A few weeks ago, I developed a wild craving for cottage cheese. I know it’s an odd object of desire, but cravings are cravings and I do my best not to argue with them. I wanted cottage cheese with honey, cottage cheese with that jar of canned peaches from the summer! And so, easy peasy, I went to the store, and I got my cottage cheese.
Barely unable to contain myself, I popped open the container and fixed myself a big bowl of the stuff with honey and canned peaches. A little snow shower of cinnamon, and then I took a bite. Sometimes cravings taste so much better when you’re just thinking about them. Somehow, in my dreaming, I’d left out that odd sour pucker that some cottage cheese can have. Perhaps it was that I bought the organic cultured stuff? It didn’t live up.
That’s what brings us here. Because it has certainly been far too long since we’ve talked about cheese. (Isn’t any time too long? Let’s talk about cheese every day!) I ended up working so much on home cheese making for the book, that I kept it quiet over here. But now the book is done, and we can cut curd all day long. And that’s an excellent way to pass a day, if I may say so, myself. It turns out the homemade cottage cheese is smooth and lovely, and very much worth the time. If you’ve never made cheese, this is a fine cheese to start with, and (it goes without saying) YOU WILL HAVE MADE YOUR OWN CHEESE. It’s magic, people, magic. The thrill of this stuff never fades for me.
So let’s get to it, shall we? Before we start, a few quick notes on the fundamentals of fresh cheese.
1. Milk: Good milk makes good cheese. Pasteurized or raw will work, although there are some slight variations in how each perform. If possible, go for local milk that is NOT ultra-pasteurized. We need a certain amount of good bacteria in the milk to make cheese, and ultra-pasteurization heats the milk to such high temperatures that it makes it more difficult for milk to work for you.
2. Process: Most fresh cheeses follow a similar process. Usually, the solids must be separated from the liquid. This gives us curds and whey, and we use the curds to make the cheese. Then, heat, cool, stretch, or stir the curd (depending on the cheese) to get the consistency that we want. In the case of some fresh cheeses, we also let the curd drain so that it can get thicker and drier (like in the case of cream cheese).
3. Materials: If you’re interested in making cheese at home, you need to have a few ingredients at hand that you wouldn’t normally have. I know that sometimes it’s easy to turn off or get discouraged by the need to order unfamiliar ingredients, but I promise- do it once, and you won’t regret it. It’s amazing how quickly one can travel from being someone who doesn’t make cheese at home to someone who does. I get all of my cultures and ingredients here- they ship quickly and are a great company. If you are going to buy a few things, start with direct-set mesophilic starter, liquid rennet (animal or vegetable), and citric acid (not used in this recipe, but helpful in others). Starters should be kept in the freezer, and then they will be ready for you when you need them. Rennet is good in the fridge for up to a year.
It will take a day to make cottage cheese, although most of that time, the cheese is just making itself. In order to make 3 cups of cheese, you will need:
3 quarts milk (any fat level will work here)
1 package direct-set mesophilic starter
1/4 teaspoon liquid rennet
1/4 cup heavy cream
You will also need some a thermometer that goes as low as 70 degrees F. Some insta-read thermometers will do this, or you can buy a cheese making thermometer as well.
First, Pour the milk into a large bowl or pot. Put it into a water bath to warm it to about 70 degrees F.
Now, pull out your rennet.
Stir 1/4 teaspoon liquid rennet into 1/4 cup of cool, filtered or bottled water. It needs to be filtered because highly chlorinated water will counter the effect of the rennet. Stir with a nice up-and-down motion for 2 minutes. Take the pot out of the water bath, and, if your room is cooler than 70 degrees, wrap the pot in a towel to keep it warm. If your room is really cold, you can also put the pot into a cooler, and that will insulate it against the cold.
Let the pot sit undisturbed for four to six hours. When the milk has turned into a thick curd, it’s time for the next step. The curd will look like yogurt or silken tofu, and when you stick your finger into it, your finger should come out relatively clean.
Now, it’s time to cut the curd. The goal is to cut the entire mass of curd into 1/2-inch cubes. Using a bread knife, start by cutting straight lines 1/2 inch apart all the way across the curd. Make sure that you cut all the way down to the bottom of the pot.
Once you have cut the curd, give it a gentle but thorough stir.Set the pot or bowl onto another pot so that you have a double boiler set-up. The upper pot should fit snugly onto the lower so that no steam escapes. Put a few inches of water into the lower pot and bring it to a high simmer. Put the pot with the curd over the lower pot, making sure that the bottom of the curd pot is not touching the water.
Attach a thermometer to the side of your pot so that the end of it goes into the center of the curd. Lower the heat to medium-low, and cook the curd slowly, stirring constantly. The temperature should be going up no more than a degree or two a minute. The curd will start to shrink and change as it cooks. It will also continue to separate from the whey.
Pour the curds through a colander, making sure to catch the whey for use later. (Use it instead of milk in smoothies, instead of stock in soup, or instead of milk or water in your bread recipes.) Rinse the curds under very cold water.
Let the curds drain entirely. Then mix with salt to taste (it needs more than you think), and stir in the heavy cream. Now it’s ready to eat. Get out your canned peaches! Get out your honey! Or put it in the fridge- it will be good for up to a week.
Do you want to learn how to make more fresh cheeses? Take a peek at my ricotta and mozzarella posts (although I have to admit, there are newer and improved recipes for both of these in my book), or if you’re over here in my neck of the woods, I’m teaching a cheese class in a few weeks! Feb. 4 from 10 to 2, and I’ve got a few spots left. Just let me know if you’re interested and I’ll send you more information.