The reason for the cheesemaking was the arrival of a Beginners' Italian Cheeses Kit from the lovely ladies at Mad Millie - the kit has all the bits and pieces you need to make marscapone, ricotta and mozzarella, as well as instructions, and I've been watching jealously for months as motivated bloggers make their own cheese, so this was the helping hand I needed to launch myself into the realm of delicious cultured dairy products.
To make a batch of mozzarella (I reckon a batch is equivalent to about 3 supermarket tubs of fresh mozzarella) you'll need 4 litres of unhomogenised milk - Anchor silver top from the supermarket will do the trick if you don't have a house cow (fun as a house cow sounds I'm not sure the Body Corp of our apartment building would tolerate one). The cheesemaking process is amazingly simple - I was really surprised.
For mozzarella you need milk, citric acid, calcium chloride, rennet and uniodised salt. All ingredients except the milk come in the kit, and you can buy them individually from the Mad Millie website if you need to top up - though the kit has enough to last quite a while.
Now, steel yourselves, because if you haven't made this before I think you'll be surprised by just how easy it is...
You pop the milk and citric acid into your biggest saucepan, and heat to 13 degrees C (this took longer than I thought, I guess just because of the sheer quantity of milk - but still less than 10 minutes). When it gets to temperature, you add the calcium chloride, which you've dissolved in a little water, and keep heating (and stirring) to 32 degrees. Then you add the rennet (also dissolved in water), chuck a lid on it, and leave it for half an hour. The pictures above show the milk at 32 degrees - getting a bit curdled, but still more or less looks like milk (the big lumpy bits are cream, since it's unhomogenised - I'm uncertain as to whether I should have shaken up the milk bottle first so these were distributed, so feel free to shed some light on this if you know the answer!). When I unlidded my pot 30 minutes later, though, it looked like this:
So it must be true what the man on the Mainland ad says about cheesemakers - they just spend most of their time trying not to screw it up. ;-)
At this point you're supposed to be able to cut the curds - stick a knife in, straight down, then lift sideways, and the curd is supposed to cut cleanly, slip away, and the whey should rush into the space. I guess that is what happened - the curd was pretty solid and the whey definitely rushed in - though the curds are so irregularly shaped I wasn't sure if I was doing it right. It certainly doesn't look very appetising at this stage. ;-)
The last part, and most labour-intensive - though "intensive" is too strong a word to describe this - part of the process involves dunking the curd into hot water for 20 seconds, stretching and shaping the cheese, and then plunging into a bowl of icy salted water.
The stretching was weird - mostly I found the curd quite brittle, which is to say it didn't really stretch (the photos are of the first ball I did, which was the stretchiest - perhaps I should have refreshed my water to keep it hot) and I expected to spend longer doing this but I didn't seem to be achieving anything so didn't push it, and it seemed to work out so I presume I did it right. ;-)
Once it's all stretched and you've convinced it to take a round-ish shape you pop it in the ice water for 20 minutes, and it's ready - so with the waiting times it takes perhaps an hour and a half to two hours (depending on if you're trying to make pizza dough and entertain a guest in between times!) from milk to cheese, which is pretty good - very achievable - and if you must you could always make the cheese beforehand. ;-)
Our dinner guest studied economics with Mr Cake at uni, so it seems appropriate to insert a cost benefit analysis here. ;-) The kit retails for $39.90, and makes about 15 batches of cheese (though actually some of the stuff, like the thermometer, will clearly last for much longer), so the per-batch cost (with a simplistic formula of (kit cost/number of batches), because I'm not an economist!) is about $2.66. The milk for the mozzarella was just under $10 - so about $12 for around 700g of fresh mozzarella, which would probably cost around $30 to buy - I call that a positive result. I'm not counting my time because a) that makes things really tricky and b) it was fun and now I get gloating rights. ;-)
So now the only puzzle is what to try next - I have already made marscapone (stay tuned for that - I did already use some in these blueberry marscapone turnovers) and Mr Cake is angling for some ricotta so we can have cannelloni - but I've got my eyes set on the soft cheeses kit, which makes haloumi and feta... Or maybe some Greek yoghurt? Have you made cheese? What would you make next if you were me?
Mad Millie kits and equipment is available online from www.madmillie.com, or from selected stockists nationwide.