#337, Make Mozzarella Cheese
Last week I ordered a mozzarella kit from the Zingerman’s catalog.
It seemed like as soon as I pressed “send” on my order, I could hear one of my teenage sons arriving home from school kicking the shipping box like a soccer ball across the hardwood floors while yelling, “You got a package!”
It’s a good thing I had ordered a cheese kit, and not the Riedel Cabernet glasses that my guests or I seem to break every time we merely look at them.
My son was then asked if he would like to be kicked from the front door to the kitchen. He assured me that he would not.
My daughter dropped her backpack on the table and said, “I’m hungry,” and stared at me unblinking and expectant, the way a pet might when she is sure you are about to fill her dish. I said, “We’re having pizza for dinner, but I have to make the cheese first.”
“How long will that take?” she said, still not blinking, her mouth in a straight line.
“A couple of hours?” I guessed.
“Ugh,” she moaned, “I’m starving.” Then I offered her soup, some leftover dumplings, some strawberries, an apple, to which she replied, “I’ll wait.”
“Cheese for dinner?”, my son asked, hearing only part of the conversation. “Cool. I’ll take those leftover dumplings too. Can you heat them up for me?”
“I’m going to get my nails done,” my daughter said munching strawberries on the way out, keys jangling at her side.
I opened the box from Zingerman’s. The mozzarella kit came in a bright yellow illustrated, handled box with cartoons and quotes that promise even a seven-year-old can make cheese. When I spread out the contents of the bag and looked at the instructions, however, I began to get a little nervous. I was starting to think real science might be involved, and the last time I thought about science, well, Alton Brown was probably getting his first car. I reminded myself that apparently a seven-year-old can make cheese and I soldiered on.
The first thing you are told to do is break one of those little brown rennet tables into four pieces. You then dissolve one of those four pieces into chlorine-free water. Next you stir citric acid into a separate cup of water until it is dissolved.
Then you pour a gallon of milk (I used whole milk from Clover Organic Farms) into a non-reactive pot and stir it “vigorously”. You heat the milk to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, and then stir in the rennet water, stirring it for an additional 30 seconds. (The instructions say that using ultra-pasteurized milk will not have successful results, so read your label carefully.)
Then you cover the pot and leave it alone for 5 minutes. When you lift the lid again, the liquid has become like custard.
Next you cut the cheese. I advise you not to say this aloud with a teenage boy in your kitchen.
You then heat the cheese to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, while slowly moving the curds around with a spoon.
At this point, I started to worry that I had wrecked it. The mixture looked “broken” to me and I thought I might have overheated it. I removed it from the heat, as instructed, and continued stirring it for about 4 minutes. The solids started taking shape.
Using a straining spoon, I removed all the solids into another bowl.
The kit gives you a choice at this point, to use either a microwave heating method or a waterbath heating method.
I generally would never choose the microwave, but I thought about my daughter’s hungry face, and threw the curds in the microwave for a minute. I poured off the accumulated liquid, added salt, and microwaved it for another 30 seconds.
Soon it was smooth and shiny. I formed it into two long logs and sliced a piece off one end and ate it. It was MOZZARELLA. At this point, you are supposed to submerge the cheese in cold water for 15 minutes so that it maintains its shape and texture, but I didn’t have that kind of time.
I rolled out a ball of fresh pizza dough that I bought at the Whole Foods Market pizza counter for $3.99. I sliced two hot Italian chicken sausages that I had cooked earlier, and I made a quick pizza sauce using the following ingredients: a box of fire roasted tomatoes, half a tube of tomato paste, a pinch of cayenne, and about a teaspoon of oregano. The sauce was a bit too acidic, so I added two teaspoons of sugar. I turned up the heat and simmered the sauce for a few minutes until it thickened. I stuck the pan in the freezer for a minute to cool the sauce and then spread it on the dough and added the sausage and cheese.
I put the pizza in the oven and cooked it at 500 degrees Fahrenheit on for about 12 minutes, since my kids like the crust pillow soft.
If I was making it only for myself, I would cook it until the cheese and crust were covered with black freckles, another 4 or 5 minutes. I would have also added slices of red bell pepper, a bit of red onion, and sliced brown mushrooms.
I heard my daughter’s car in the driveway just as I was pulling the pizza out of the oven. I covered it with fresh arugula and drizzled some chile-infused olive oil and a bit of sea salt over the top. In the short time it took to walk the pizza to the table, somehow the kids had already seated themselves there. They had knives in one hand, forks in the other, napkins tucked into their collars, and they were gnashing their teeth at me.
I flung pieces onto their plates and stepped back. I saw a streak of pizza as their faces blurred and shreds of napkin fell to the floor. For a moment there was silence, and then the clock started ticking again.
“This za is bomb,” my son said approvingly, “I just don’t know why there’s grass all over it.”
(In 2016, Los Angeles teenagers often refer to pizza as Za, rhymes with ha. Apparently it is not cool to include both syllables. When I suggest that it is more work to say Za because you have to repeat it three times because no one knows what you’re talking about, I only further convince them that I have no understanding whatsoever of what is currently cool. Note: cool is probably an outdated term. Replace with “fly” or “bomb” or “OG”, when cornered.)
My daughter said nothing until her first piece of pizza was gone. As she moved onto the second slice, her color came back and she became her happy, chatty self, showing me her pretty taupe manicure and telling me about all the parties she’s going to attend this month.
She took pictures of her pizza for Snapchat, adding witty puns as her captions.
“Guys”, I said, looking at them. “I made cheese.”
My daughter said, “I know, right?”
My son just nodded as he made neat piles of arugula leaves on the edge of his plate.
317 days to go!