MAKING CHEESE

My Aunt Bea, Beatrice Ferguson Becce and Aunt Toni, Antoinette Becce Padula, speaking.

Fresh cheese, basket cheese, ricotta, mozzarella, I trechi (braided cheese) grating cheese, scamozza.

My mother and my aunts all made the cheese with my grandmother on the farm in Waterbury. Aunt Bea, who married Uncle Rocky and lives on the farm carried on all the food traditions, says that they would usually start with about 16—20 quarts of milk (whatever was left, not to make it go to waste) and make cheese every other day. They would use 3 or 4 rennet tablets or about one tablet per gallon. See note about “real” rennet below.*

Start with raw milk if at all possible. It can be pasteurized, but it’s much harder if it’s been homogenized too. The cheese becomes grainy. Allow it to cool after you milk the cows. Once it’s cooled down you can start the process.

Rennet: First, dissolve the rennet in about a cup of cold water. You want to use about 1 rennet table to a gallon of milk. Stir well. Add to milk which has been warmed on the stove. It should be comfortably warm, just like the temperature when you would taste the baby’s bottle, not hot, hot, just warm or if it’s too hot it will cook the rennet, then stir the dissolved rennet in. The milk has to be comfortably warm in order to activate the rennet. If it’s too hot at this point the curd will not form properly. As the rennet activates, the milk becomes the consistency of yogurt. Don’t stir during this stage of the process, but allow it to sit until firm. Usually this takes about 20 minutes, but it can take up to 30 minutes or even an hour depending on the milk that day. Wait until it’s really firm, almost like jello. This is the curd which has formed. Keep the pan warm and covered on the stove, but not on the heat.

Curds: how you use them to make different kinds of cheese. Once the curds were drained the curds were apportioned for the various kinds of cheeses: Some curd was used to make fresh cheese to be eaten right away with just salt, some would be used to make a fresh basket cheese, some would be made into grating cheese, and some would be used to start making ricotta, mozzarella, treccia, occasionally scamozza.

Fresh Cheese: When curd has become firm you use a long wooden spoon and break up it up. The more the curd is broken into pieces the more surface there will be for the water to drain off or be pressed from the cheese. How much the curd is broken up affects the texture of the cheese. The curds will settle to the bottom of the pan. When they settle you reach down and press the curds into a mass. Then carefully transfer to a cheese basket. If you just want to eat the cheese at this stage as fresh cheese, drain it in a colander or sieve and salt to taste and eat.

Basket Cheese: If you are making basket cheese next, you carefully transfer the curds to a cheese basket and allow the whey to drain off into the sink. The cheese baskets were about six or seven inches in diameter by four inches high. If you have no cheese baskets you can substitute a plastic container, having made holes in it for drainage. Allow the whey to drain off. We called this basket cheese but it can also be called farmer’s cheese.

On the morning of cheese making it’s a special treat to eat this first take with some sugar on top. It’s delicious.

Ricotta: What’s left in the pan is the whey. Grandma called the whey, sede at this point. Put the whey back on the heat and simmer it almost to boiling but don’t allow it to boil. Stir constantly or it will scorch. When it’s really hot stir in a little bit of white vinegar or lemon juice a couple of tablespoons of vinegar. When most of the ricotta (recooked) rises or floats to the top of the pan STOP STIRRING and allow the ricotta to firm up. Then with a slotted spoon very carefully skim the ricotta off the top. Or you can spoon the ricotta into a very fine cloth and tie it up to hang from say a faucet or somewhere from which the whey can drain out. Once a good deal of the whey has drained away, you can put it in containers.

After you’ve done the first take of ricotta add a cup or two more of the whole milk and a little vinegar to the simmering water to get the second take of ricotta. Again allow it to float to the top and again remove with a slotted spoon from the whey. Stir very slowly until you see the second ricotta beginning to form. It’s not as fine as the first ricotta, but it’s still good.

Sealing the basket cheese: Put the ricotta aside and while the whey is still hot dip the basket cheese back into the hot whey several times to make sure you have a good seal on the outside of the cheese. Turn the cheese over in the basket and repeat so that the bottom is sealed well too. At this point if you want to eat it as basket cheese, salt it well and put in the fridge. Every day or so salt it again and turn over and put it back in the fridge.

Mozzarella: To make mozzarella you return to the stage where the curds are draining in the basket or containers or in a cloth.

Mozzarella and Treccia.

After the curd is well drained, the next step would be to put the drained cheese back in the whey and allow it to stay overnight or however long it takes to become yeasty so that it can be worked and stretched into treccia or mozzarella. The next day take a small piece of cheese to test it—in very hot water (this is a tricky process and difficult to explain because you have to be able to “feel it to know when it’s ready). You have to check it now and then to see if it’s ready to be worked. Put a small piece of cheese in very hot water to see if it’s stretchy or elastic. If it’s not ready you just have to keep trying periodically. If you wait too long beyond the “ripe” stage it won’t stretch at all. A very tricky stage of the process.

Grandma had a broad stick to work the cheese. If you think it’s ready, that is in the proprio (correct) stretchy state, cut up all the rest of the cheese and gradually pour hot, hot water and work out the whey. This water is so hot that it’s close to boiling, so first you work it with the stick for a while, but after a small amount of time when you almost tolerate the heat you work it very quickly with your hands trying not to burn yourself. More very hot water keeps being added to keep it at that temperature. You knead the curds stretching and kneading them until they take on the texture of a dough. When it’s smooth and elastic you can form a ball (that’s when it’s called mozzarella) or you can make treccie or braids. If it’s overworked or too, too hot it will get tough and rubbery.

I treccia: Braided cheese: Once the mozzarella is made you pull the dough into three ropes of cheese about 1 inch by 12-14 inches in length. You press the tops of the three pieces together, then braid the strands together, pressing the ends together when you’ve finished braiding. You allow these braids to dry somewhat, about x amount of time. The texture of the cheese twisted together gives a very special taste to the cheese. This was a highly prized food in our house and had to be divided carefully into even amounts.

Put these mozzarella or treccia in a salt brine for a couple of hours.

Grating cheese: You leave the curds in the basket and allow to fully drain, pressing the liquidy whey firmly out. Remove from the whey and salt it and allow it to drain really well and then set aside to dry. Everyday you turn it over and salt it and press it down in the basket Once it’s fairly dry, make a salt brine: about a cup of salt to 3-4 quarts of water. Dissolve the salt into the boiling water. Then allow it to cool. Keep the Basket Cheese in the brine for 3 or 4 hours. The grating cheese will keep for a long time if it’s cured this way.

Rub salt on it now and then but it takes months to dry properly. If it isn’t dried properly it gets worms. Yet this cheese with the worms was considered a delicacy by the old-timers.

At times when you keep the dry cheese for a long period of time, the edges may form mold if the air is damp. Grandma would rub it with a little oil and vinegar. That would correct the problem and then it would continue to dry.

Scamozza: Grandma made this only occasionally. It was a very delicate procedure and sometimes very difficult.

You make the curd in the same way. But when it is good and firm, you take a long bladed knife and cut into 2 inch squares, checker boarded fashion down completely through the whey in the bottom of the pan. Allow it to stay overnight in a warm place. Cover it with towels.

The next day, just as with the mozzarella, take a small piece and try it in very hot water to see if it is elastic and can be worked. Do this periodically, though it may take all day. The curds and whey in the pan will smell sour by this time but that’s the way the cheese has to “grow.” When it feels ready, drain the cheese in a scula maccarun (colander). Heat boiling water and take each square individually and work as you would for mozzarella, making small egg shaped balls. Put them in a bowl and salt slightly. There are very tender and fragile. There will be no ricotta with this procedure. It will be an all in one cheese, a very soft cheese and it can absorb salt too quickly so use the salt sparingly.

*Rennet or Guia. How rennet was discovered: A farmer was going out to his masserie (the fields) for a days work. For his lunch he carried milk in a pouch. This pouch was the stomach of a calf. Before the day was over he discovered that the milk had turned to cheese. My grandmother used to make the cheese from the natural rennet. It had to be obtained from a slaughtered young calf that was still nursing (colustrum milk) Grampa would take the stomach and hang it up to dry. Then Grandma would use a spoonful or so of it dissolved in warm water to make the cheese.