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Monday, May 17, 2010

Mozzarella Cheese

Have I got a treat for you! Despite my hectic life in these last 20 days of school with testing and mayhem, I attempted something crazy this last weekend. I decided to try making mozzarella cheese. I really enjoy making cheese and have had great success. Normally, in my experience, though, cheese-making has been a fairly time consuming process. Not this time. Hoo boy! Can you believe I made homemade mozzarella cheese in only thirty minutes?

I got the idea from my recent issue of Hobby Farm Home magazine. Apparently, the recipe in the article was based on a book I haven't yet had the pleasure of reading, Home Cheesemaking by Ricki Carroll. I have to say, I was a bit skeptical about the whole thirty minute thing. But, honestly, this cheese practically made itself. I was enjoying a beautiful, fresh caprese salad in the blink of an eye (well... maybe a few blinks, but it was fast!).

You need a few special ingredients for this cheese, but you can check out the link to New England Cheesemaking Supply here. I buy a whole bunch of the various starters and rennets and then store them in the freezer and/or refrigerator, depending on the recommendations that come with the ingredients, to use whenever the urge hits me. As easy and tasty as this cheese is, you'll want to stock up!

The first step is to pour a gallon of whole milk into a heavy bottomed stock pot. You can use regular old homogenized, pasteurized milk from the store, just be sure it is not ultra-pasteurized. Slowly heat the milk to 55 degrees F. Meanwhile, dissolve the citric acid in distilled water and set aside. Then mix the rennet and water together and set aside. Be sure you know which mixture is which! When the milk reaches 55 degrees, stir in the citric acid solution. Keep heating until you reach 90 degrees F.

At 90 degrees F, you need to stir in the rennet solution. It will immediately start to curdle the milk making it initially look like yogurt. Continue heating to 105 degrees F, stirring occasionally. In a very short period of time, there should be very distinct curds and pale whey. In the next picture, you can see how the curds and whey have separated at the edge of the pot. When the temperature reaches 105, remove from the heat. If the whey is fairly clear (it will have a slight yellowish cast), you are good to go on to the next step, if it is still a bit milky, wait a few minutes and it should clear up.

Here is what the curds will look like when it is time to drain. They are fairly loose compared to some cheeses I've made. The whey, however, is the key to knowing when it is time to drain.

I line a colander with a double layer of cheesecloth and drain the curds and whey. You can catch the whey if you like and make ricotta cheese or keep the whey to use in baked goods. Or, you can simply let it go down the drain. That's what I did this time since I was kind of in a hurry. Let the curds drain for a few minutes. They do not have to be completely dry to continue on to the next step.

Place the mass of curds into a microwavable bowl. Heat the curds in the microwave, on high, for one minute. Remove the bowl and stir with your hands or two spoons to mix the curds and evenly distribute the heat.

Heat two more times for 35 seconds, mixing in between. After the last time, sprinkle on the salt and then knead the cheese. At this point, it should start looking different... smooth and shiny... almost like taffy. Extra whey will come out of the cheese; it can simply be drained off. I wear vinyl disposable gloves at this point because working the cheese with your hands is much more efficient, but that cheese is hot and the gloves protect you just a bit. Knead until the cheese is smooth and can be easily shaped. If it is uncooperative, try heating for a few seconds more. Just be careful, if you overdo the heating, your cheese can become grainy, which is no good.

Working quickly, before the cheese cools, form it into whatever shape you wish. I made two logs out of it, but you could make small balls or one large ball. You could even shape the cheese in molds, if you like! Place the shaped cheese in cold, distilled water to cool.

Store tightly wrapped in plastic wrap for up to one week. Slice and enjoy! What a treat!

Please note that I originally posted to store the cheese in water. While I will test it again with storing in brine like you see at the store, storing in water - ultimately - was a failure. By the end of the week, the outside of the cheese was a goopy mess. Wrapping in plastic wrap keeps it plenty moist and the cheese stays fresh for up to a week.

Mozzarella Cheese
Yield: approximately 1 pound

1 gallon whole milk
1 1/2 tsp citric acid dissolved in 1/2 cup cool, distilled water
1/4 tsp liquid rennet mixed into 1/4 cup cool, distilled water
1 tsp kosher salt, or to taste

Place the milk in a large, heavy bottomed stock pot. Heat to 55 degrees F. Add the citric acid/water solution and stir to mix. Continue heating. When it reaches 90 degrees F, add the rennet solution. Stir to mix and continue heating. When the mixture reaches 105 degrees F, remove from the heat and check for curd formation.

When the milk has fully curdled and separated from the whey, drain in a cheesecloth lined colander. Let the curds drain for a few minutes and then transfer to a microwave-safe bowl. Heat the curds on high for one minute. Stir the mix the curds with your hands or two spoons to distribute the heat. Return the bowl to the microwave and heat two more times for 35 seconds each, stirring after each heating. After the second time, add the salt and begin kneading the cheese. Any extra whey that comes out of the cheese can be drained off. At this point, the cheese should start to look different and be more taffy-like. Knead until it is shiny and elastic. Form into whatever shape you please and submerse in cold, distilled water until it is cool to the touch. Drain and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Store, refrigerated, up to one week.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I've been posting some recipes recently that require foods that can easily go rancid. Check that... maybe I need to review what the word "recently" means. It doesn't seem like I've really posted anything recently. All I have to say about that is: 22 more wake-ups and I free! I am really ready to get back into the kitchen, let me tell you.

Anyway... what I was trying to say before I so rudely interrupted myself was that there are certain foods that can go rancid on you and if you're not careful, they can sneak up on you and make things that normally taste wonderful taste... weird.

Case in point: I've been eating a fair amount of hummus lately. And up until about a month ago, I couldn't understand why the recipe I've always used and loved kept coming out so darn disappointing. I'm not really sure what prompted the moment of enlightenment, but all of a sudden one night it dawned on me that I was working from a jar of tahini (sesame seed paste, similar in consistency to peanut butter) that had been in my cupboard for something like three years.

I stuck my nose in the jar. It didn't really smell bad, but there was something different going on. You've got to watch those high fat products. I've had this problem before; because they're shelf stable, we (or maybe just I) tend to forget how long they've been in there. Unfortunately, those items high in fat can go rancid pretty easily.

The good news, I guess, is that using rancid ingredients doesn't hurt you, it just can lend an odd taste to whatever you are making. In the tahini case, my hummus just tasted slightly off. I went to the store and got a new jar, and all my troubles were solved.

But here's the thing. How do you know when something is rancid? Sometimes it's just darn obvious. When something is really rancid it has a sharp odor that you can instantly recognize even if you have no idea what is wrong. That's easy. The problem is when it's so subtle that you don't really recognize it.

Here are a couple of recommendations:
  1. When you first purchase items that are prone to going rancid (whole wheat flour, bran, whole grains, shortening, nuts, and nut butters), take a really good long sniff of them to create a memory of what they should smell like. I always have this problem with whole wheat flour in particular. I can't tell you how many times I've stuck my nose into a batch of flour and couldn't decide if it was rancid or not. When I am in doubt, I open a new package and smell it in turn with the rancid batch and then it is really obvious.
  2. Be sure to store items properly. Foods with a high fat content can go rancid when they become oxidized and/or undergo chemical alteration by microbes. To combat these issues, make sure you store the items in an air tight container and then store them in a cool, dark place. I always store my nuts in the freezer. My whole wheat flour lives in my fridge.

Well, I guess that's all I've got time for today. I've got tests to correct and lessons to plan still, but I wanted to let you know I am still kicking. I hope everyone is having a wonderful week!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Pita Bread

I must say, sometimes, even I am surprised by how something I always thought would be challenging to make is, in fact, quite easy. Take pita bread, for instance. I'm not sure why I thought they would have to be challenging; I guess I figured that pocket in the middle couldn't just show up like magic. But you know what? It does!

To be honest, this may be one of the quickest, easiest breads I've ever made (and I have made quite a few). The only draw back, if you can call it that, is that you do need to get out the rolling pin and dirty up the counter flattening these things out, but I think that it's worth it.

I really enjoy pita for all kinds of applications. My favorite is cut into wedges and dipped into hummus. In the picture above, I have stuffed it with fresh spinach, tomatoes, and hummus. They're also great for hot sandwiches. I love a nice seasoned patty of meat, especially if it's lamb with a little Greek inspired seasoning.

You start the pitas by mixing the ingredients together. The first time I made these, I mixed them in my stand mixer. However, the amount of dough is so small, that I found them just as quick to mix by hand, and then I didn't have to dirty up my mixer. Truth be told, you could mix the whole thing on the counter (make a well in the flour for the wet ingredients and then mix). The dough comes together nicely. It never quite loses its tackiness, but it will become smooth and workable, provided you don't knead at a snail's pace (the longer you hand is in contact with it at each go, the more chance it has of sticking). After mixing, knead the dough until it comes together nicely and is elastic. Please note that it is not a huge amount of dough; I don't exactly have the largest hands around.

Let the dough rise until doubled in an oiled and covered bowl. It took mine about an hour in a 72 degree house. Knock down the dough and flatten it out on a lightly floured counter top. Cut the dough into six even sized pieces and pull the dough around, almost like you are turning them inside out, and pinch the edges together to form a nice, smooth ball. Dampen a flour sack towel and place over the six dough balls to let them rest ten minutes. Resting allows you to roll them out without the gluten fighting you every step of the way.

Once they have rested, prepare two 11x17 inch pans or one 3/4 sheet pan (only recently becoming available at restaurant supply stores, this size pan is great because it is the largest pan you can fit in a home oven) with parchment. Roll the dough balls out on a lightly floured counter until they are about the size of your hand or about six inches in diameter.

Place the dough rounds onto the lined sheet and cover loosely with the damp towel again and let them rise for about half an hour. In the meantime, start your oven to preheating. It takes my oven a long time to preheat to 500 degrees! When the oven is heated and the pita rounds are just slightly puffy, place them into the oven and then watch the magic happen. A nice, hot oven is required if you want the pitas to puff properly. Also, if you feel they have dried out too much before going in the oven, you can spritz them with a little water. If they are too dried out, they won't be able to puff as well.

Bake pitas until they are puffed and just starting to think about turning a little golden. I will warn you, there is a fine line between undercooked and overcooked pitas, so be sure that you are watching them carefully. It took mine about 7-10 minutes to bake. Remove from the oven and set the pan on a rack to cool. As they cool, most will start to deflate, but if they don't before you want to store them, gently press the air out of them. I typically have one pita per batch that doesn't puff as well as the others. Makes it hard to use as a pocket, but it still tastes great!

Pitas store in an airtight bag for 3-4 days or they can be frozen for up to six months. They taste best if they are just slightly warmed before serving so they become soft and supple again.

Pita Bread
Yield: 6 pita rounds

2 cups all purpose flour
1/4 tsp table salt
1 tsp instant yeast
3/4 cup lukewarm water
1 TBS extra virgin olive oil

Mix all ingredients together and knead until a supple dough forms. Dough should still be tacky but not sticky. If it is too sticky, knead in a little flour. Form into a ball and place in an oiled bowl. Cover and let rise until double, about one hour.

Knock down the dough, press into a flat rectangle to facilitate cutting it into six even dough pieces. Form each piece into a ball by pinching the dough around to the bottom, forming a smooth surface. Cover the six balls with a slightly damp flour sack towel (or paper towels). Let dough rest, covered, for about ten minutes to allow the gluten to relax.

Prepare two 11x17 sheet pans with parchment. Roll out each dough ball until it is nice and thin and about six inches in diameter. Mine were about 3/8 of an inch thick. Place rounds on the parchment, cover with the damp towel and let them rise for about half an hour. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 500 degrees F.

When the oven is preheated and the dough has risen slightly, place the pitas into the oven. Bake 7-10 minutes or until nicely puffed and just starting the turn color. Remove from the oven and cool completely before storing in an air tight container.

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