It’s March and for many people that means it’s time to tune into the college basketball tournaments, and watch their March Madness brackets. Well, for me, at the cheese counter in a state where we are lucky if March brings even fifty degree weather it means that people are getting antsy for spring, and they are ready to make caprese salads with fresh mozzarella. It makes no difference what Mother Nature decides for Wisconsin, every year for the last ten years, starting in March it becomes almost impossible to keep enough fresh mozzarella in stock for everyone. According to The International Dairy Association, Americans consume 11 pounds of mozzarella per person every year.
Sometimes I swear my customers accomplish this feat all between the months of March and August, when I see a drastic rise in sales for this category. So what is the solution to this Mozzarella Madness this year? Let’s get serious and stretch mozzarella behind the cheese counter every single Saturday!
What does this adventure all entail? Well, when you read the list of required items it seems simple enough: mozzarella curd, kosher salt, mixing bowls, cutting board, large chef’s knife, large spoon, stock pot, containers for transporting hot water as well as scooping hot water, gloves, strainer, plastic wrap, a scale, a cooler, a thermometer, a kitchen timer, and most importantly you, ready to delve into 180°F water and make some fresh mozzarella! However, it is definitely a bit more technical than the list of items required to make it lets on.
First of all, you must make sure your water is at exactly 180°F. It is a tough lesson to learn when you have cut up your curd and salted it, and dumped water on that is over this temperature and your mozzarella curd starts to melt, release its cream into the water, and your batch is ruined. The other tough lesson to learn is that if you do not pay attention when straining your curd, and you let some slip out of the bowl, you will end up with an incredibly small batch of mozzarella at the end of all this intense labor (perhaps because you are so excited about the killer cheese board you put together for a friend’s party that you lost track of what you were doing in talking about all the delicious artisan cheeses you picked out… stay tuned as a cheese or two off there may be featured in the next blog). Finally, the third technicality to be wary of is that the fresh mozzarella must be gently handled at all times, and it must sit in a timed ice water bath. There are consequences for icing it too long, and there are consequences for removing it from the bath too quickly. Trial and error are part of the process here.
Now the fun, theatrical part of making fresh mozzarella is the pasta filata which in Italian means ‘spun pasta’ and refers to the stretching method for making mozzarella. The Italians love this method and use it for many of their cheeses including provolone, scamorza, and fresh mozzarella. Basically you plunge your hands into the 180°F water and lift the curd, which is starting to come together at this point, up as high as you can and let it stretch. Gravity will help you here as will height (which I do not have in case you are wondering). This sounds fairly simplistic, it is not. You must work as quickly as you can at this so as to not lose so much heat that the next step is twice as difficult as it needs to be.
Finally, you will work the curd over itself using your hands. You push the curd through your hand to form a ball, and squeeze your fingers at the base as if your hand is a scissors. You will then slide the mozzarella into ice water and gently stir it each time you drop a piece of cheese into it. Practice makes perfect for this part. It was my sixth time doing this and I finally managed to get some decent looking balls to form consistently!
Now after they are wrapped and labelled the fun part begins! It is time to do some product demonstrations. This is where the misshapen balls come in handy as they are perfect for sampling! Hand-made fresh mozzarella is best the day you make it, and so we do some sampling. You can use this cheese on sandwiches, pizza, calzones, pasta dishes and a host of other things, but our favorite way at the cheese counter is still the caprese salad. Just slice it up with ripe tomatoes, fresh basil leaves, a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper. The fresh basil smells like summer. It is super easy and always a crowd pleaser. For a fun twist I have already paired fresh mozzarella with fresh melon, and one year when feeling particularly adventuresome I paired it with fresh peach salsa which was a hit at our backyard barbecue gathering.
Fresh mozzarella making has been an adventure and will continue to be one. I think the most important thing I have taken away from it though is an appreciation for all of the hard work and dedication that goes into cheese making. Seriously, good cheese does not just happen on its own and this process has reaffirmed that for me. It requires minute attention to detail and a certain amount of willingness to continue persevering even when you are completely frustrated and unsure as to why a batch did not turn out.
I am under no illusion that this is as labor intensive as starting with the fluid milk, but just this little taste of part of the process has reminded me why I am passionate about cheese and helping people understand the stories behind each bite of cheese that they love. So, when you see that price tag on your favorite cheese, and question if you think it is worth the money, just think about all the hard work, dedication, and love, yes it requires a certain amount of love to do a job as labor intensive as cheese making, that went into that cheesy bite of heaven that you know you want to take home and slice open.
Help Crystal earn her CCP at the American Cheese Society conference this summer. Vote for Crystal.