While most of us might not have the proper set-up in our homes to store and age cheese, there are some cheeses that are ideal for the home cook to make and enjoy. The most common of these cheeses is sometimes called farmer cheese, and is similar to the fresh cheese used in Indian cuisine known as paneer. Unlike cheese made with rennet, this cheese is made by utilizing an acid to precipitate the curds from the milk. The resulting curds are then wrapped in a cheese cloth and allowed to drain. What I like about this cheese, apart from its fresh flavor, is that the consistency of the final product is something that you can judge for yourself – it all just depends on how much moisture you remove from the cheese. Farmer cheese is a mild, slightly tangy cheese, and this means it is perfect for pairing with bolder flavors such as olive oil, red pepper, sun-dried tomatoes, or even honey or fruit preserves. Best of all, you probably already have almost everything you need to get started. This recipe makes between 1-2 cups, so feel free to increase it as you’d like to get a better yield.
- 1/2 gallon whole milk
- 2 cups buttermilk. The acidity of the buttermilk will help form our curds, and it adds good flavor.
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar OR 1/4 cup lemon juice. Both acids make for a difference in flavor, so try both and see which you like better.
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- (Optional) Fresh herbs such as basil, cilantro, or dill.
Heat the milk slowly in a heavy-bottomed pan. I have an electric stove-top, and I kept my burner on around 3; the goal here is to not scorch the milk. Heat the milk to 180 degrees – this is just before the milk begins to simmer; stir frequently. I used a candy thermometer to track the temperature, but if you don’t have one, stop heating the milk when small bubbles begin to form around the edges of your pan. When the milk has reached temperature, remove it from the heat and add your vinegar/lemon juice and add your buttermilk in a steady stream, stirring constantly. You should see curds forming in the milk mixture very quickly. Once the curds begin to form, allow the mixture to sit undisturbed for ten minutes – afterward, it will look something like this:
If that doesn’t look very appetizing you to, don’t worry – it gets better. You’ll have quite a lot of what looks like (and basically is) very wet cottage cheese floating in a yellowish liquid. That liquid is called whey, and we want to get quite a bit of it out of our curds to make a nice, solid cheese. To do this, place a large strainer over a stock pot and line it with several layers of rinsed cheesecloth. Ladle the curds into the cheesecloth, letting the whey seep through to the stock pot below. Let the mixture sit for another ten minutes to let much of the whey drain. Add your salt at this point and herbs (if you’re doing herbs). Once you’ve done this, you have a couple of options: you can tie the cheese cloth off to the neck of your faucet and let drain for another half-hour to result in a soft, spreadable cheese with a consistency of ricotta; or you can let the cheese drain for that half-hour, then weight it down (I used cans on a plate) and force more water out, resulting in a cheese that is still soft, but firm and sliceable.
As for serving suggestions, they’re limited only by your imagination. Like I said before, this is a mild cheese that takes to added flavor very nicely. For our first batch, we sprinkled the cheese with freshly ground black pepper, a few red pepper flakes, and drizzled the lot with a very fruity olive oil. Folks with a sweet tooth might enjoy pairing this cheese with strawberries, peaches, or just a drizzle of honey. If you let your cheese drain under the weights for a few hours, you’ll wind up with true paneer, an excellent additive to many curries. Left soft, the cheese can be used in almost any application where you might use ricotta, including lasagne or desserts.
Cheese making is true kitchen alchemy, and this soft, fresh cheese is a fun and simple way to turn one set of ingredients into something completely different. And don’t toss that whey – we’ve got some things coming up for you to do with that! Enjoy!