How to make cheese in a matter of minutes
You won't even need to go to the shops for supplies, as Will Dean discovers.
Cheese is the ultimate slow food. Like its gastronomic frère, wine, a good cheese is often associated with a ripe old age. A ruddy stilton, a mature cheddar or a stinking gorgonzola. A good cheese is worth its weight in its, erm, wait.
Which is why the idea of making cheese in a couple of minutes seems a bit, well, flimsy.
Also, while most home-made alternatives to anything shop-bought tend to be superior, surely cheese, one of the most artisanal food products out there, isn't worth doing yourself? Why would you drink home-brew when you can get a bottle of St Peter's Ale from Tesco?
But if you're keen on soft, white cheeses, it's easy enough to concoct one at home in a couple of minutes. Incredibly easy, even.
The ease of making cheese didn't come as a surprise to Yvette van Boven, a Dutch food stylist and writer whose new book, Home Made, extols the wonders of cooking things, from making jams to creating your own smoker to smoke fish, cheese and meat in your oven. Van Boven has been making her own cheese since she was a little girl growing up in Ireland – she now lives and works in Amsterdam – and her book passes on her mother's method of making cheese using ingredients you may well have in your kitchen.
"I do think it's a misconception [that you need a lot of equipment and expertise]," Van Boven tells me after I made my own version of her cheese. "When I tell people that I make my own cheese they always think I'm using rennets and citric acids and stuff which you cannot find in a regular store. Of course, if you want to make different structures and different cheeses and get into the real cheese making, you would need some more stuff. But to start off, this is a perfect way to get good results and something that's really cheesy."
It's not easy to make something such as a cheddar at home using starters and rennets because – as veteran cheese-maker Chris Ashby, who now teaches professionals and amateurs to make different cheeses, tells me, "it's better to do it in bulk, due to the proportions involved," which rules out most kitchens. But it is possible to make a hard cheese approximating cheddar, "but lacking that distinct cheddar taste".
But a basic soft cheese can be super simple. In Home Made, Van Boven's recipe involves heating a litre of buttermilk and a litre of normal organic milk (Ashby disagrees with the use of buttermilk), adding a few squirts of lemon juice, a pinch of salt and then watching the milk's curds and whey magically separate.
The acid in the lemon juice (or rennet) changes the shape of proteins in the liquid, making it clump together. The combination of the heat and the acid will separate the curds from the whey. Most of the milk's fat, casein protein and vitamin A are retained in the curd, but the whey retains a few, too. You can either repeat the process and try to get some more curds, or use the whey as a liquid in baking.
Once drained, the salted curds were then placed into a tin and left overnight. I took the finished product to a cocktail party the next day and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive – "creamy and complex," one of The Independent's restaurant critics said. Which isn't bad for about 15 minutes' work (including washing up).
This basic soft cheese is good on its own. Van Boven suggests serving it with home-made lavash crackers (also in her book). It's also very easy to add extra flavours by putting spices and flavours in the milk as it's separating, such as roasted coriander seeds or chillies.
You can also "pickle" the cheese. "After you've pressed it," Van Boven explains, "put it into a brine for one or two or three days, then the structure of the cheese changes so much and it gets such a different taste and structure. It has a bit of a structure like mozzarella – it's not as fluffy but it does have that rubbery feeling of halloumi." She also suggests serving it coated in herbs or with tomatoes on toast.
If you want to experiment further, you can make mozzarella from your initial cheese – there are some good videos on YouTube explaining how, but Van Boven suggests it's worth going on a course such as the ones Chris Ashby teaches (for more details, see abcheesemaking.co.uk).
As for me? After two weeks of bragging about having made cheese, further investigation into the science of making different cheeses has both intrigued and terrified me. Whether I'll get around to attempting home-made brie or camembert may be another matter, but watch out, Alex James – you've got company.
Where do I get great milk?
Of course, the key ingredient in any cheese is milk. Patricia Michelson has written two books on the subject, Cheese and The Cheese Room. She also runs London cheese store La Fromagerie with locations in Highbury and Marylebone. Unsurprisingly, Michelson suggests freshness is all-important: "It is important when making cheese at home the milk has to be as fresh as possible and preferably unhomogenised. Homogenisation means that the milk will not separate in quite the same way, and produces tighter curds."
La Fromagerie offers fresh milk to order – unpasteurised comes in on the third week of every month and a pasteurised but unhomogenised milk from Gloucestershire dairy Jess's Ladies comes in every Friday. If you have one, you can also try your local's farmers' market.
Recipe: simple soft white cheese
Recipe from Yvette van Boven's 'Home Made', out 1 March (Murdoch Books, £25)
Prepare one 400g tin with a lacquered white inside (to prevent rust) [Will used an empty sweetcorn tin], and one smaller tin to sit on top of the larger one as a weight
A piece of muslin or cheesecloth
An adjustable piece of elastic [Will used string]
Heat 1 litre of organic buttermilk and 1 litre of organic milk. Add a few drops of lemon juice and 1tsp salt
The milk will separate into curds and whey near boiling point. Stir for another minute, then strain and stir the curds until all whey has drained
Put the mixture into a bowl and add salt and stir. Now you have lightly salted fresh cheese
Place the cloth in the tin and pour in the curds. Pull up the cheese cloth, allowing the cheese to sink into the tin
Put the tin lid back on. Place the smaller tin on top and then put both on a plate and tightly wrap the elastic/string around the whole thing
Place in the fridge for 12 hours
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