Category Archives: Cheese

Homemade neufchâtel

Well it’s been a while since I’ve had a spare 36 hours to make a batch of cheese…but I finally had some free time two weekends ago, and oh how welcome the opportunity to do nothing but sit and watch the dairy thermometer rise was.

Then things got busy again, and so I’m only now finding the time to write about it!  But this is definitely a cheese worth writing home about.

I’ve always seen neufchâtel in grocery stores, sold in blocks next to the cream cheese — but I’ve never bought it.  According to my book, this cheese originates from the Normandy region of France, where it is usually mold-ripened and heart-shaped; here in the U.S. it is typically just eaten fresh.

I’ve never had a cheese turn out on the first try before, and I was CERTAIN I’d screw this up somehow — but, this cheese was awesome and my favorite I’ve ever made thus far.  It has the consistency of cream cheese, with a sharper, stronger flavor.  Great on bagels, crackers, toast and sandwiches!

Neufchâtel
From Home Cheesemaking by Ricki Carrol

Ingredients
1 gallon pasteurized whole milk (not ultra-pasteurized)
1 pint heavy cream
1 packet mesophilic starter
3 drops liquid rennet diluted in 1/3 cup cool, unchlorinated water (I used the double strength vegetable rennet — 2 drops diluted in 40 drops water)
Salt, herbs, spices to taste

Method

1. Sterilize all equipment and workspace.

2.  Combine the milk and the cream in a large pot set inside an even larger pot of water in a sort of double boiler setup.  Heat to 80° F.

3.  Add the starter and mix thoroughly.

4.  Add 1 teaspoon of the diluted rennet (in my setup I ended up using about half of the diluted rennet).  This may take a little finagling as the volumes are really too small to measure and the amount of rennet apparently makes a big difference in the texture of the cheese.  Luckily, mine turned out okay.

5.  After adding the rennet stir with an up-and-down motion for two minutes.  Cover and let sit at room temperature (at least 72°) for 12-18 hours.  It should look like yogurt after this time.

6.  Pour into a large colander lined with a large piece of butter muslin.  tie the corners together and let drain for 6-12 hours, until the bag has stopped dripping and the cheese is noticeably thicker.

7.  Place the bag back into the colander and put the colander in a pot.  Put a plate on top of the cheese and something that weighs approximately 5 pounds on top of the plate.  Cover and refrigerate for 13 hours.

8.  Remove the cheese from the bag and into a bowl.  Season with salt to taste and whatever seasonings you’d like.  I used scallions (white and green parts), chives and onions and it was DIVINE.  Some other ideas include:  jalapenos, fresh fruit, pickles, sun-dried tomatoes….use your imagination.

9.  Knead the cheese a bit, divide into four and shape each section into a small round.  Wrap in wax or parchment paper and refrigerate for up to two weeks.

This cheese was SO GOOD!  I can’t wait to make it again.  I loved eating it plain on crackers, and it was also delicious on an open-faced sandwich I made with some fresh tomatoes and chard from my garden!

Oh man.  I love summer.

-R

 

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Red velvet cake with cream cheese icing

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Honestly, I’m not much of a cake person but this holiday really does call for for it, no?  Red velvet cakes, enjoying a resurgence of popularity, were popping up all over the internet over the past few weeks, and I had to give it a try. Besides, I needed something to use my 2 pounds of homemade cream cheese…

I’ve made red velvet cupcakes before, but was a little less than satisfied with the results.  I’ve never quite understood the purpose of an artificially red cake with a hint of chocolate, but not enough to actually taste it.  Traditionally, the acidity of the cake ingredients are supposed to react together, bringing out the anthocyanin, a natural red pigment found in chocolate.  Food coloring is almost always used in addition, however.

So I scoured various publications until I came across a recipe that included what I consider a sufficient amount of chocolate.  It deviates some from tradition, but it’s got the essentials.

I was also inspired by this cake decorating tutorial, which seemed simple enough with spectacular results.

Red velvet cake with cream cheese frosting
Recipe from Fine Cooking

For the cake
2 sticks (1 cup) plus 2 Tbs. unsalted butter, at room temperature
3-1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup Dutch-processed cocoa powder
1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
1-1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1 (1-lb.) box light brown sugar (about 2-1/4 cups)
3 Tbs. red food coloring
2-1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 large eggs
1-3/4 cups buttermilk

For the frosting
1-1/4 lb. cream cheese, at room temperature
2-1/2 sticks (1-1/4 cups) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 (2-lb.) bag confectioners’ sugar (about 7-1/4 cups)

Preheat oven to 350 and coat 2 cake pans with butter, sprinkling flour on top.

Sift together 3 cups of flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

Cream two sticks of butter with brown sugar, vanilla and food coloring, first on low speed to combine, then raise the speed to high until mixture is aerated and pale, about two minutes.

On medium speed, add the eggs one at a time, until fully combined.

On low speed, add one-third of the dry ingredients and half of the buttermilk.  When combined, add a second third of the dry ingredients and the remaining buttermilk.  Finally, add the remaining dry ingredients.

Spread batter evenly between the two cake pans and bake for about 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean.

Cream cheese frosting

I followed the basic recipe posted with the cake, but since I was using homemade cream cheese, I had to make some significant adjustments.  Namely, I needed a lot more sugar to compensate for the extra creaminess of my cheese.  Um, a LOT.  I’m kind of embarrassed to even say how much.  And as you can see from my droopy roses, it still was not quite stiff enough to pipe.

So, I would recommend using store-bought cream cheese, or perhaps try the cooked curd method, if you are worried about aesthetics.  But if all you care about is taste, the consistency shouldn’t matter too much — in fact, in my opinion good-tasting icing and decorating icing are kind of mutually exclusive.

Anyway, to make a basic cream cheese frosting, beat the butter, cream cheese and vanilla together until aerated and light, then gradually add the sugar on medium speed until it reaches desired consistency and sweetness.  You can also add a bit of meringue powder to stiffen it up as well.

Cake assembly

Here is a good video tutorial on assembly and frosting a four-layer cake.

Basically, the first thing you want to do is make sure your cakes are even and flat across the top.  Use a long serrated knife to level things out if not.  Reserve any resulting crumbs.

Then, take your serrated knife and draw a line around the side of the cake, to serve as guidance.

Split the cake into two layers along this line you have drawn, reserving any crumbs.

Repeat with the second layer.

Stack each of the four layers on top of one another, with a generous portion of icing between each one. Make sure the cake remains level.

When the cake is stacked, take about a half cup of icing and “spackle” it on to make a crumb layer.  This seals the crumbs of the cake.  It’s okay if some crumbs are visible through this layer.

A cake spatula is a very useful tool for this!

Smooth on more icing on top of the crumb layer to your liking.

Then decorate!

As mentioned above, this icing was NOT conducive to decorating.  The roses just did not want to hold their shape.  I would love to try this again with a stiffer icing, however, because making the roses was not difficult at all.

Making polka dots, drop flowers, stars, leaves or curlicues is actually quite simple with the help of a basic set of Wilton tips and a pastry bag — they’re not too expensive and  can make any simple cake look impressive.  They work great on cupcakes and cookies too.

If you have reserved the crumbs, you can apply them right on the cake.  Or cut it into shapes!

The verdict?

Well, in spite of my early skepticism, and my general lack of enthusiasm for cake — even I will admit this one was pretty good.  It was perfectly moist.  It had a delicate chocolate flavor that did not overwhelm.  And I do love cream cheese frosting, especially when it’s homemade!

I would definitely make this cake again!

-R

 

 

 

Homemade cream cheese

Cream cheese is super easy to make — anyone can do it!

There are several methods to making cream cheese.  The cooked curd method involves heating on the stove top and a few extra ingredients, but it will produce a drier cheese that is more similar to store-bought varieties.  The method below is ridiculously simple, but it has a creamier, more whipped consistency.  Both have the flavor of cream cheese we all love!

Ingredients

2 quarts half and half or light cream
1 packet direct-set mesophilic starter
Salt and seasoning to taste (optional)

Method

Sterilize all equipment, working space and butter muslin (butter muslin can be machine washed and then sterilized in a pot of boiling water).

Bring the half and half or cream to room temperature — 72°.

Note:  I know that 72° is quite warm for this time of year.  If your house is kept within 2-3 degrees of 72, that should be fine, it just may take a few extra hours to set. Otherwise, I would recommend adjusting your thermostat for this one day.

When the cheese is room temperature, stir in the starter thoroughly.

Allow to set at room temperature for 12 hours, more if your home is much colder than 72°.

After cheese has set, pour curds into a colander lined with butter muslin.

Tie corners of muslin together and hang from a spoon set across the sink or a bucket.

Allow to drain for up to 12 hours until cheese has stopped dripping and reaches desired consistency.

Mix in salt and any seasonings to taste.  I love onion and chive cream cheese.  Various fruit jams would also be delicious for those of you who enjoy sweet cream cheese.

Stay tuned tomorrow for a post on what I made with my cream cheese!

Spanakopita

I think pretty much anything tastes good when wrapped in phyllo, but my homemade feta tasted especially delicious in this classic recipe.  Store-bought feta would be fine, of course.  Even with all the cheese, this recipe is packed with nutrition given all the spinach that goes into it.  It’s pretty easy, give it a try!

I resisted my normal temptation to tweak recipes, trusting in the proportions here.  Trust me, it pained me to put a whole 1/3 cup parsley in.  I HATE parsley.  But I was glad I did because this filling recipe was written perfectly.  My poor phyllo execution aside, this was the best spanakopita I’ve ever had.

Yeah.  About that phyllo.  I’ve only worked with it once before and it is ever so delicate and tear-prone!  Furthermore, I was using leftover dough that had been left, opened, in my freezer, a big mistake.  Once phyllo is exposed to air, it becomes very brittle.

Hence, as you can see from the photos, I failed to keep the dough in nice, clean sheets and had to just sort of pile the crumbs on top into “layers,” which gives it a, er, “rustic” appearance.  Next time I’ll know to be more careful.

I followed this recipe from fine cooking and will definitely make it again.

For the filling:
1 lb bag frozen spinach, thawed with excess water squeezed out
3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch scallions (about 3 oz. or 10 small), white and light-green parts only, trimmed and finely chopped
2 cups crumbled feta cheese (10 oz.)
1/2 cup finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup finely chopped fresh dill
1/3 cup finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 tsp. kosher or fine sea salt

For the assembly:
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil for brushing; more as needed
Eighteen 9×14-inch sheets frozen phyllo dough (I use Athens brand), thawed and at room temperature
2 tsp. whole milk

Method

Position oven rack to center and preheat to 375°.

To make the filling, saute the scallions for a few minutes, until soft and fragrant.  Toss in the spinach and stir thoroughly.  Remove from heat and cool for about 5 minutes before mixing in the remaining filling ingredients.

For the assembly, you will layer 9 sheets of phyllo on both the top and bottom, each one coated with olive oil on top.  I found it much easier to use olive oil spray, as recommended in the reviews.

As mentioned above, phyllo dries out very quickly and will become brittle.  Unroll it from the box and keep it covered in wax paper, with a damp towel on top of that.  Work quickly with one sheet at a time, recovering the rest.

Spray oil on the bottom of the pan.  The first six sheets will be layered off-center, to cover the long edges of the pan.  Lay your first sheet down so that it covers about half of one long edge, and spray or brush with oil.  Repeat with the second layer on the opposite long edge.  Continue this pattern four more times so that you’ll have six layers total, three covering each side.

Center the last three sheets in the pan on top of the first six.

Spread the filling evenly, then repeat the same pattern above for the 9 phyllo sheets that go on top.

Score the top 9 layers of phyllo carefully into small rectangles and brush milk on the score marks, which prevents flaking.

Bake for 35-45 minutes, until golden brown.

I served with a side of lentils — it was delicious and, once you get the hang of phyllo, easy!

Now.  What to do with the remaining feta I still have leftover?

-R

Homemade feta SUCCESS!

The second time was the charm in my attempt at homemade feta cheese.  Apparently, even the slightest mistake can ruin the whole process.  My normal style of cooking is very anti-recipe, but patience and precision are quite important to the art of cheesemaking!

The first time I accidentally let the milk get a little too warm –like, 90° instead of 86°.   I also decided to halve the recipe, since who needs two pounds of feta?  But that may have been a fatal mistake as well. The milk curdled but didn’t form together right, so I ended up with just a mess of curdled milk.

This time, however, I followed the recipe very carefully, patiently watching the thermometer move up.  And miraculously, it worked!  Now I have a batch of delicious feta, with which I will make a new recipe tonight.  I’ll report on that later, if it turns out, but for now, here is the step-by-step process for homemade feta cheese.

First, a few tips:

-Avoid milk that is ultra-pasteurized, which denatures the proteins necessary for successful cheese.  It would also be flavorless.  Normal pasteurization processes involve heating milk briefly to about 165°, which destroys pathogens but maintains the integrity of the milk.  Ultra-pasteurization heats milk to super-high temperatures, which provides a very long shelf life but will make it very difficult to make cheese.

-If you are lucky, you may have a cheese supply store where you can purchase lipase powder, rennet, and other uncommon ingredients.  If not, these can be easily found online.

-The cheesecloth used for cheesemaking is different than what you see in your normal grocery store. If you are purchasing the other supplies, I recommend picking up some cheesecloth there; otherwise, use multiple layers of normal cheesecloth.

This recipe is from Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll.

Ingredients
1 gallon whole milk
1/4 teaspoon lipase powder diluted in 1/4 cup unchlorinated water and allowed to sit for 20 minutes
1 packet direct-set mesophillic starter
1/2 teaspoon liquid rennet diluted in 1/4 cup unchlorinated water
2-4 tablespoons sea salt or cheese salt

Method

Sanitize all pots, equipment and working area and be sure to keep hands clean at all times.

Combine the milk and diluted lipase in a large pot placed inside of a larger pot with a few inches of water, sort of like a double boiler.  The milk needs to be heated very gradually and indirect heat will work best.

Heat the milk to exactly 86°.  This took about half an hour for me.

Add the starter and stir to combine.  Cover, remove from heat and allow to ripen for one hour.

Check periodically that the temperature is still approximately 86° and gently return to heat if necessary (this was not necessary for me).

After one hour, add the diluted rennet and stir with an up-and-down motion for two minutes.  Cover again and allow to set for one hour.  Again, be sure the temperature remains constant at 86°.

After this point, the curds should have solidified together and you should be able to make a clean break:  insert the thermometer at an angle and if the curds can be sliced cleanly around the tip, they are ready to be cut.

Using a long knife, cut the curds into 1/2 inch cubes.  Cut lines, spaced 1/2 inch apart, in the curds all the way to the bottom of the pot.  Turn the pot 90° and cut 1/2 inch lines perpendicular to the existing ones.  Then go through these same slices at a 45° angle to cut these long columns of cheese into cubes.

Allow the cut curds to sit for 10 minutes.

Stir the curds very gently for 20 minutes.  Cut any larger curds down to size and try to avoid breaking the cubes up too much, otherwise you will lose too much butter fat.

Strain the curds into a colander lined with cheesecloth.

Tie the corners of the bag together and hang over the sink for 6 hours.

After 6 hours, untie the bag and cut the curds into 1 inch cubes.  Sprinkle the cubes with salt to taste.  Age in a covered container for 4-5 days in your refrigerator before enjoying.

Variations:

-Use goat’s milk instead of cow’s milk, which is a bit more traditional in Greece (in the EU, only cheese made with sheep’s milk or a mixture of sheep and goat milk can be labeled as feta).  The lipase powder would not be required.

-For a stronger flavor, age the cheese for 30 days in a brine solution of 1/2 gallon water, 1 teaspoon calcium chloride, and 1/3 cup salt.

This feta was so delicious, it’s hard to believe you can make it easily in your own kitchen.  I’m looking forward to trying it again!

-R