What Would Dionysus‘ Caterer Do?
Well, if he were smart, he’d bone up on cheese, cured meats, and wine, staples in any serious attempt at decadence. These all happen to be foods made of few ingredients and with the artful application of time – usually one dominant ingredient to which you add a handful of one or two others, combine, then kick back with a lemon Four Loko and let nature take its course. I would say that not only couldn’t you have a proper Bacchanal without these items, but you could easily make do with nothing else on the table.
This has been a source of fascination in recent years; my very first blog entry was about a half-cured filet mignon. In fact, I’m going to take that and any other things I write on easy, decadent foods and create a new column called “The Lazy Sybarite” which I’ll augment often from this day forth. Cool? Cool.
Alcohol and cheese have been on the list for some time. I’m not quite ready to set up a Dukes of Hazzard-style moonshine operation in the spare room, though, so cheese seemed to be the way forward.
I started feeling serious cheesemaking pangs a few days ago when I was cooped up in my apartment during the height of the snowstorm in New York. Not feeling anything remotely approaching a burning desire to get out of my comfy apartment, I was relieved to find out that the simplest cheese was makable with ingredients I had on hand (and that you probably do too). While making an aged cheese in on the goal list, achieving it that day would have required getting off my sweats-becladded heinie and out into the blustery wild. That wasn’t going to happen – I wanted immediate results. And fortunately, a first step into cheesing can provide just that.
Shall we? You will need:
1/2 gallon milk
2 tbsp white vinegar
1 1/2 tbsp lemon (if you have more vinegar and less lemon, or vice versa, then change up the amounts as needed – just make sure you’ve got 3 1/2 tablespoons total acid)
1/2 tsp salt
Two stockpots, or a stockpot and a large bowl
A clean pillowcase
Take the milk and bring it to nearly a rolling boil in the pot over medium-high heat. If you’ve got a thermometer, shoot for 200 degrees; if you don’t, just take the pot off the heat as soon as it starts to boil. Watch it like a hawk; once it starts to boil, the milk will overflow in seconds. Don’t lose focus:
After you’ve taken the milk off the heat, add the acid – the milk should start curdling immediately.
The greenish liquid is the whey, which we won’t be needing for the cheese. Let it sit for 15 minutes, then pour everything into the pillowcase and let it hang for an hour. I hung it over a second pot to collect the whey for later use – you can also hang it over a bowl or, if you’re not feeling whey-thrifty, over the sink.
After an hour, you should have a lump of cheese. Just add 1/2 tsp salt and mix it up with your hands. Et voila! A nice crumbly queso fresco, or whole milk ricotta.
A half-gallon of milk made 3/4 pound of ricotta, which worked out to $6.67 a pound for cheese made out of our fancy unprocessed milk. This seemed very reasonable to me.
As anyone who’s had ricotta knows, this is among the simplest of cheeses. This ain’t no Parmesan or St. Agur. But still, I had a tremendous level of satisfaction from the process: I had made cheese.
Cheese can be made from milk in one of two fundamental ways: with acid (as I had just done) and with rennet. Rennet, a series of enzymes that help mammals digest milk, is usually taken from calves’ stomachs (there are vegetarian alternatives). The acidity of lemon juice or vinegar prevents the growth of flavor-forming bacteria that characterize most of your favorite cheeses; cheese made with rennet gives you a lot more options.
And beter yet, after making rennet-based cheese there’s still enough oomph in the whey to make ricotta cheese anyway! Ricotta is Italian for “recooked,” and that’s exactly how ricotta cheese is made – out of the leftovers of the rennet-based cheese manufacturing process. Ricotta, real ricotta, is a cheese of thrift.
This idea of taking some milk, pulling some cheese out of it, then pulling some more cheese of a different type has all the elements of the black arts to me. So I know I’ve got to get involved.