Category Archives: food-o-rama

How to Make Farmer’s Cheese Like Your Grandmother Did

I was never very interested in farmer’s cheese when my grandmother used to make it. I have these memories of her standing over the stainless steel sink in her tiny yellow kitchen with the gold flecked Formica counters and pouring a steaming hot mixture through a cheesecloth while beads of sweat popped up on her creased and weary brow. What with all the stirring and the . . . uh . . . pressing? and the . . . I wasn’t really sure what-all, it seemed like too big of a production for a Thoroughly Modern Millie like me.

It took me almost thirty-eight years to work up an interest in making this Lithuanian country staple, and I only learned because one of my blog readers (who I finally met at camp last week!) showed me how. (But let it be written and let it be said, when I gushed to my mom about it, she said, “I could have told you that.”)

It took about thirty minutes, we did it in an un-air conditioned camp kitchen, and I didn’t even work up a sweat (but probably only because I stood around taking pictures while R?ta worked.) We ate it later that evening on black bread with honey and it was out of this world. So I’ve taken it upon myself to transcribe the lessons I learned from Lithuanian Jedi Cheesemaster R?ta (Roo-tah) and present them to you in an easy to read and visually stunning format here.

Let’s tie those aprons around our healthy Midwestern middles and begin!

You probably already have everything you need to make this cheese right in your very own ice box:

  • A gallon of whole or 2% milk
  • A half gallon of buttermilk
  • About a half cup of water

That’s it. Plus a cheesecloth and maybe some salt and caraway seeds, if you wish. I’ll talk about the cheesecloth in a minute.

First, pour just enough water to cover the bottom of a large stockpot. This will help prevent the milk from burning when you turn up the heat.

Here is my new friend and mentor Ruta, pouring some water into the pot

Next, pour in the gallon of milk you got from your icebox and turn the burner to about medium high.

Then hitch up your stockings and stand next to the oven for 20-30 minutes with hand on your hip stirring, stirring, stirring. Don’t even think about looking away from the stockpot to check your email or play a round of Angry Birds, do you understand? You want the milk to reach a point just before boiling. IF THE MILK BOILS, IT’S TOO LATE, and I’m not coming over there to help you scrub your mangled pot. The more quickly you can get the milk to the point of almost boiling, the more flavorful the cheese will be.

How do you know the milk is about to boil? It’s gonna start foaming, like the tide on the Baltic when Egl?, Žal?i? Karalien? (Egl?, Queen of Serpents) called out the special chant needed to summon her evil serpent husband after a brief and closely monitored visit with her family so that he could escort her back to the underwater digs where she was being held captive since adolescence.

Here is a rendering on the wall of our camp mess hall of the evil serpent after Egl?’s brother’s chopped him up:

Actually, he still looks kind of alive. And what’s up with the autonomous hatchet there in the middle? Funny, I never noticed that when we were painting this mural back in the 80s as kids. It looks like one of the brothers (there are always three of them) might have cut and run. Or some kid painted a bloody hatchet and said, “to hell with the guy.”

Once the milk has thickened up, is foaming mightily, and looks like it’s just about to boil, turn off the heat and pour in your half gallon of buttermilk. Then stir, stir, stir.

After awhile, the mixture will start to look like this:

Congratulations! You just made cottage cheese.

No, really. You can refrigerate and eat it if you want. But if you give up now, you will never be able to experience the hearty delicacy that is farmer’s cheese.

Next comes the part where I almost walked out of my lesson because R?ta started talking about sewing up your own cheesecloth. See, she doesn’t recommend using actual cheesecloth, but rather a thick canvas bag, like the kind that corn meal or whole wheat flour comes in straight from the mill. You can’t buy it at Target. You probably have to go to Whole Paycheck (Whole Foods), the mill, or a farmer. But that’s not the part that had me worried.

She said you have to wash the empty sack, cut it at the seams, and sew it into a triangular shaped pouch.

I KNOW

You can do it! Don’t give up.

(I bet you could even just staple it together. But shhhhh!)

Okay, now take your pouch and carefully, very carefully, pour the hot cottage cheese mixture into the bag. Please don’t scald yourself. R?ta held the cheese cloth bag open with a little rubber circle thingie they make to keep potato chips fresh while she scooped the mixture in with a ladle. I would recommend doing this, or asking your husband to hold the bag open with his bare hands while you pour. The liquid that seeps out through the bottom of the bag is called “whey.” Get it? Curds and whey? I was as astonished as you are right now.

This is the point when, if you wish, you can add salt and/or caraway seeds to taste.

You are almost done and it’s only been like twenty minutes! Even though doesn’t it seem like this blog post just keeps going on and on?

Okay, now tie the pouch tightly off at the top and set it on a cutting board.

Makeshift Cheese Press

Next, put another cutting board on top of it, fill your stockpot all the way up with cold water, and set it on top of the whole shebang. If you have a cheese press, you can use that, but you don’t really need one. The point is to squeeze as much water out of the cheese mixture as possible and set it.

The more water you press out, the denser and drier your cheese will be. You might want to check it after a few minutes and load it up with weight again. If you leave it on the moist side, the consistency will just be a little different. But you probably don’t want to leave it dripping wet.

After it’s pressed, let it sit on the cutting board for a few hours until it’s . . . uh . . . done. My friend R?ta said you don’t even have to refrigerate it, so when you get salmonella, you can blame it on her. We made our cheese at about 2:30 and it was ready to eat at 10:00 pm.

It’s best with jam or honey on a slice of hearty rye or black bread. Lithuanians eat it this way for breakfast or as a bed time snack.

Skanaus!

(Please check the comments because if I missed any steps, I’m hoping Ruta will chime in to correct me and add her two cents.)

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How to Make Lithuanian Easter Eggs

Today I will show you how to make traditional Lithuanian Easter eggs, or “margu?iai” (mar-gu-chei).

But shhhh! Don’t tell the Ukrainians. They think they have some kind of monopoly on this thing.

You probably already have at your disposal all the implements needed to make margu?iai, except beeswax. Beeswax is  the key ingredient, so you won’t want to skip it. I’ve heard of people using paraffin as a wax substitute, but those people were never seen or heard from again.

I ordered my beeswax from the mighty Internet, but you can also find it at natural food stores, craft stores like Michael’s and Jo-Ann Fabrics, or your local beekeeper.

You never know when you’ll need a pound of beeswax. But for decorating eggs, just a few ounces will do.

Okay! Let us take a few deep, cleansing breaths to find our center.

We are ready to begin.

First, boil some eggs and let them cool.

Next, cut a potato in half and place it on a plate, cut-side down.

Now take a large metal spoon you can do without and bend it at a ninety-degree angle.

Don't Try This at Home

(If you are not familiar with ninja mind control, I bet you could also just use your hands.)

Stick the handle of the spoon in the top of the potato, put a few pieces of wax on the spoon, and light a small candle directly underneath it, close enough to the spoon to melt the wax.* Like so:

Next, grab a pencil and stick a sewing pin with a smallish head into the eraser end.

When the wax is completely melted and piping hot (may be smoking just a little bit), you are ready to begin decorating.

Dip the pin head into the hot wax and hold it there for a few seconds. Then take it out and brush it on your hard boiled egg with surgeon-like precision, using careful, measured strokes. You’ll need to re-dip the pin head in the wax for each stroke you want to make on the egg. The hot wax always goes on in a teardrop shape, which lends itself nicely to flower, sun, and vine patterns.

The key is to transfer the hot wax onto the egg quickly, before it cools and hardens on the pin head. And once the wax is on the egg, THERE IS NO GOING BACK.

Why? Because the parts of the egg that are covered in wax will not take color, so even if you try to hide your faux-pas by scratching it off, when the egg is dyed, the mistake will become visible for all the world to see. You’ll probably be run out of town  and on your tombstone will be written, “She screwed up a Lithuanian Easter egg and tried to cover it up.”

Shame.

When you feel you have applied a sufficient amount of wax patterns on your egg, dip it in food coloring mixed with hot water and a few tablespoons of vinegar. If you want to go Old Country on your eggs, you can boil all manner of plants and flowers – like red onion peels or beets – to create distinct and vibrant colors. I use Lawry’s food coloring drops.

When you take the egg out of the dye, it should look something like this:

Not too shabby, right?

But, wait! The fun doesn’t end there. You can make multi-colored margu?iai using one simple trick I’m about to show you out of the kindness of my heart.

Wait for your beautiful colored egg to dry.

Take it back to your workstation.

Put some more wax on it. Keep your hand steady and make it nice, for Pete’s sake.

Now, dip the egg in another color dye. The wax patterns you put on during the second go-round will take on the color you dipped the egg into the first time.

Dare I say the end result is magical?

Smart. Beautiful. Lithuanian Easter Eggs.

(If you’ve made these before, please add your tips and tricks in the comment section below!)

* You can also use a fondue pot or similar device, which is a better for regulating the temperature of the wax.

 

Special thanks to R?ta Degutis of the Lithuanian-American Citizens Club of Cleveland, who hosted the workshop where I did my decorating this year. Because if there’s anything I like better than decorating margu?iai, it’s decorating margu?iai while sipping Lithuanian beer. If you live in the Cleveland area, stop by the Gintaras (Amber) Dining Room on Fridays from 5-8 or Sundays from 11-2 for traditional Lithuanian fare.

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Don’t Let This Post Deter You from Trying My Delicious Recipes

The minute I heard the key turn in the door, I abandoned my laptop at its perch on the kitchen counter and scurried over to the sink.

When the P-Dawg walked in, I was busy scrubbing a potato.

“Hello, darling, how was your day?” I greeted him.

“Are you talking to me?” he said.

My husband took his coat off and draped it across a chair. (Why, Lord? Why?)

Then he made his way over to the computer.

“Wait a second!” I panicked. “Don’t look at that browser window I have open, Okay?”

“Why not?” the P-Dawg’s interest was immediately piqued. “What are you trying to hide from me?”

Alas, it was already too late.

He had seen my Google search of shame:*

“HOW DO YOU BAKE A POTATO?”

*(In my defense, I was pretty sure I already knew the answer.)

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Kugelis: Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner of Champions

You’ve probably been wondering what kind of food Lithuanians like to eat, and the answer to that question is potatoes, bacon, and sour cream.

One of my favorite Lithuanian recipes which incorporates all three of these ingredients is “kugelis*” – a hearty potato casserole that can be served as a side dish or main meal.  It’s the kind of thing you’ll want to make on a weekend afternoon because it requires a bit of time and elbow grease, but it’s the ultimate in comfort food and I guarantee it will pay off in the end.

Alrighty then! Let’s put on our kerchiefs, roll up our sleeves, and get to work!

First, pre-heat your oven to 350° Fahrenheit. If you live in a place where they use Celsius, (like Lithuania), consider moving to the U.S.A. We also have Costco and buffalo wings.

While the oven is pre-heating, invite your friend V over for dinner and ask her to peel and grate five pounds of potatoes (preferably Idaho or Yukon Gold) using the fine side of a box-type grater.

Try not to hold your potato in a creepy way.

Don’t even think about using powdered potatoes or frozen hash browns. I know you didn’t take my advice about using fresh organic ginger root for the Happiness Tea, but this time you better follow directions or you’ll regret it.  The only shortcut I will allow is for you to run those hard-to-grate potato end pieces through a KitchenAid mixer attachment. We are not making knuckle casserole here. You will also need to grate one whole onion into the mix, and I will permit you to do this using the KitchenAid, as well.

I’m reasonable like that.

Potato Vortex

It’s going to take your friend V awhile to peel and grate those potatoes and the last thing you want is for them to oxidize and turn an ugly hammer and sickle gray in the meantime, so after they’ve been peeled, keep the potatoes submerged in a bowl of cool water and as you’re grating them, either finely crush several (four or five) vitamin C tablets into the bowl or periodically squeeze generous amounts of lemon juice in and stir.

While the potatoes are being grated, dice and sauté about 3/4 pounds of bacon until it’s crispy/chewy, but not burned. I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but you’re going to have to reserve the fat. When the potatoes and one small onion have been grated, mix in the bacon and the reserved bacon fat.

You can do it.

Next, beat up four eggs, 3/4 stick of melted butter, 3 tsp. kosher salt, and one cup buttermilk (if you don’t have buttermilk, you can substitute regular milk mixed with one teaspoon of lemon juice, just let it sit for a few minutes so the magical chemical reaction that turns it into buttermilk can occur) and add it to the potato/onion/bacon mixture. Stir to combine.

Pour the whole shebang into a well greased 9×13 casserole dish, like so:

. . . And bake at 350° for at least 90 minutes, or until golden brown. (A toothpick or wooden skewer, when inserted into the middle, should come out clean.)

While the kugelis is baking, dice a small onion and sauté it with a pat of butter. When the onion is translucent, add the remaining 1/4 pound of – you guessed it! – diced bacon, and cook it until it’s chewy/crispy. This will be your topping. If you are a heart patient or an ascetic, you can drain the fat, just know that I will be over here in Cleveland judging away.

Once it’s totally baked (snort, snort, chuckle, chuckle), allow the kugelis to cool for about 15 minutes, then cut into hearty pieces and serve topped with the sauteed onion/bacon mixture and a cup dollop of sour cream. I would show you a picture of this step, but by the time I remembered to document it, the evidence had been eaten, and it was delicious.

We served our kugelis with a pinot noir and salad of greens, roasted beets, sliced pears, walnuts and Gorgonzola with a lemon vinaigrette. But you could also very easily eat it with a beer wearing pajamas in front of the TV.

It’s really, really good, and the leftovers are phenomenal fried up in sticks for breakfast the next day. (This is what is actually meant by the term, “Breakfast of Champions.”)

 

Here’s the list of ingredients:

  • 5 lbs. potatoes, peeled and grated (Okay, fine. You can grind them with a food processor, but I will deduct points)
  • 2 medium onions (one grated, and a smaller one diced for the topping)
  • 1 lb. bacon, fried and crumbled (3/4 for the kugelis, 1/4 for the topping)
  • 3/4 stick of butter, melted
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup buttermilk (can substitute plain milk with 1 teaspoon lemon juice mixed in)
  • 3 tsp. kosher salt
  • 1 lemon, quartered (to be used as needed to squeeze into potato mixture to prevent oxidization) or 4-5 finely crushed vitamin C tablets
  • Fresh ground pepper to taste for the sauteed bacon-onion topping
  • Sour cream

* Kugelis is not to be confused with the always popular Jewish “kugel,” which is often made with noodles and tends to be on the sweet side.

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