Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The farmer's granddaughter's queso fresco

Rennet cheese #2 is resting peacefully in the fridge and I've finally rinsed the milk smell out of the kitchen, so this seems like the perfect time to share the simple, no-rennet cheese that started all this (referred to here loosely as "ricotta" or "queso fresco" or, to an even looser extent, "paneer").
I live in house full of reference books and have the endless wisdom of the Internet at my fingertips, but being me I went in for simplicity. If you get the cheese bug (the good kind, not that really awful kind) you might want to do the kind of exhaustive research I did. I also recommend the good Dr.'s site and this whey-ty page.
Here's the basic recipe, blogged with enviable skill by Little House in the Suburbs (check it out).

  • ½ gallon / 8 cups milk (whole or 2%)
  • ¼ cup lemon juice (pretty much one lemon) or plain vinegar (I think freshly squeezing a lemon is much more romantic, but whatever)
(I have a sinking feeling that the last couple of batches of our cheese have been made with 4 cups milk and ¼ cup lemon juice...can't remember if I found that in a recipe somewhere or if it was my own confusion, but it worked out pretty well! Always check your work!)
Just bring milk to a boil (around 180-200 degrees F), stirring occasionally to break up the film that forms. The first time I did this, I heated the milk very slowly. Now I just pump up the heat and watch it. Happens fast!
Add lemon juice and stir (with a wooden spoon if possible). It will curdle (ah-hah! linguistic moment!) and I like to leave the heat on just for a moment to get the temperature back up. Turn off of the heat, stir some more, and then...
Go back in time and set up a colander, covered with more cheesecloth than you think you'll need, over a large bowl (to catch the whey). We found cheesecloth at Giant and Williams & Sonoma. I've also seen that you can use any cotton item, as long as it's well-washed (maybe boiled) and not treated with any product (you don't want Bounce cheese). Slowly pour the curded milk into the colander. If you luck out and get large curds, use a slotted spoon to remove the big pieces first, then pour in the rest.
I found that goat milk (ultra-pasteurized) didn't strain very quickly. Let it sit in the colander for up to a few hours, until it isn't liquidy anymore. This step is similar to draining the rennet cheese. The goat-cheese tastes really authentic; we've found goat milk at Trader Joe's and Fresh Market.
Once the cheese is fairly thick, fold up the sides of the cloth so that you have a little package of cheese; tie a string around the top of the cloth, making a ball, and hang it over the sink for a few hours. As long as you can suspend and drain the ball somehow, you can store it anywhere, including the fridge.
Put the whey in a clean jar and refrigerate for later use (which I'll be posting on shortly).
You should now be experiencing what I (and only I) like to call "cheese-phoria": a sublime feeling that you have just sweet-talked nature. Oh, and just think of all the things you can stuff cheese into.

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