricotta and real, whey-based ricotta.  All good ranging to great; all definitely worthwhile. 

I’ve discovered that, counterintuitively, regular supermarket milk responds better to the cheesemaking process than fancy organic milk (from, admittedly, fancy organic supermarkets).  The one time I was able to get some raw milk (definitely hush-hush and under the counter), though, it made the most amazing cheese that I’ve ever eaten–it tasted like eating flowers.  I can only assume that the organic milk was pasteurized at a higher temperature than the ordinary supermarket kind.

I admit that I’ve never made a hard cheese.  I have the equipment (a cheese press sulks forlornly in a box on top of my kitchen cupboards, waiting for its chance to go to the ball) and the ingredients (one uses the same cultures and rennet for nearly every kind of cheese, just in different quantities and added at different times and temperatures) but I have nowhere to _age_ the cheese.   As soon as I can find a sterile, contained 60-degree environment with adjustable humidity levels I will make an aged cheese, but until then I’ll stick with the softer ones. 

Which brings me to the point.  Once Teacherman and I had decided on the menu for our wedding reception, and I saw that one of the dishes required creme fraiche, I knew that I had to make the creme fraiche myself.  It’s cheaper, yes, but it’s also incredibly neat to make something so ‘fancy’ out of something so easily available.

After dinner tonight I heated a quart of half-and-half in a small pot on the stove until it reached 86 degrees.  I stirred in the starter culture, put a lid on the pot, and moved it to someplace it could sit undisturbed for 12 hours.  Tomorrow morning before work I’ll check the contents, to see if the resultant creme fraiche thick enough for me.  If so, I’ll put pot in the fridge.  If not, I’ll leave it to continue culturing until after I return home from work. 

The extent of the effort is the heating and stirring–nothing more is necessary.  Almost no cheese is easier (except for cream cheese, which doesn’t even need to be heated: just stir the culture into room-temperature cream, put a lid on and let it sit overnight) and few recipes of any kind result in such a lovely, voluptuous product.

This creme fraiche will fill three almond-onion crusts and be topped by smoked salmon, dill and cracked pink peppercorns.  It won’t be the star of its particular show, but its presence will be noted and appreciated.  Even if that note and appreciation are only from me, it will be worthwhile.

Published in: on June 18, 2007 at 8:37 pm  Leave a Comment  

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