Kit promises the easy whey to DIY

By Darry Madden
Globe Correspondent / June 18, 2008

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It looks so simple. It is so simple. And I particularly wanted the bragging rights of having made mozzarella in my Cambridge kitchen. But it just wasn't happening.

I called Ricki Carroll. Carroll is the cheese master behind the Ashfield-based New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, a business she's been running since 1978. She had sold me a 30-minute mozzarella kit and she had written the recipe I wasn't following. She's also a newfound celebrity who now wears sunglasses in downtown Ashfield following the publication of Barbara Kingsolver's book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life," in which the author chronicles her family's attempt to eat locally. She prominently features Carroll, whom she calls "The Cheese Queen."

The Queen's advice was to follow the recipe. The traditional techniques I was imitating - I saw them on YouTube - were a different beast than the kitchen mozzarella I was supposed to be making. Carroll also said my milk might not have been what it claimed to be. Ultra-pasteurized milk will not make cheese (the high heat denatures the proteins). She also told me that some dairies sell pasteurized milk that's been heated to ultra-pasteurized temperatures because it extends shelf life. "Until people try to make cheese, they don't understand what's going on with the milk supply," says Carroll, who recommends farm fresh milk for the best results. Good brands include Crescent Ridge Dairy, Thatcher Farm, and Organic Valley "Northeast Pastures" milk.

Aside from its requirement that you understand the finer points of the American milk supply, cheese-making is a ridiculously simple endeavor. You have to make the milk more acidic (with citric acid, for example, or lemon juice), then add rennet - these are in Carroll's kit - and the protein in the milk magically begins to gel. Next thing you know, the curds are separate from the liquid whey.

From this basis, most cheeses are made. In the case of mozzarella, the curds are then dipped in near-boiling water and kneaded and stretched until, in what seems like seconds, they start to turn shiny and smooth (some legends have it that mozzarella was born when some curds accidentally fell into a bucket of hot water in Naples). The deceptive part of mozzarella-making is how much the curds want to fall apart in the water and just how screaming hot that water is. There have got to be better solutions, but, a purist at heart, I dove in hands-first and came up with soggy beads of broken curd in my burning hands.

First, I should explain how I veered from the recipe. A few months ago, I went to watch Lourdes Smith of Fiore di Nonno in Somerville make small-batch mozzarella by hand. She works with curd that is well-drained and firm in texture, not unlike tofu. Carroll's recipe doesn't call for draining the curd from the whey much at all. But I decided to do it anyway, tying it all up in cheesecloth, hanging it from various hooks and nails in the kitchen, and letting it drain for hours.

Apparently, I'm not the only urban cheese-maker to call Carroll looking for answers. Most of her clientele is now far removed from the goat-filled backyards that helped create the business in the first place.

Ultra-pasteurization did not exist when Carroll opened shop 30 years ago. Neither did the Internet or the artisanal cheese economy. Carroll was living with a few dairy goats and a surplus of their milk in Ashfield when she went looking for cheese-making resources. There were absolutely none domestically so she flew to England, where a few renegades were keeping the traditions alive in their kitchens. Since she became the Cheese Queen, Carroll's "Home Cheese Making" book has sold almost 180,000 copies.

Nancy Barrett of Merrimac is one devoted Carroll fan who has taken up cheese-making in her kitchen. Barrett received one of Carroll's kits as a Christmas gift last year, and had so much success with mozzarella and ricotta that she improvised an Indian paneer and a chevre soon after. She read Kingsolver's book and worked up some righteous indignation at the state of the modern industrial food world. "There's just no love with anything made in a Kraft factory," says Barrett.

As for me, since pledging myself to the recipe, I have emerged from the kitchen victorious on a couple of occasions, with slightly asymmetrical, shiny, milky balls of mozzarella filled with love.

"Home Cheese Making" ($16.95) and a mozzarella kit ($24.95) are available from New England Cheesemaking Supply Company at Milk from Crescent Ridge Dairy is available at some Whole Foods Markets; Thatcher Farm at Formaggio Kitchen (617-354-4750) and South End Formaggio (617-350-6996); Organic Valley "Northeast Pastures" at Harvest Co-op in Central Square, Cambridge (617-661-1580).