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.
(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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