My first experiment with making cheese was actually a lot more successful than my earlier post suggested. Had I waited an hour or two more before reporting, I would have changed my tune.
Just as I was preparing to turn the mass into yogurt, the miracle of curds was before me. As instructed, I carefully spooned the gentle quivering curds into a colander lined with moistened cheesecloth and placed the entire apparatus over a bowl deep enough to catch the whey.
It took three hours for the curds to drain sufficiently to tie them up in their cheesecloth package. I used the wire from an old television antenna to hang the bag on a kitchen-cabinet knob. (I suppose kitchen twine would have been more prudent, but I was in a fit of kitchen wizardry.)
I let the curds drip free of the remaining whey for a few more hours and was rewarded — and surprised — by its final form. What lay before me was the white, moist, sweet-flavored farmer’s cheese of my youth.
Farmer’s cheese, as a category, can be many things. As sold locally here in Oregon, it’s usually a hard cheese. But as sold back east, particularly in New York City, it is soft, tender, and white, with a taste of sweet cream.
As distinct from cottage cheese, its curds are finer, the texture less moist, and the flavor less “zippy.” Growing up, we often chose farmer’s cheese instead of cream cheese for our bagels. It was also the base for one of our favorite treats: blintzes.
Ah, blintzes, what can I say? Actually, they have been formative to my culinary legacy in Portland. For a number of years, I held the title of Portland’s “blintz queen,” and with no exaggeration I must have made thousands and thousands in my time. I even sold them wholesale to hotels, restaurants, and delis in the area. But I never started with the farmer’s cheese of my youth, because I could never find it. The best I could do was make a concoction as close to the real thing as I could muster.
Every week, Portland’s Sunshine Dairy would deliver five-pound tubs of dry-curd cottage cheese to my café, which I would nudge into the equivalent structure of East Coast farmer’s cheese. At the time, it suited my purposes, but not until I tried my hand at making fresh cheese did I find what I was looking for. I could have eaten it straight away or sweetened it and folded it into blintzes, but I had something else in mind.
There is no exact way to describe Jewish old-world-style baked farmer’s cheese (as opposed to fresh farmer’s cheese), except to say it is lighter than cream cheese, denser then ricotta, and redolent of raisins, nuts, and cinnamon. Its smooth texture and sweet nutty flavor made it perfect for spreading on the wonderfully crusted sliced pumpernickel bread I bought to go with it. It was the treat I most looked forward to, which, in a world of great danishes, coffee cakes, and strudel, is saying a lot.
Moved by the memory, I searched the Internet for baked farmer’s cheese recipes, but other than a few somewhat suspect variations, I never found what I was searching for. I did find menus from Jewish delis back east that still sold the stuff, but no reliable instructions for making it. Undaunted, I set off for the promised land on my own.
I’ll spare you the details by saying, instead, that were it not for nostalgia, I doubt I could have choked down the dry crumbly mass of curd, raisins, and walnuts that resulted from my first try. I was somewhat distraught, thinking of all the other things I could have done with the ball in its original form, but I did not lose hope. As they say, a thing worth loving is a thing worth fighting for. So it’s back to the kitchen in hopes of getting it right.
And when all is as I remember, I will tackle the pumpernickel.
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