Semi-soft Unripened Cheese: step by step
Alright guys, be on your best behavior today! We have a guest presenter in our midst! Well, in a manner of speaking. Technically, you’re still stuck listening to me ramble on and on (and on) about the merits of fresh milk and the minutiae of fresh cheese making, but at least the actual art of cheese making is being done not by me, but rather by my father. Dear ol’ Dad. He took one for the team and let me watch him, incessant questioning included, as he made my favorite: fresh, unripened, soft but just slightly chewy cow’s milk cheese. Eat, pray, love indeed.
About 5 years ago I decided that it was time to learn how to make bread. Now, without much effort, I can make everything from focaccia to molasses rye with very little need for a reference or recipe. A few years later I realized that pastry crust was my Achilles heel, but now, with much practice and a better understanding of the pastry process as a whole, I can make a pie crust that won’t make my guests shudder and run home to avoid. Since I have come to terms with the fact that I’ll never be able to cook a decent omelet or fried egg, I’m leaving ova behind in my quest to master the next deadly art: I want to make cheese. Lots of cheese. Enough cheese to rule the world!!!!! There’s just one small hitch in this plan….it’s not exactly easy to get farm-fresh milk in Canada, from any kind of beast. Oh, and we don’t exactly have a temperature and humidity controlled home. And I’m not patient enough to wait TWO YEARS before I sample of my wares. So, okay, more than one small hitch but even so: I’m determined to make cheese.
A few weeks ago I did an overnight shift at work. By four in the morning, when I was borderline delirious, Mike started getting scintillating emails such as these:
“Hey babe! I’ve decided that when I turn 30 this year I know what you can buy me and it’s really not UNaffordable, so you can enroll us in a course in Lancaster to learn how to make cheese and then we can be cheesemongers with homemade cheese that we made and we can eat it ALL DAY LONG and isn’t this going to be awesome? (So have you registered yet? The link is at the bottom of the page. Loves!)”
Yup. I’m a jewel.
In the mean time, however, until I wear down his soul gently coax Mike into a course on cheese production and mongering, I figure that I can set my sights closer to home. In addition to the discount super-sized brick of Mozzarella and Marble Cheddar that I grew up eating, we often had Jibneh. In Arabic, “jibneh” just means “cheese”, and it’s a traditional semi-soft unripened cow’s milk cheese that is preserved in a salt water brine for both flavor and shelf-life. In terms of popular cheeses, “jibneh” is probably closest to either a Halloumi or a Macedonian cow milk feta, although the texture tends to be a bit chewier than we expect feta to be.
At some point last year I was at a Portuguese restaurant with our friends Sandra and Chris, when the waiter brought out cheese (sprinkled with oregano and a dollop of olive oil), olives and a crusty loaf. I took one bite and said, “JIBNEH! THIS IS JIBNEH!!!” Sandra, our token Porto friend, said, “Um…ya, that’s cheese. My Mom makes it. It’s really common…..” Since then, I’ve also had it at a Greek restaurant and in a Macedonian pastry. So, what I can say at this point, is that clearly there is a common cheese making process that is shared between the Mediterranean and the Middle East, whereby homemade cheese isn’t something exotic, it’s just something delicious.
“Unripened” sounds strange, doesn’t it? But it’s not. That just means that the cheese is young, soft, and doesn’t have the shelf life of an aged cheese. Oh, and more importantly, it hasn’t been ripened, or aged. Unripened cheese has usually been made within a 3-5 week period (mass market bocconcini making excepted), and typically has a shelf life of under 1 month. Ripened cheese, on the other hand, has typically aged for anywhere between 3 months and 12 years, and can last in the fridge for weeks at a time (depending on variety). Unripened cheeses tend to be soft, sometimes slightly chewy, and fresh flavored. Ripened (or aged) cheeses have as many variations as the day is long. If you still weren’t quite sure of what an unripened cheese is, however, think of…..feta. Or ricotta, cream cheese, paneer, Halloumi, cheese curds, bocconcini, water packed mozzarella, or any one of a number of others.
To make unripened cheese people usually use an acid, bacteria, or enzyme. The most popular in Middle Eastern cheeses is rennet. Rennet is a powdered version of the enzymes taken from cow or animal stomachs and intestines. Occasionally you might see rennet labeled as “Junket”, and it’s the same deal, but that’s a bit of a misnomer. “Junket” actually refers to the end product that is produced (a sweet custard congealed with rennet) as opposed to the tablets themselves. But, well, nevertheless, at least you don’t need a fancy cheese-making website or store to buy it from. You can usually get rennet at a Middle Eastern, Portuguese or Mediterranean grocery stores. Try that, first, before spending an arm and a leg online at a cheese boutique.
Alright, now I’ve been going on long enough, and there’s still a lot of post to get through. I guess that I should take this time to warn you of a few things:
1. The pictures are shot at my parent’s house, aka “The Dim Lighting Abode”, so my apologies if some of the pictures are on the grainier side.
2. There are a LOT of pictures. I wasn’t kidding when I said “step-by-step”. But seriously, I know how *I* take instruction, and it’s either be thorough or shut the hell up. So, uh, I’m being thorough,.
3. Don’t be scared. Really. If you have rennet and milk, don’t be scared. It’s just cheese, not the antichrist.
Semi-soft Unripened Cheese
Makes 1 medium round
- 2 liters whole milk (3.5%)*
- 2 tablets rennet
* I don’t generally buy whole milk, preferring to have skim on hand for our breakfast Bran Buds or any cooking that we do. However, this is not the time nor the place for low fat milk. The extra fat in whole milk is essential for a rich taste and firm texture. Lower fat milks will yield a crumbly cheese and slightly grainy cheese that doesn’t hold together. Also, the fresher your milk is the better. In Canada, this is a problem. It is exceedingly difficult (and oftentimes illegal) to buy milk fresh from the farmer without proof of pasteurization. This is a good thing, I suppose, as it saves you from the burden of pasteurizing your milk before the cheese making process, but you also lose a little bit of that je ne sais quoi that cow-to-plate brings. If you can buy fresh milk from a farmer’s market, consider yourself lucky. If you can’t, but from a grocery store with a high turnover (ie, not milk with the expiry date in the next two weeks, and please don’t let it be from the convenience store) and you’ll still do just fine.
Put the milk in a large pot and warm it gently on the stove until it is about body temperature, or a warm room temperature. When you dip your (very clean and well washed) finger into the milk it should feel harmonious – not hot, but not tepid either. You don’t want the milk to be scalded because if it’s too warm it won’t react properly. As a rule of thumb, you can leave the milk in the pot with a lid on it for about 2 hours after it comes out of the fridge, and then heat it gently on very low heat for just about 5 minutes or so.
Crush the rennet tablets into a powder. Rennet generally comes in foil wrapped tablets (like all my favorite OTCs), so the easiest way to do this is to crush them by rocking back and forth with a rolling pin.
Sprinkle the powdered rennet into the milk.
Stir the rennet in using long, slow strokes, until you feel that it has been adequately dissolved.
Put a lid on the pot and leave it in a barely warm place to set. Most ovens have a light inside, and if you put the pot into the oven (which is NOT turned on and has not been used for cooking any time in the immediate past) with the light on, the light provides just the right amount of warmth to get you going. Oh, and close the oven door. And maybe put a sign on it, like my Dad always used to do, saying “DO NOT OPEN THIS DOOR! DO NOT OPEN!!!” Highly effective, if I don’t say so myself.
Let the milk rest for about 2 hours.
After 2 hours you can take the pot out of the oven and check if it has congealed. How will you know? Well, for once I won’t ask you to stick your finger in it. Tilt the pot ever so slightly onto an angle and look at what the contents do. If they swish forward in a tidal wave of dairy, it’s not set. If it just slightly groans forward in a semi-solid mass, it’s congealed.
Wash your hands again. Here at the Choosy Beggars, we’re (read: I am) a bit OCD when it comes to hand washing, but you can never be too careful, right? Particularly when dealing with bacterial agents.
Stick that clean hand of yours straight into the pot (channel your inner toddler with a birthday cake) and swish it around with your fingers until everything is broken up.
If you’re the squeamish sort then you could use a whisk and make figure 8s or infinity signs (depending on your angle. Hey, I won’t judge) in large sweeping motions to break it up. Don’t whisk this, however, because you don’t want to incorporate air or make the second setting harder. Just break up the mass until it’s gelatinous and you’re good to go.
Sprinkle the cheese with salt. About 1/4 – 1/2 tsp should do the trick. You don’t want to add too much salt now because it will be sitting in a saline solution when all is said and done, and too much salt can be…off-putting. My favorite part about this cheese is the mild, slightly sweet taste, and it would be a shame to lose that.
If you were to scoop out a handful it would look curdled and clotted, with semi-firm milk protein surrounded by liquid.
Put the lid back on the pot. Put the pot back in the oven. I know, lots of waiting around, but it’s worth it in the end. Let the mixture rest for another hour and a half or so.
This time, when you look at the milky mixture, it will seem a bit different. The milk proteins will have congealed into a mass again, but you will clearly see that the mass has pulled away from the edges (and slightly below the surface) to be surrounded by a thin watery whey.
This is where my Dad’s Secret Special Master Gadget comes out. He made me promise that I wouldn’t show the world his special trick, so of course I promptly snapped a picture when I thought he wasn’t looking. That could be the source of the fuzzy hand coming down from the sky, trying to protect his intellectual property.
“NOOOOOOooooO!!!!! NOT the STRAINER!!!!!!”
Folks, I should have been born to a life of espionage. Anyway, the Secret Special Master Gadget is (dum-da-da-DUUUUMMM!!) an ice cream container. Yup. Specifically, an ice cream container that met Jason one night after too many pints in the bar. The good news is that YOU TOO can have your OWN Secret Special Master Gadget, by taking an ice cream container (or a 2L thin plastic jug of some sort) and slashing a few cuts in the bottom and down the sides. This allows for drainage but contains the cheese enough that it won’t expand. The added bonus you will see in about 6 (small and relatively quick) steps from now.
Line the container with a double thickness of cheese-cloth, or a single swath of clean and untreated muslin.
Gently press a large shallow ladle into the milky mixture and start skimming off some of the excess whey (read: watery stuff).
When a fair bit of the whey is gone, you will be able to grab handfuls of the thick-ish mass and scoop it directly into the plastic container with your hands.
Continue scooping until you’re left with the dregs, which will be a mottled mish-mash of ‘curds and whey’ (Miss Muffet would be so proud). At this point, just swish your hands around to scoop our as much of the protein as you can, discard as much whey as you can (with the spoon) and then pour the rest of it straight overtop. After all, that’s why we have the drainage vents, right?
Tuck the top of the cheesecloth over the cheese, and fit a matching ice cream container inside the first so it’s sitting directly on top of the cheese. And no, this one does not need to have a visit from Wolverine first. Put a can of beans (or, you know, whatever) inside, so the upper ice cream container is pressing down on the cheese with just a little bit of pressure.
Let this sit and continue draining in your sink for about 30 minutes. At that point, when you lift off the can, the top container, and remove the cheese (in it’s wrap) it should look like this.
(ain’t she purty?)
Pat the cheese dry on both sides with paper towel, and then leave it to drain on a dual-layer of paper towel for another 30-45 minutes. Flip it after 20 minutes (and change the paper towel if it’s soaked through) and let it sit until the outside feels just barely moist to the touch.
Mix up a saline solution (read: salty water) by mixing about 2 tsp of table salt (or 1 tbsp of kosher salt) to every 1 cup of water. If the water is heated then the salt will have an easier time dissolving, but make sure that the solution is at room temperature or colder before going forward.
Now then, you know how I’ve been talking ‘ice cream containers’ this whole way along? Well, you can still use an ice cream container, or you can use a nice big margarine container (like Becel) which just HAPPENS to have the same circumference but a smaller height. Put the cheese in just such a container, and cover with the saline solution. Press it down to make sure that it is fully submerged.
And…that’s that! Do let it sit for a half hour before carving off a hunk, but it will keep for almost 2 weeks in a sealed refrigerated container. Just be sure that there is always salt water covering the cheese. The texture starts to get slightly crumbly with age, but at least the salt preserves it from suffering too many ill effects. Also, the longer it sits the more salt it will absorb, so if it’s been in the brine for more than 4-5 days you might want to give it a rinse under cool running water before you eat it.
On the plus side, to be honest, you just made your own cheese. It won’t LAST in the fridge for two weeks. Trust me.
My favorite way to eat this cheese is as part of a fresh platter with gorgeous vine ripened tomato, field cucumber, green and black olives, and some lovely pita bread to wrap it all up in.
I actually grew up knowing this as “Lebanese breakfast”. Although I’m just as happy to feast on salty soft cheese, vegetables and olives for lunch or dinner, there is a certain charm to starting your day off this way. I know, some of you may not think of olives as breakfast food, but I would counter you: No Middle Easterner would consider Lucky Charms to be breakfast food either (bloody heathens!) so there you go.
But, more importantly, cheese. Salty cheese. My biological clock makes no distinctions when it comes to cheese. It’s too busy being oppressed by my stomach, saying, “CHEEEEESE! NEED DAIRY!! NOOOOOOWWWWWW!!!!” And just look at that virginal, snowy white color. Could you resist? I thought not.
(if I ever become lactose intolerant I might actually die. True story.)