Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Strong Cheese Accident

There's already a lot of weird stuff in my fridge, so why not add a jar of fresh homemade cheese marinated in ramps and cider? Right, no reason not to, at all.

I've been thinking quite a bit recently about blogs that rely on "adapted" recipes from other sources, about originality and creativity in food writing and blogging, and shaping influences, inspirations; about where ideas come from and how to properly acknowledge our debts and the contributions of others to our own development.  I'm far from sorting it all out, but I think that this little experiment, no matter how it turns out, is a great example of how a whole slew of sources and influences, from across continents and even centuries (the fromage fort method being very, very old, indeed), filtered through a curious (and not very organized) mind, might produce something which, while not new in any sense, may turn out to be unique in its own way.  That's what I love about food, and the diverse community of people who are compelled, perhaps obsessed, by it.

 My kitchen processes seem to be bouncing off accidents these days, from burnt honey to abandoned cheese. Home cheese making isn't difficult, I keep hearing, and I believe it. I'm sure it's just like smoking meat and fish, or fermenting sauerkraut: ridiculously easy when you know how it works and have done it a few times; incredibly daunting when you're looking from the outside and have never done it before. Plus, it's a commitment. You turn milk into curds and whey, and then you have to deal with the product. And while I knew that milk is mostly whey and just a wee bit of curd, I wasn't quite prepared to confront the reality of that. It's like boiling maple sap down for syrup. You can read and perfectly well process the fact that it takes around 40 gallons of sap to make a gallon of syrup, but until you've done it, you can't possibly understand what's involved in getting rid of all that water.

Well, backing up a bit: I finally made cheese, the very most basic kind, simple set curds that we know from Indian cooking as paneer. I got the method from Tricia Cornell's nifty book Eat More Vegetables .  You just  bring some milk up to a simmer, stir in something acidic, and the solids congeal and separate from the liquid whey.  Pour the results through cheesecloth, which catches the solids.  Let that drain well, and you have basic white cheese.  From one quart of milk I got a half cup of cheese and 3 1/2 cups of whey.  I know there are things you can do with whey, from using it as liquid in pasta making to feeding it to your hogs.  I have no hogs, and was going out of town the next day.  I tossed the whey, feeling as if I was dumping perfectly good milk down the drain.  If any of you have clever uses for whey, I'd love to hear about them.

So, from my beautiful quart of whole raw milk I now had this rather paltry little sack of cheese, and obviously this swap which on one's first go seems like a pretty lousy deal is just something you have to get past if you want to make cheese.  Yes, I'm aware that milk is a liquid, and yes, at an intellectual level I realize that I shouldn't have expected a quart of milk to magically turn into a quart of cheese.  Just the same....  Sorry, don't mean to belabor the point.

But there's the set-up:  quart of delicious milk becomes sad-looking tiny sack of cheese, going out of town--bung it in the fridge, deal with it later.  And so today is later.  I peeled the cheese out of the cheesecloth.  It was a bit yellowed on the outside, and the cheesecloth stuck.  The texture was chalky, and it tasted like...nothing.  I was becoming depressed, and then, a lightbulb!

Dimly, from the addled recesses of my still somewhat jet-lagged mind, I recalled a preparation I'd been meaning to try, a variation on a marinated goat cheese recipe (which itself was a variation on the French fromage fort, or strong cheese) that I'd seen in one of Madeleine Kamman's books, In Madeleine's Kitchen .  My thought upon reading that recipe a while back was to try using Wisconsin white cheese curds, dry apple cider, and ramps in place of the goat cheese, white wine, and leeks that Madeleine uses.  And now I had my own homemade cheese to sub for the cheese curds--except, when it came down to it, I didn't have enough homemade cheese to fill even a very small jar, so I added an equal weight of cheese curds to fill it out.

The idea here is sort of double-fermented, or ultra-washed rind, cheese.  As Madeleine notes, the usual way to do this is to make a purée of leftover bits of cheese, along with wine, garlic, maybe some herbs, and let that sit in a crock until it becomes nice and...aromatic.  I wrote about that method here.  I can't really call this a recipe, this impromptu assemblage, but here's what I had:

2 ounces each fresh homemade cheese (unsalted) and white cheese curds, in 1/2-3/4-inch cubes
2 plump ramp bulbs, sliced thin
3/4 cup dry hard apple cider
2 generous pinches coarse salt
about 12 whole black peppercorns
1 sprig fresh tarragon
1 tablespoon sunflower oil

I combined the ramps, peppercorns, and cider in a small saucepan, brought it to a boil, and simmered for a minute.  When it was cool I added it to the cheese, along with the salt.  I spooned this mixture into a small jar, making sure the cheese was covered with rampy cider.  Then add the oil, put on the lid, shake it up, put it away in the fridge for a while.  Madeleine says to leave the marinated goat cheeses for three months.   I think I'll check mine in a week or so, and report back.

Text and photos copyright 2012 by Brett Laidlaw


Nancy @ rivertreekitchen said...

It does feel flagrantly wasteful to see that whole quart milk drain away to the tiny ball of cheese. I look forward to hearing about the results of the fromage fort.

Rosie said...

You can use whey to jump-start lactofermentation in vegetables. Just add some to the vegetables you want to ferment, and you can cut the amount of salt you use in half. This, of course, only uses a bit of the huge amount of whey you have when you make cheese, but whey keeps in the fridge quite awhile.

Trout Caviar said...

Hi Nancy: The waiting is the hardest part, right? I just hope it doesn't get shuffled to the back, only to re-emerge this time next year....

Rosie, thanks for the tip. I'll give that a try with my next batch of whey. I've also seen the suggestion to use it as broth in soup making, and as the liquid in bread dough.

Cheers~ Brett