This month's choice for the event Kitchen Curds is Farmer's Cheese. Formaggio del contadino is the literal translation of Farmer's Cheese: I don't know whether it is used by farmers anywhere in Italy to describe the same kind of unripened cheese. I suspect that there are regional names for it.
[Nota per i lettori italiani: la prossima volta che vengo in Italia ho in programma di acquistare un paio di volumi sulla produzione casalinga di formaggi e potrò così suggerire ricette simili a quelle che descrivo in inglese.]
The book "The Home Creamery," by Kathy Farrell-Kingsley has a recipe for Farmer's Cheese, and that is where I started, since I own a copy of the book. However, following that specific recipe is not required to participate in the event. I had never tried to make this kind of cheese, and was therefore excited. I had also a plan of adding to it fresh herbs, another thing I had never tried.
After Kirstin, organizer of the event, had problems the recipe for mozzarella in the same book due to an incorrect temperature value, I decided to read carefully the recipe of interest before attempting to realize it, and I found an inconsistency in paragraph 3: should I heat the curds to 120 or to 110 F? In trying to resolve the question, I noticed that the recipe for Farmer's Cheese is basically the same as the one for Large-curd Cottage Cheese on the previous pages. That raised a little red flag in my mind, as the only complete failure I have ever had in my year of making cheese at home happened exactly when I tried to make cottage cheese: I threw away the whole output.
I looked on the web for help and found a recipe for Cheese Curds, which is similar, up to a point, to the one for Farmer's Cheese in the book. It uses thermophilic culture, which I had in my freezer. I followed the recipe until step 5, then drained, salted the curds, added some chopped fresh dragoncello (tarragon) leaves, and pressed lightly as directed in the original recipe for Farmer's Cheese in "The Home Creamery." It all worked as expected, until it was time to taste the cheese. The first bite revealed a definite squeakiness that was rather unexpected (though it reminded me of my failed cottage cheese of yore) and not pleasant.
In trying to figure out why my cheese was squeaky, I learned that squeaky curds are considered a delicacy and are sought after. But what about squeaky cheese? Within two days, the squeakiness was gone (this was expected: squeakiness is a quality of fresh curds). Since the flavor of the cheese was not great, I tried using it as an ingredient, adding small pieces of it to an omelet and a couple of other dishes, but in total honesty, it was un fiasco. Maybe not a whole one, but certainly un mezzo fiasco (half a failure).
Not for me to accept defeat without a battle. Neither of my other two cheese-making books has a recipe for this cheese, so I searched the web and found another recipe for Farmer's Cheese, which uses buttermilk culture to inoculate the milk. I had some, so I could proceed. I decided to use a gallon of reduced-fat (2%) milk. It all went according to the recipe, the only difficult passage was the handling of the curds, which were abundant and furiously dripping whey (siero). I decided to use the press, since it is easier and cleaner, though it required a fairly frequent check of the pressure, because the cheese shrunk considerably and, at the beginning, rapidly. Having just one period of pressing meant that the cloth I used to dress the curds developed folds, and the surface of the final cheese suffered as a consequence.
When I took out of the press and unwrapped the cheese, I realized I had forgotten to add salt to the curds. Salt is a preserver and it is either mixed into the curds before pressing them, or it can be added after the pressing via a brine bath (salamoia). Having missed option 1, I placed the cheese in a brine bath and kept it there 4-5 hours. I fished my little wheel out of the brine, patted it dry, and refrigerated until the evening. When I tasted it, I found it unexpectedly salty, but pleasantly so, with an overall nice texture.
Having a salty cheese (formaggio salato) actually made me try different pairings, the most interesting ones being with sweet companions. First of all figs... [details to be given in an upcoming post.] I then made my tried and true recipe for zucca ripiena (stuffed acorn squash), and put a layer of small pieces of my Farmer's Cheese in the cavity before adding the stuffing: sweet squash and pears and salty cheese paired nicely. Note that the cheese does not melt, so the pieces retain their shape and efficiently deliver their saltiness to the palate.
I have also been able to grate the cheese with my little grattugia (grater) and added it to another squash dish: the possibilities are endless. This cheese recipe is a keeper. Now the question is: can I get the same cheese using cultured buttermilk instead of the direct set culture, of which I used the last dose I had for this cheese? I will try and then let you know, so stay tuned.
For the occasion, I am announcing the publication of a page dedicated to Making Cheese at Home, where I have collected a set of resources, which I hope will grow in time as I find or am suggested new ones.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the formaggio del contadino audio file [mp3].