Plum tart

fruitcloseI’m often to be found in front of a food programme on the TV, with a scrap of paper, frantically writing down what I’m convinvced will be the most amazing recipe In The World. I guess it’s part of my desire to catalogue everything, to reduce impermenance to solid state. Or something.

Usually these are stored with the other, curling and yellowing scraps on the off chance I’ll do something with them. As I tend to be a ‘what can I do with this ingredient’ kind of cook, I rarely get through my little pile.

After watching Yotam Ottolenghi working his way around the middle east recently on a bunch of SBS reruns, I scribbled down his Goats cheese and fig tart. And filed it on my little pile, thinking one day I’d do something with it that didn’t use goat’s cheese (which is, of course, the spawn of the devil). I then noticed a blogger tweeting about buying figs and goats cheese and realised she was making this dish; I was in Thomas Dux at the time, and shortly afterward found myself looking at a delicious pile of glossy plums. Deep purple red and lovely pale creamy pink ones. ‘What the heck’ I thought, and bought them, along with some ricotta, and made my version of this tart. I won’t list all the ingredients because, as I later found, SBS have done it for me (see link above), save to say I used a sheet of puff pastry, lemon thyme from my garden and lime, rather than lemon.

pie before

 It looked and smelled gorgeous even before it went into the oven. I found I had to leave it in longer than I’d expected because the centre was still too soft, which gave a pleasingly burnt sugar tang. I liked it anyway:


It was mighty good, and surprisingly not very sweet. 7/10 – but I prefer my frangipane mix to this ricotta version overall I think.


The Only Whey is Up….

It was a filthy, cold, wet day in Kariong as the small group of us shuffled into the Rotary club premises, our home for the next 8 hours while we talked cheese. And made cheese, photographed cheese and ate cheese.

The Home Cheesemaking Co are a knowledgeable, delightful & friendly bunch consisting of two Spanish chaps based in the Hunter, John and Juan (actually, Juan and Juan, but Juan became John some time ago so as to avoid confusion). They run courses around the state, sharing their extensive experience of cheese making in all its forms from the basic (the course I was on), to a 2 day masterclass. Along the way, the charismatic John sharing his tales of boyhood cheese making in his native country – amongst other gems tales of how his grandmother would stick her (probably unwashed) paws into the curds to test temperature, and how everyone used to drink raw, unpasteurised milk – and it never done him no harm.

Because if there’s one thing Juan and John are completely obsessed about, it’s hygiene. From the minute we walked in, and all day long, we were boiling, Milton-ing and alcohol-gelling ourselves and everything else in sight with operating theatre strictness. This appealed to me greatly as I once saw a picture of a bacteria culture of a hand print, teeming with micro-organisms, and I’m still scarred.

I know that cheese is full of live stuff, and this is good, but, only the right live stuff is the good stuff and the other stuff is Bad. (This reminds me suddenly of a conversation I had with a council official last week about the local water quality. She informed me sagely that the discolouration I experienced was due to excess manganese in the supply, but not to worry; it was a naturally occurring mineral so it was all safe. I pointed out that uranium is also naturally occurring, but that didn’t make it safe. There was a long, confused silence on the other end of the phone. But I digress).

They have 25 cows on their farm and are currently milking Daisy (yup, she really is called Daisy. All their cows have names – one labours under the mighty title of Lady Gaga) and so it was thanks to Daisy that I snuck my first ever drink of raw, unpasteurised milk while no-one was looking.

daisy 2Say hello to Daisy. And her ‘teats’.

I was expecting essence of waving, knee deep grassy fields; actually it tasted like milk. Lovely, creamy, tasty milk, but basically milk. Juan pasteurised the milk we would be using for the cheese as the first step in the class – they are thorough, these guys, and knew at least one of our crowd had their own goat – and described the hygiene measures they take during the milking process. Daisy even gets her udders alcohol gelled after milking (delightfully, John referred to these throughout as her teats – but with his accent, I heard ‘tits’, & I prefer my interpretation).


Lovely fresh, raw milk being pasteurised. See the cream!

After pasteurising, we took up a station in pairs:


Cheese stations for the day – cheese hoops and special draining cloths on the right

and watched while Juan showed us how to create a ‘starter’ from a culture called flora danica – mesophilic, ie mid temperature, for soft cheeses such as camembert. As this process takes 24 hours, he whipped out one he’d made earlier; a runny, yoghurty mix which kicks off the cheese.


Behold! The starter Juan made earlier! John checks the water bath temp

And then it was all go to start making our own cheeses. First there was the heating of the newly pasteurised milk to exactly the right temperature, using a water bath. The characteristics of different cheeses can be influenced by these temperatures.

heating in waterbath

Using a water bath allows you regulate the temperature very closely

We added calcium chloride, to reduce any potential ammonia taint caused by the action of the camembert mould, and then the starter culture, and finally the vegetable rennet. Rennet made the milk set to a blancmange like texture, which, following a wonderfully detailed instruction sheet, we left until it was ready to cut into cubes of about 1.5 inches.

It’s important not to cut too early, as that affects the quality of the cheese enormously, so Juan showed us how to test the curd first:

curd not readyNot ready yet – cut curd has softer, rounded edges

curd readyReady – sample cut has a sharp, well defined edge

cutting curd

The cut curd

As the cubes of curd set, they leaked more and more fluid and grew much smaller, leaving the yellow tinged whey which we used later to make ricotta.

movingcurdShrunken curd and lots of whey

There were intervals of moving the curd gently and leaving the curd to set, during which time we all tucked into salad and pasta cooked by John, with home grown veggies and using ricotta, caerphilly and boccini all made by the pair previously. Followed by creme caramel with cream from – you guessed it – Daisy the cow. Can’t say I’ve ever been on a course where there was a hand cooked hot lunch provided, plus dessert, and it was delicious!

Once the curds had been oh-so-carefully ladled into the drainage hoops, everyone’s whey was collected and placed in a large saucepan for Juan to demonstrate making our second cheese of the day, whey ricotta.


Although not essential, he added whole milk to the whey in order to increase the yield and make for a creamier result, and brought it slowly to temperature, stirring all the while. He added a splash of plain old vinegar (see Milk + Vinegar = Cheese, previously), and the milk split, pretty much immediately, into curds. Alchemy!

ricotta curds

Small particles of curds in the whey ricotta

Unlike the camembert, where gentle scooping to preserve the form of the curd was super important, it seemed less so for ricotta, as Juan ladled the curds deftly into a special colander-like mini basket. After draining for 10 minutes it was ready to eat. Like magic – a second cheese from the leftovers of the camembert making.

Handily, the ricotta demo filled some time between the ladling of the curds and the first 2 turns – the cheeses are carefully picked up, held firmly and whipped over as fast as possible.

It was surprisingly slippery – as well as being wet from the draining curds, the special blue plastic ‘cloth’ – a sort of modern cheese cloth – is quite low friction. I froze with indecision when it came to turning mine – did I have a firm enough grip?  was I about to spatter hours of work all over me and the workbench? – but I did it, and the curds settled back to further draining. It was astonishing how much the cheeses reduced in size injust a couple of hours – from being level with the top of the hoops, to, having lost an inch after an hour, and reduced by half in 2.


The curds lost liquid steadily, from freshly filled, to half the size

Finally we gathered round Juan one last time, as he described what we’d be doing over the next 2 weeks to our precious baby cheeses. Sterilising things featured heavily, as did precise temperatures for the ripening. We’d be turning the cheeses every 2 days for the next 8 – 10 days until the mould started to grow and cover the whole cheese. Then storing them in special breathable paper for another fortnight, at cooler temperatures still. (All the equipment, moulds and tools are available to buy from their website).

Then it was time to eat again. And eat we did – despite being fairly rammed from our enormous lunch, glasses of wine and a big plate of cheeses appeared, complete with homemade quince paste, and a selection of fruit. All the cheese – obviously – made by John & Juan; a rustic young orange cheddar, a 6 week old camembert, and a fabulous blue that was creamy and soft, and not at all ammonic. If this is what the calcium chloride does for a cheese, it’s a damn good idea! The whey ricotta, still warm from its birthing, we scooped onto crackers and ate with grapes. Lovely.

All in all, a terrific course – I’d already read a Home Cheesemaking Book by an American author, but there’s absolutely no substitute for being able to ask constant, probably inane questions, and seeing something come to life in front of you. And it was great fun too!


Home Cheesemaking Co

Milk + vinegar = cheese

Yup, I was surprised at the simplicity too.

I bought a cheese making kit last year and have spectacularly failed to use it so far. My bad. Kept telling myself it was hard to get fresh, straight-from-the-dairy milk. So when we saw Over The Moon selling their lovely milk (and cream, and ricotta and many good things) at The Entrance Market recently, there really was no excuse. We bought 2 litres of whole, unhomogenised milk.


Back home, I got out the Home Cheese Making book, and started to read. I soon realised that I didn’t have the starter stuff they were talking about. In the dim distant bits of my brain that hold onto this sort of thing, I recalled the chaps at the Home Cheese Making Co telling me something about making a starter, with lots of talk of insulated tubs and keeping things at 72 degrees for 24 hours. Or some such. As my course with them isn’t until April, I couldn’t cross examine them for a few weeks so I plumped for the easiest recipe in the book instead – queso blanco.

This is a soft white cheese, often used for frying – like a haloumi I suppose. Ingredients:

  • whole milk
  • cider vinegar

cheese2 cheese3Sounded up my street. I took the milk, brought it to 185°F and added 2 tablespoons of vinegar.The recipe wasn’t clear on whether to take the milk off the heat so I left it on, seeing as it said “you can increase the temperature to 200°F in order to use less vinegar”. The milk started to split and curdle, and a few curds floated to the top. Not a huge amount really, so I let it go for 5 minutes or so, and then drained it through muslin folded 4 times.


Something made me save the whey – I’d heard you can make ricotta from whey – so once I’d knotted the muslin & hung up the queso blanco to drip on my jelly bag stand,quesodraining I brought the whey up to 200°F again, and added another tablespoon of vinegar. This time, it instantly spilt into large lumps of curd and the whey changed colour to a faintly greenish thin liquid. Bingo!ricotta curdsthis time the curds split out of the whey instantly

wheycurds2more curds, slightly greenish thin whey

I drained the whey down the sink, and the resulting curd lump (aka ricotta) was actually bigger than the lump of queso blanco. Weird! Science in action! I feel like an alchemist.


Ricotta curds

We let both bags of curd drain for about 5 or 6 hours, until they stopped dripping. The curds were slightly rubbery, and very bland, with the queso blanco being the firmer of the two.


both cheeses draining with the aid of a jelly strainer stand

Adding salt and a little cream to the ricotta untterly transformed it though – it became a delicious, if slightly rubberier than normal ricotta.

And as for the queso blanco….quesoafter6hrs

It was, as promised by the book, delicious fried with salt & pepper!


I can’t believe how simple it is! The ricotta was my favourite of the two, and was also delicious with a drizzle of honey.