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Say Cheese: DIY mozzarella is whey fun

Homemade mozzarella balls and braids. (Domenica Marchetti)

When I was growing up, my family spent our summers at the beach on the Adriatic coast of Abruzzo. Every June, this meant a trek from my aunts’ apartment in Rome across Italy’s calf to the seashore. With the autostrada, this is now a mere two-hour commute. But in the 1970s, before tunnels were blasted through the mountains and the highway was built, it meant a 4 to 5-hour meandering journey along beautiful but dangerously curvy mountain roads. The good thing about traveling with my mother and her sisters was that there were plenty of stops along the way for espresso and cappuccino, lunch, and more.

We often took to a detour to a small mozzarella factory on the outskirts of L’Aquila, Abruzzo’s capital. It was a tiny operation and my sister and I got to watch the half-dozen or so women, dressed in blue-gray uniforms and wearing white caps, as they pulled hunks of pliable curd from hot water, stretched them, and deftly formed them into smooth balls, and wrapped them in paper. (Mozzarella is a “pasta filata” cheese, which means that the soft curd is stretched, like saltwater taffy, before being shaped.) I distinctly remember the sour-milk smell and the wet concrete floor in the cheese-making room, and the way the women worked quickly and efficiently. The cheese was white, moist and milky — nothing like the vacuum-packed plastic mozzarella found in the supermarket.

Needless to say, my affection for fresh mozzarella goes way back.

Last June, my husband and I took our kids to Abruzzo for the first time, and though we did not visit that particular mozzarella-making operation (I have no idea whether it even exists anymore), we did visit lots of other cheese farms and we all happily gorged on the region’s deliciously fresh cow’s milk mozzarella.

My daughter (whose nickname is "dairy queen" because she loves cheese as much as her mother) turned 12 last week, so when I found a mozzarella-making kit at Cheesetique, I couldn’t resist getting it for her birthday. We made our first batch this past weekend, and I have to say that it was, by and large, a success.

The key? A kit.

Adriana uses a knife with a long blade to cut the soft curd made by heating milk with citric acid. (Domenica Marchetti)

The coagulated curds are separated from the whey (liquid). (Domenica Marchetti)

Adriana stretches the soft mozzarella curd. (Domenica Marchetti)

The kit, from New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, made it pretty easy. It comes with a packet of citric acid (to acidify the milk), vegetable rennet tablets (to coagulate the milk), and even a packet of salt, to flavor the cheese. All we needed to provide was good quality, pasteurized — but not ultra-pasteurized — milk. I used whole milk from Trickling Springs Creamery.

After that it was just a matter of heating the milk and citric acid solution, stirring in the dissolved rennet tablet and waiting for the curd to form. We used a large knife to cut the curd, and a colander to drain away the whey.

The fun part, of course, was pulling the hot curd as though it were taffy (this can be tricky; if you pull too much you can end up with tough mozzarella). We shaped some of our mozzarella into balls; with the rest we tried to recreate some beautiful bite-sized mozzarella knots that we had eaten in Italy last summer. Ours came out much messier, and not quite as tender, but delicious nonetheless. We served our homemade cheese for dinner, with olive oil, cherry tomatoes and bruschetta. It was the next best thing to being back in Abruzzo.

-- Domenica Marchetti
(Follow me on Twitter.)

By The Food Section  |  June 15, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, Say Cheese, cheese  
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