I am a fromage fanatic. Give me a smidgen of buttery Manchego, creamy Cana de Cabra or savory Stilton and I swoon. Hand me a whole wedge and I’m in heaven. While I know that I cannot live on cheese alone, I have come darned close to it.
In spite of this lifelong passion I’ve never considered making my own cheeses. That seemed like one of those pursuits best left to the professionals. However, after picking up a copy of Mary Karlin’s “Artisan Cheese Making at Home” (Ten Speed Press, 2011), I soon changed my mind. Through clear, detailed text and beautiful, illustrative photographs, Karlin led me on an inspiring journey through the fine art of cheese making.
Although I love this food, I’m hardly an expert on its creation. If you pressed me, I’d say that you mix milk with bacteria and — voila! — you’ve got cheese. Realizing that many readers will be as uninformed as I, chef-instructor Karlin devotes the first chapter of “Artisan Cheese Making at Home” to the basics. Here, newcomers learn about the science involved, techniques required and ingredients and equipment needed in crafting quality cheese.
Spurred on by the knowledge acquired in those early pages and by my stash of creams, milk and muslin, I tried my hand at an uncomplicated queso blanco. I chose this chunky, Latin American cheese because it seemed very simple: It required only two hours and three ingredients — whole milk, cider vinegar and kosher salt — to make. Once I heated the milk, I just whisked in the vinegar and allowed the acid to work its magic, separating the milk into curds and whey. After draining off the whey and adding salt to the remaining curds, I had a wonderfully light, fresh cheese for garnishing.
Every recipe in the book gives you a start-to-finish time. This is a boon to time-pressed cooks, who may want to whip up a cheese but not have the extra two weeks to 12 months for aging or even 18 hours for ripening. Karlin includes several quick recipes, including one for whole milk ricotta that I whisked together for a same-day dinner party.
Thanks to simple, step-by-step instructions, I produced a luscious chèvre and tangy cottage cheese in addition to the queso blanco and the ricotta — all in one week. So much for my assumptions that cheese making was both difficult and time-consuming.
Don’t assume, though, that “Artisan Cheese Making at Home” was written purely for novices. In subsequent chapters Karlin tackles tougher, more time-consuming fromages. These include stretched-curds such as provolone, smeared-rinds such as Morbier and mold-veined blues.
The author likewise guides readers through several flavoring processes, including marinating, smoking and embellishing. My favorite, embellishing, requires the cheese to age slightly before being coated or rubbed with dried herbs, spices or sweeteners. It then undergoes further aging to allow the flavors to develop.
Helpful charts and sidebars are sprinkled throughout Karlin’s book. Two of the most invaluable deal with cultures and troubleshooting. With the cultures chart, I found out what cultures to buy, why I should use specific ones and where to find them.
Knowing why my cheese bombed is equally important. In the troubleshooting chart, I discovered why milk sometimes doesn’t coagulate, curds grow unwanted mold and cheese can taste so horrific. I also learned how to fix these problems so that I didn’t end up composting subsequent creations.
There’s also more than cheese here: Karlin provides recipes for crème fraiche, sour cream, butter and Greek-style yogurt. Additionally, Karlin presents a section on cooking with your homemade cheese. Recipes for such gems as Manchego and saffron flan, goat cheese and chive fallen soufflés, and curried saag panir proved to be concise, creative and reliable offerings.
Whether you’re a fervent cheese fan, skilled fromage maker or dabbler in wholesome, handcrafted foods, it’s definitely worth picking up a copy of “Artisan Cheese Making at Home.”
Zester Daily contributor Kathy Hunt is a syndicated food writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Baltimore Sun and VegNews, among other publications. She currently is working on her first cookbook.
Top photo: “Artisan Cheese Making at Home” book cover. Credit: Kathy Hunt