WOO HOOOO! I DID IT!
I told my sister yesterday that when I was done and all the mozzarella balls were formed (or eaten), I felt this urge to cry…it was similar to after both my kids were born, only without the pain. And, of course, not as wonderful and amazing as my children, flesh of my flesh, and so on.
It was the aftermath of success, of having made something myself, by my own hands. Tracey recently referenced a line from "Sunday in the Park with George" (yeah, I'm WAY off on a tangent), which, if you aren't familiar with it, is the fabulous musical by Stephen Sondheim revolving around a fictionalized version of the life of artist Georges Seurat, but also about the creative process and art and art vs profit and relationships and all sorts of stuff. Mandy Patinkin and Bernadette Peters starred in it and the music sometimes plays in my head for days.
Particularly the song "Finishing the Hat," which is Georges'…explanation? description?…of, basically, what it's like to be an artist. Relationships fall by the wayside, life continues to go on outside, because you "have to finish the hat." And at the very end of the song, after all the pain and passion have subsided…he sings, softer……"Finishing the hat/Look, I made a hat!/….Where there never was a hat!"
And that's my incredibly long and way off topic (sort of) explanation of how I felt upon completion of my first batch of mozzarella.
Look – I made fresh cheese!
But before the success came the work, and while not difficult work, it was new work, and at times my cheesemaking rivaled Lucy Ricardo's chocolate factory assembly line experiences. Really. Well, okay, not exactly, I wasn't stuffing curds down my blouse or anything. But it was a bit of a comedy.
Okay, before I go and revisit my own ineptitude, I have to say, if you want to learn how to make cheese, your first stop should really be at the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, owned and run and taught (yes, workshops and DVDs) by Ricki Carroll, aka "The Cheese Queen." I read about Ricki in Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," which I talked about a bit here, and I basically knew I had to give it all a try. I ordered the "Ricotta and Mozzarella" kit, and in the meantime I made my first batch of ricotta. I also bought Ricki Carroll's book "Home Cheesemaking" and have pretty much destroyed the pages with all my drooling. I've asked Bill to build me a cheese press…all I'll need now are the cows and goats and sheep to milk and I'll be SET.
Again, I babble.
Okay, I got my kit and I got my book and I got whole, pasteurized, locally produced milk. I had my stainless steel equipment and thermometer and a bowl. I was ready.
And also, weirdly, I was sort of nervous. I don't know why. I usually attack this sort of thing fearlessly. But for whatever reason, I was a little apprehensive.
And then I got annoyed with myself, squared my shoulders, tied on my apron, and got to work.
I used Ricki Carroll's "Thirty-Minute Mozzarella" recipe from her book, basically, but I didn't do it using the microwave (which is what makes it take only 30 minutes to make), because, I don't know, I felt like it was too easy that way.
So here's what I did.
First, I got out everything I'd need (or so I thought).
Following Ricki's recipe, here are the ingredients:
1 1/2 level teaspoons citric acid dissolved in 1/2 cup cool water
1 gallon pasteurized whole milk
1/8-1/4 teaspoon lipase powder (I didn't use any for this first batch)
1/4 teaspoon liquid rennet (or 1/4 rennet tablet) diluted in 1/4 cup cool, unchlorinated water
1 teaspoon cheese salt (optional) – (I didn't use this either – I ended up following the non-microwave directions, which included adding 1/4 cup cheese salt to the hot whey…but I'm getting ahead of myself.)
Okay, here we go…
1. While stirring, add the citiric acid solution to the milk at 55 degrees F and mix thoroughly. (If using lipase, add it now.)
I started off by immediately screwing up. I put the milk in the pot and turned the heat on and walked away to read through the directions again. Okay, fine, I was reviewing directions, HOWEVER, milk heats up rather quickly, and I should have stayed right where I was, thermometer in hand, to wait for the milk to quickly reach that 55 degrees.
By the time the sluggish voice in my head woke up, rubbed its eyes, and remembered to remind me about that 55 degree temperature I was shooting for, the actual temperature of the milk was up to about 82 degrees. Oh GREAT! I've already ruined it!
I shut off the flame and moved the pot to a cold burner and started stirring like I was possessed, frantically trying to cool down the milk. Of course, that wasn't working all that well. Okay, think, Jayne…COLD WATER! THAT'S WHAT I NEED! I filled a big stainless steel bowl with cold water (our icemaker wasn't working, in case you were thinking, rightly, "icewater would be better") and set the pot down in it and continued to stir like a madwoman. The pot was also near an open window. I begged for strong breezes. I checked the temperature. Oooh, already down a whole degree. I'll get down to 55 by the weekend, probably. Damn the stupid not-working icemaker! I need ice! Stir stir stir stir. Another tenth of a degree.
Hey! I suddenly had a functioning brain again. We have freezer pack things to put in coolers and lunch bags! I can use them! I dug out all the frozen plastic things we had and set them below and around the pot in the bowl of water. Quite the assemblage, let me tell you. I stirred and stirred, and hoooooey! Eventually, like around two years later, I got down into the low seventies. You know that saying about a watched pot never boiling? Same thing applies to that pot never cooling.
This was taking way longer than thirty minutes. In fact, just my dumbass mistake and the attempt to fix it had already brought me past the thirty minute mark. I briefly thought of putting the pot in the fridge, but that would mean clearing space and that would take MORE time, and is it really, really, REALLY imperative that the dissolved citric acid go in at EXACTLY 55 degrees? I mean, you keep heating it up anyway, right? Check the temperature…ooh, it's 70 now. FINE. I'm just going to go ahead with it. If I screw it all up, so be it. Dammit. Dumbass.
So after the stirring of the milk and the berating of myself was over, I dried off the bottom of the pot and set it back on the burner. And, holding my breath, added the citric acid and stirred it in. The milk exploded all over the kitchen. Just kidding. Nothing happened. Nothing bad, anyway. Instead, happily, the milk started to coagulate in little tiny, wispy shreds. Exhale. Okay, now what?
2. Heat the milk to 90 degrees F over medium/low heat. (The milk will start to curdle.)
I can manage that, I think. Just don't walk away again!
3. Gently stir in the diluted rennet with an up-and-down motion, while heating the milk to between 100-105 degrees F. Turn off the heat. The curds should be pulling away from the sides of the pot; they are ready to scoop out (approximately 3 to 5 minutes for this).
Ack! What do I use to stir in an up and down motion? I forgot this part! I don't have the right equipment after all! I ended up using a large serving spoon and kind of pressing the milk up and down with the bowl of the spoon. I guess it worked – curds formed. I've got CURDS!
4. The curds will look like thick yogurt and have a bit of shine to them, and the whey will be clear. If the whey is still milky white, wait a few more minutes.
My whey looked pretty clear to me, but I waited a few minutes anyway, just to be sure.
5. Scoop out the curds with a slotted spoon and put into a 2-quart microwavable bowl. Press the curds gently with your hands, pouring off as much whey as possible. Reserve the whey.
Okay, I had looked in a couple of stores for a nice, wide, slotted stainless steel spoon or ladle that I could use for this part. I should have looked harder, but I thought I could make due with a sort of mesh strainer with a handle. It was flat, and looked basically like a spoon only with mesh instead of a solid or slotted bowl. It did come in handy, but not at this particular moment. I tried scooping out the curds with it, but since at this point there are big curds and small curds and tiny curds, the tiny ones clogged all the holes in the mesh and I ended up scooping lots of whey along with the curds. So my 2-quart bowl had a nice pile of curds surrounded by a moat of whey. Grrrr. I grabbed a slotted serving spoon from the drawer under the counter and used that for my scooping. It worked well, except it wasn't very big and all the scooping took me 4-EVAH.
And then there was the matter of all the tiny curds. I was bound and determined that I would harvest ALL the curds, every last one of them, in order to get the most mozzarella for my efforts. So I switched back to the mesh spoon and caught the fleeing curds like fish in a net. Only problem was, they got stuck in the mesh (yeah, like dolphins in a tuna net) and I had to bang the mesh spoon on my bowl to free them. I didn't break the bowl, but this really wasn't the best option.
Now, one of the important things when making cheese is CLEANLINESS. So with that uppermost in my fevered brain, I had laid out all my tools on clean paper towels prior to the start of my cheesefest. I planned to ONLY use these. Because I had washed and inspected them all and they were nice and clean.
But then there I was, banging a metal spoon on a glass bowl, just daring the bowl not to break and spill all my hard-earned curds on the floor. I glanced around the kitchen and AHA – I grabbed the bowl of my 6 quart KitchenAid mixer and a mesh strainer (deeper bowl than the spoon thing), set the strainer on the mixing bowl and yes, poured the pot of whey through the 5" diameter strainer to get those last stubborn little curds, dammit! Got 'em! And then I also strained the whey from the curds in my glass bowl. Amazingly, that part went fine.
And then I had to pour the whey from the mixing bowl back into the pot so that later on I could heat that up to heat up the curds so they'd be stretchy…that part comes later. So anyway, I've got the big 6 quart bowl of whey and I'm trying to pour the whey into the pot without spilling it. I didn't want the whey to drip down the edge of the bowl and drip onto the stove…so I tried to hold the bowl so the lip would be at one side of the pot and the rest of the bowl would be completely over the pot and there would be no spillage. I tilted the bowl and the whey rolled out in crashing waves, right over the side of the pot and into my mise en placed bowls of cheese salt, onto the counter, between the counter and the onto the floor. Great going, Jayne!
But at least most of the whey went back into the pot.
Okay…where was I?
6. Microwave the curds on high – No, wait, I'm not going that route. I have to read the section little blurb in the box to the left on that page….
"No microwave? If you don't have a microwave, you may want to put on heavy rubber gloves at this point. Heat the reserved whey to at least 175 degrees F. Add 1/4 cup of cheese salt to the whey. Shape the curd into one or more balls, put them in a ladle or strainer, and dip them into the hot whey for several seconds. Knead the curd with spoons between each dip and repeat this process several times until the curd is smooth and pliable."
Well, I don't have rubber gloves, but I do have "chef hands" – I can tolerate the heat a lot better than some people (like my husband, who was getting something off the stove the other day that was hot and I heard him hiss to himself "Ow…don't have chef hands!"), so I figured I could stand to handle the hot curds. I started heating up the whey and while it was heating, I formed some small balls with the curds and put them in another bowl. I had one pot of whey and three different glass bowls, a stainless steel mixing bowl, several spoons (slotted and non-slotted), two thermometers, two types of mesh strainers, and a ladle. I looked SO in control of things. But whatever. I soldiered on.
The whey was nice and hot, and I took one ball of curds, put it in the ladle, and lowered it into the pot for a couple of seconds. Then I poured the ball into an empty bowl and started to knead it. Now, I've kneaded bread and pasta doughs, but I could slam them on a floured countertop and somehow I didn't think that was appropriate for curds. So I just picked up the ball of warmed curds and started pressing it and smushing it in my hands. I don't know how to describe it, but I guess it was a kind of mini-kneading.
8. Knead quickly until it is smooth and elastic. When the cheese stretches like taffy, it is done. If the curds break instead of stretch, they are too cool and need to be reheated.
Still too curdy, so I put the ball back in the ladle, immersed it again, and worked it by hand again. Hm…it was starting to hold together better, and I could actually see little cheesy strands starting to form.
I WAS DOING IT!! Back into the hot whey once more…and this time part of it stuck – in a gooey, cheesy way!!! – to the ladle when I tipped it back into the bowl. This time, when I was kneading it, the whole cheese had been transformed from ricotta-like curds to elastic strands of – can it be??? – fresh mozzarella!
9. When the cheese is smooth and shiny, roll it into small balls and eat while warm. Or place them in a bowl of ice water for 1/2 hour to bring the inside temperature down rapidly; this will produce a consistent smooth texture throughout the cheese. Although best eaten fresh, if you must wait, cover and store in the refrigerator.
I continued to play with the stretchy, strandy, shiny, magical ball of mozzarella and hollered for my husband, who was practicing a self-arranged solo version of "Ave Maria" for a wedding he's playing this Saturday. Normally I don't interrupt him when he's practicing, but this was IMPORTANT!!! He didn't come a-running as quickly as I would have liked, but I guess he had to put the guitar down first so I wouldn't drip whey on it.
I tore that first ball in two and gave him half. Okay, the smaller half, but hey, I actually MADE the cheese, so I figured I'd earned the slightly bigger piece. And it was warm and soft and slightly chewy and slightly salty and definitely CHEESE. Bill looked at me, nodding. "It's the real deal." He said. "Good job." (That's his version of jumping up and down and squealing "EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!" about things.)
Bursting with a million emotions – joy and pride and, yeah, relief – I finished making the rest of my mozzarella balls – in various sizes.
Julia came into the kitchen at some point and had part of a ball – LOVED IT – and wanted more. We told her she had to wait til I was all done. Alex, expectedly, didn't want any. It's that white squishy cheese thing with him. But that's okay, I knew that ahead of time.
Everything within a 4 foot radius of that pot of whey was splashed with little droplets of whey. And later on, I noticed that tiny curds had stuck in and around and on my rings. My glasses were splashed and smeared, too. I was hot and sweaty and breathless and emotionally exhausted (okay, that's a slight exaggeration)…and I was exultant.
I did it!
And the best part is, I can't wait to do it again. This time, I'll know what I'm doing, and I'll be able to enjoy the process and maybe take more pictures. I didn't plan to take pictures with this first batch – I had planned to focus completely on the task at hand. Of course, that flew out the window when I heated my milk too fast at the very beginning, and I ended up taking a couple of pictures when I had a moment of down time. But there were other points that I wanted to take pictures, to give you a more step by step feel for it. So I'll do that when I make batch #2.
Yield: 3/4 - 1 pound
I couldn't get the exact yield of mine because the first two balls were eaten right away. But there was another ball about the same size as the two that were gone, so I weighed what I had and ballparked the actual weight of the whole batch. And it was half an ounce under a pound. So – not bad at all, I say.
Above – on the left – a ball of curds. On the right – two balls of mozzarella. By my own hands.
I know I sound like a lunatic, but really – this was so cool. I "get" the process now, the heating the curds so they are pliable, and working them until they become stretchy. I really can't wait to make some more. And then – so many possibilities! Grilled pizzas…salads of fresh tomatoes and mozzarella and basil drizzled with olive oil…mozzarella sticks for Julia to eat most of and the leave the last nub somewhere on a piece of furniture in a room other than the dining room…FRIED mozzarella!! Lasagne and manicotti and stuffed shells…and chicken or eggplant parmesan…or just – fresh cheese, still warm, eaten while standing by the stove.
You HAVE to try this, folks. Really. It is SO worth it.
And here – I just wanted to link again to this website – I'm not being paid to, but really, if you want to get started making cheese, go check it out.
New England Cheesemaking provides everything you need to make fresh, homemade cheese, they even have a 30 minute Mozzarella. From kits to recipes to books, store bought will never taste the same again.