I hope you and the mothers in your life had a great Mother’s Day yesterday. Myself, I tried to avoid the feelings of inadequacy that arise around this time of year, as comparisons are made between my efforts and those of my wife Julie’s from Father’s Day last year. In an attempt to make myself visible doing an unpleasant task—and thereby please my spouse—I headed into the yard to do some weeding.
While there, I spotted my neighbor planting a rich bed of infant tomatoes. He caught my eye, and told me that, if all goes well, I could count on some neighborly tomato sharing toward the end of summer. I looked at my own yard, devoid of any vegetation, excepting the weeds I was in the process of destroying, and realized I had nothing with which to exchange for the neighborly tomatoes promised.
Then, using convoluted logic, I calculated: My neighbor is growing tomatoes, fresh mozzarella goes great with tomatoes, Julie loves fresh mozzarella, and it’s Mother’s Day. Therefore, I should stop weeding, buy some curd, and make cheese for my wife and neighbor in celebration of both Mother’s Day and neighborly giving in general.
Here is a little secret that cheese-makers know: The best time to eat fresh cheese is minutes after it’s made, still gooey and barely cooled. It’s easy to make, takes just a few minutes and three ingredients: curd, water, and salt.
Makes a baseball-sized piece of cheese
1 pound curd cut into ½-inch rough cubes*
2 quarts water
¼ cup salt
bowl of ice water
Any grocery store that makes mozzarella will usually sell curd to customers. You may have to ask for it, as curd is not often displayed.
1. Find a strainer or colander and a pot that fit together. With the colander in the pot, the water should come up the sides high enough to nearly cover the colander. If not, adjust the amount of water (and salt).
2. Put the water into the pot with the salt and turn on the heat, bringing the water up to 160-170 degrees. If you don’t have a thermometer, the temperature does not need to be exact, as long as it’s not boiling (if it were to boil the curd would simply dissolve into the water, making a milky and sad concoction and an uncorrectable mess). I use the finger test: If I put my finger in the water for more than a few seconds it should feel too hot, like a bath that’s been left with the hot water running.
3. While the water is heating, get a bowl of ice water and have it close by the hot pot of water. The ice water will be used later to cool your hands and the cheese.
4. When the water is hot, put the cut cheese curd into the colander, and then lower it into the hot water. If this is your first time or you are unsure about how salty the water should be, use a small handful of curd as a test batch to get the feel of it and to taste for salinity.
|5. The curd should sit in the hot water bath for two to five minutes. After a minute or two, test it by dipping your hands in the ice water to chill them against the hot curd. Then, pull the colander a few inches above the hot water and, with your cold hands, squeeze the curd. Check to see if it feels soft in the middle like the curd has softened all the way through to the center. If it feels firm inside, drop it back into the hot water.**|
|6. When the curd is softened through, chill your hands like before and lift the colander out a few inches again and scoop up the cheese curd into your hands. Gently squeeze and stretch the curd into itself, like you are working with bread dough, forming it into a large ball.*** If the curd is too hot and your hands start to hurt, simply re-chill your hands in the ice water. Continue squeezing and working the curd into a soft, silky, and shiny ball of cheese. It should have the look and feel of “silly putty.” When all evidence of the curd has been worked into the mass, the cheese is done, and you should stop kneading. If you overwork the cheese it will lose its soft texture and become stringy and tough.|
|7. Next, plunge the ball of cheese into the ice water for a few seconds to set the shape. Then, transfer it to a serving plate or bowl.|
|At this point I like to drizzle on a little olive oil and a grind or two of black pepper. Then, serve it with classics, like tomato and basil, or a slice of crusty bread. Fresh mozzarella is so good you may be tempted to eat it with nothing more than a knife and fork.|
* Real do-it-yourself-ers can take the process one step further and make fresh curds from milk.
**As the curd sits in the water, just like Little Miss Muffet’s bowl atop her tuffet, the curds will separate from the whey. This is a part of the cheese-making process. The whey will be left in the water and the remaining curd in the colander is then formed into cheese.
***Mozzarella is part of a family of cheeses called “pasta filata” meaning spun or pulled paste. These cheeses get their name from the technique used to pull and stretch them in a hot water bath. They can be wet like fresh mozzarella or dry and aged like Provolone.