January 30, 2011

queso chronicles: homemade mozzarella

I have this fantasy that I will one day be an excellent cheesemaker. I really like cheese and I really like making things from scratch soooo … logical conclusion, right?

Well, my first two forays into the world of cheesemaking have been (sadly) less than stellar. Armed with internet research, a recipe from Ricki the Cheese Queen and the appropriate ingredients, I thought I had it in the bag.  I didn’t. After two back-to-back disappointments, I have taken a hiatus from cheesemaking. I think my milk choices may have been to blame (too high of a pasturization temperature at the milk factory), that and also the lack of a microwave to aid with the stretching process.

Here’s a little breakdown (although, if you want to attempt yourself, I would recommend you go straight to Ricki. She has quite the cult following and an awesome 80s hairdo, so she must be doing something right).

The ingredients

1 gallon whole milk, as local as you can get and not ultrapasturized

1 1/2 t citric acid, diluted in 1 c water

1/4 tab rennet

Add the citric acid diluted in water to cold milk. SLOWLY heat to 90 degrees.

Remove from the heat, add the rennet, stir 30 seconds, cover and let it sit quiet for 5 minutes.

A curd should form. Cut the curd into 1 inch cubes. Heat to 105 degrees. Take of the heat and continue to stir for 3 – 5 minutes. Strain the curd.

And this is where is all went downhill. I did not get a clean break between the curds and the whey. My curds were also finer and more grainy than they should have been. Still, I soldiered on, attempting to drain the curds and then form balls of those curds. Not successful. On my first attempt, my “mozzarella” was this funny mix between ricotta and mozzarella and would not hold any shape. On my second attempt, the cheese formed balls, but they were rock hard and dry. (Eww). Neither time was I able to stretch the cheese like Ricki shows in her pictures, neither time did I end up with a cheese that was appealing in texture.

I have to say, after the second failure I was pretty heartbroken. I hate to waste food (but I could not force myself to eat those hard, dry cheese balls). I won’t pretend that that it’s not disappointing to know that my dreams of master cheesemaking are much further away that I once thought. But, if anyone has a cow (and wants to share some super fresh milk) or even wants to offer up the use of their microwave, I may just give it another go.

-Emily

spaghetti alla carbonara

Let me begin by saying that this is one of those perfect dishes; nothing is wrong with it, nothing needs to be added and nothing needs to be taken away.  Spaghetti alla carbonara is a wonderful mix of egg, pancetta, parmigiano reggiano, and black pepper which form a silky sauce for the pasta.  Not only is it a perfect meal, but it’s quick and easy to make.  Before I get to the recipe I’ll give you a sneak peek into my past and what this dish means to me.

When I was a young food nerd on my first (and hopefully not last) trip to Europe, I given some excellent advice from my father: “eat as much spaghetti alla carbonara as possible because it’s very difficult to find in the US.”  I did.  In fact, I believe I at spaghetti alla carbonara five times during my six days in Italy.  This was back in 2004, and I’ve only tried to recreate the magic once.  My first attempt probably wasn’t long after the trip and needless to say, it wasn’t quite as good as the stuff from overseas.  Fortunately, since then I’ve become much more proficient in the kitchen and, inspired by the amazingly fresh eggs in our CSA box, I decided to give it another go.

It really is an amazingly simple dish, but I still used a recipe for guide.  Emily recommended the version from Ruth Riechl’s Garlic and Sapphires, which immediately appealed to me due to her substitution of bacon for pancetta.  Now I’m sure some people would find this blasphemous, but I prefer the flavor of bacon and I think that the use of pancetta may have been my downfall all those years ago in my first attempt.  So, with the pork issue sorted out, it’s time to get cooking.

First, bring a large pot of water to boil, then add a nice handful of salt and pound two-thirds of a pound of spaghetti.

Meanwhile, cut bacon into 0.25 inch slices and cook them over medium heat.  Add 2 or 3 cloves of garlic cut in half.  Allow the bacon to render its fat and start to crisp at the edges.  Don’t cook it like you’re serving it for breakfast because you need it to be soft to incorporate into the sauce.

While the bacon is cooking, in the bowl you are going to serve the pasta in whisk two eggs together and add a pinch of salt and a pretty good amount of freshly ground black pepper.  Then grate about half a cup of parmigiano reggiano into another bowl (don’t skimp here, buy the good stuff).

When the pasta is done cooking reserve about a quarter cup of the cooking liquid and add the drained pasta to the egg mixture in about three batches, mixing each time.  This tempers the eggs (cooks them slowly) so they don’t curdle.  Once all the pasta is in, remove the garlic from the bacon and add the bacon, its fat, and the parmesan.  Toss it all together and add some of the reserved water if it needs it.  Serve immediately with more parmesan and pepper.  We enjoyed ours with Acme bread and more CSA stuff: a salad with spinach, watermelon radishes, carrots, and a simple balsamic vinaigrette.

Conclusions:  Awesome!  Just as good as Italy.  If you execute it properly, without over-thinking it, and use good quality ingredients, it will be perfect.

Also, if you have one of those pasta spoons with the long tines, it works really well when adding the pasta to the eggs because the pasta still holds onto some of the water so you don’t have to add it later.

-Jordan