My dad cycles through hobbies like most people do fad diets. Our garage is a graveyard for old skis, woodworking equipment and oil paints, all relics of his abandoned pursuits. Thankfully, I sometimes get to profit from these pursuits. I was especially thrilled when I came home over Interim break to learn that his new hobby involved cooking.
“I have a surprise for you,” he told me when I walked into the kitchen. He opened the door of the refrigerator and pulled out a small plastic bottle – liquid vegetable rennet. After experimenting with fermenting cabbage, making his own butter and pickling asparagus, he decided it was time to try one of the world’s tastiest foods: cheese.
Cheese has an interesting history. It is rumored to have been discovered by accident when traders carried milk in casks lined with animal stomachs. An enzyme in the stomach lining, rennet, caused the milk to curdle, transforming it into the cheese.
Thankfully, there are other ways to get rennet that don’t involve the inside of a cow’s stomach. Rennet is available from online cheesemaking supply companies in many forms: liquid or tablet, vegetable or animal.
After exhausting the online collection of food blogs, my dad and I decided to try our hand at mozzarella, billed as a “beginner” cheese. The ingredients were simple enough: a gallon of whole milk, vegetable rennet, citric acid powder and salt.
The process was more exciting, a mere 30-minute cycle of stovetop heating, microwaving and hand-forming. After this, the recipe promised, we’d end up with a lovely sphere of fresh mozzarella, ready to be drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with a generous handful of herbs.
The first step in the process was the least remarkable. The milk was heated to a temperature hot enough to let the enzymes work their magic, separating the whey the liquid part from the curd the solid part. At the end of this stage, the curd was a semi-solid, chunky mess. We then formed it into a loose ball and microwaved it in one-minute intervals until it was a stretchy but solid log that looked a bit like taffy. After doing our best to form it into a passable ball, we were done – mozzarella! It really was as easy as promised.
When I see fresh mozzarella, my mind immediately goes to caprese. And so, despite the subzero temperatures, we pretended it was July and combined mozzarella with thick slices of tomato. Perched atop a crusty slice of ciabatta and topped with ribbons of fresh basil, it was nothing short of divine.
Making cheese appeases both my inner scientist and foodie. I made it at home, but it’s perfectly adaptable to a dorm kitchen. Just make sure you have a clean microwave, a big pot and 30 minutes. I promise it will impress your friends and your palate. Now I’m just hoping this is a hobby of my dad’s that will stick around.
Here’s the recipe condensed and adapted from “The Pioneer Woman Cooks”:
Dissolve 1½ teaspoon citric acid powder in ¼ cup water. Pour 1 gallon milk into the solution and stir. Heat to 90 degrees over medium-low heat, then remove the pan from the burner and add ¼ teaspoon liquid rennet. Stir briefly and cover and let sit for 5 minutes.
Cut the curd into a 1-inch checkerboard pattern with a spatula. Return the pot to the burner over medium heat and stir it gently until the temperature of the whey the liquid that separates from the curd reaches 105 degrees. Transfer the curd to a colander set over a bowl and let the whey drain. Remove the cheese and squeeze to drain excess whey.
Transfer the cheese to a microwave-safe bowl and microwave the curd on high for 1 minute, then pour off as much whey as you can. Microwave it again on high for 35 seconds, then press the curd together again to drain the whey. Repeat. Knead in the salt and roll it under itself until it forms a neat ball. Set in an ice water bath until cool.