Finally, the labors of my cheesecloth excursion have borne fruit — I made cheese! (Pictured above on a tray of cocktail snacks alongside tapenade, olives and saucisson sec.)
I realize that it is madness to make cheese in the country that (practically) invented cheese, but such is my dedication to you, mes amis, and this blog’s review of How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman. The recipe for “fresh cheese, the easy way” appears on the “20 essential vegetarian dishes,” and so fresh cheese we made.
It really is very easy. You start by heating 1/2 gallon of milk until it starts to bubble. As it turns hot and frothy, quickly add 1 quart buttermilk. Of course, this being France, I used 2 liters of semi-skimmed milk and 1 liter of lait ribot (photo above), a type of fermented milk that is a traditional drink in Bretagne. It’s tart and thick, just like buttermilk.
As soon as you add the buttermilk to the hot milk, it will curdle (photo above). Doesn’t it look disgusting? The thick egg-white looking stuff are curds and the thin watery liquid is whey. Kind of gives a whole new meaning to that old rhyme about Little Miss Muffet, doesn’t it? Remove from the heat and add salt (you’ll need a lot, if you’re going to taste it).
Okay, here’s where the cheesecloth comes in. Line a sieve with two layers of cheesecloth and drain the whey from the curds. If you like, you can now stir in additional stuff — pesto, or coarsely crushed black pepper, or lemon zest, which is what I used. Then gather the curds into a ball and squeeze all the liquid out. Careful, the curds are HOT. You may need to run the cloth-wrapped ball of curds until cold water until it’s cool enough to handle. (Note: If you omit the squeezing step and simply let the cheese drain for 30 minutes or so, you will have cottage cheese or ricotta (beat until smooth after draining.))
When you’ve finished squeezing, tie a string or fasten a rubber band around the top until secure and suspend the ball of cheese over a bowl for 1 1/2 hours, until it’s set.
Voila, you have cheese!
Now, I’m sure you’re wondering: What does it taste like? The truth is, it doesn’t taste like much. I didn’t add very much salt, so my cheese was quite bland, though the lemon zest added a pleasant perfume. The texture is firm, bordering on rubbery. And because my cheese was made with semi-skimmed milk — meaning it is very low in fat — it dries out very, very quickly. I keep it wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and another plastic bag to ensure it stays moist. The cheese does have a fresh, bright flavor, however, and I really like it drizzled with a little fine-quality olive oil, sprinkled with pepper and salt. It’s good in a sandwich with tomatoes and olive oil (it really needs a little olive oil). It goes without saying that this is a good, high-protein snack for anyone watching their sodium or saturated fat intake.
Would I make it again? Strangely, yes. I would like to experiment with other flavors — pesto sounds interesting, or maybe curry powder or chili paste. Also, I’d like to make another plain batch to use in one of my very favorite dishes, matter paneer, an Indian creation of spicy peas and cheese. I mean, now that I have the cheesecloth, why not?