Category Archives: Dairy

cheese soup with caramelized onions & cumin

I’m getting to this point in my cooking career where I’ve begun to actually create my own recipes based on techniques I’ve learned from cookbooks.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great feeling to make a recipe from a cookbook and have it turn out just right (especially if it’s something you’ve never attempted), but it’s a different level of satisfaction to conceive a recipe and have it turn out perfectly the first time.  This is so exciting to me- kind of like when I first started writing songs after just playing other people’s for years.  I’ve never had much problem making up recipes for simple things like soup, pasta, salad or salad dressing.  But this past year I’ve been branching out and creating slightly more advanced recipes based on ideas I have for flavor combinations.   One of the first times I did this was for these scrambled eggs with scallops & bacon (which, incidentally, would be a fabulous Valentine’s breakfast!).  I did refer to another recipe, kind of like a musician refers to certain chord progressions to write a pop song, but the cool thing for me was that I thought up the idea independently and that it worked!  Since then, I’ve written other recipes, each time getting a little more confident and feeling less like I need to consult a cookbook.  Some are very simple, like this saffron-citrus risotto or this Chinese-style kale (probably my most popular recipe), while others, like this venison & porcini ragu, are a little more involved.

Last weekend I got together with some girlfriends for Soup Swap Mach II (you can go here to check out last year’s Soup Swap) and  after flipping through tons of cookbooks for soup recipes, decided to just make one up.  The flavors for this soup were inspired by an onion tart I made last year from the Chocolate & Zucchini cookbook which contained onions, cheese, and the somewhat unexpected element (for French cuisine, anyway) of cumin.  I really loved these flavors together and thought they’d be wonderful in a soup.  The depth and intensity of this soup was unlike any cheese soup I’ve ever had- I caramelized the onions for almost an hour until they reached a deep amber color,  toasted the cumin seeds, and used a pound of cheese.  Decadent, perhaps a bit, but this soup reaches a level of savory that makes it all worthwhile.  Don’t be put off by its somewhat drab appearance- what it lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in taste.  Serve it with a salad, some fruit (apples or pears would be good) and crusty bread or croutons.

Cheese Soup with Caramelized Onions & Cumin
printer-friendly version

6 cups diced yellow onions
3 Tbs butter
1 cup dry white wine such as Sauvignon Blanc
4-5 Tbs flour
2 cups chicken stock (substitute a mild vegetable stock for a vegetarian version)
2 cups lowfat milk
1 lb shredded cheese such as Cheddar or Emmenthaler (see notes)
1 rounded tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp ground white pepper
kosher or sea salt
optional for serving: chopped parsley and croutons

Notes: If you’d like detailed instructions on caramelizing onions, I used the techniques described in this post, using wine to deglaze the pan instead of water.  For the cheese, you can use whatever you like- Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Emmenthaler or another hard cheese like Comte… Just make sure whatever you choose is not going to have a funky flavor once melted, as some Swiss-style cheeses are prone to do.  I used a mixture of 3/4 Wisconsin white Cheddar and 1/4 Emmenthaler (because I had some in the fridge to use up)  but I think you could play with the proportions or try other cheeses.  I wouldn’t use anything too strong or too mild unless you plan to mix two cheeses.  The Emmenthaler on its own would be lovely, but it’s a bit spendy; the Cheddar is much more affordable.

Directions: Melt 2 Tbs of the butter over medium-high heat in a heavy-bottomed skillet or Dutch oven.  Whatever you choose, make sure it has a light-colored bottom so you can monitor the browning process. Most importantly, do NOT use a non-stick pan!  When the butter has melted and the pan is hot, add the onions. Sprinkle them generously with salt- this will help to draw out the water, which is the first step to getting them browned.  Stir often with a wooden spoon or spatula.  Be patient- the caramelization process will take quite a long time (45 minutes to an hour), but it’s not difficult and the flavor is so worth it!  Some cooks like to read while they stir…  The hotter you keep the heat, the faster things will go, but the more you’ll have to be vigilant with your stirring. Towards the end, you may have to reduce the heat a little to keep things from scorching.  After the water has started to cook out, the onions will become a pale brown and an amber-colored residue will gradually begin to build up on the bottom of the pan.  When you can no longer scrape the browned part up with your spoon alone, start using the wine to deglaze the pan.  To start off, you’ll want to deglaze every 45-60 seconds or so; as the onions cook, the intervals will become shorter.  Every time a “crust” accumulates, add a SMALL splash of the wine (no more than a tablespoon; less if possible) and stir and scrape the pan to incorporate the browned bits into the onions.  The sugars from the wine will assist the browning process and give you a gorgeous deep amber color.

Onions, about 3/4 of the way done. Note the brown "crust" on the bottom of the pan.

Finished onions- 6 cups reduced to about a cup and a half!

When you’ve used up all the wine and the onions have become quite dark (see photos), reduce the heat to medium and add the remaining 1 Tbs butter to the pot.  When the butter has melted, sprinkle the flour over the onions 1 Tbs at a time, stirring to incorporate and making sure there are no lumps.  Cook the floured onions for 2-3 minutes so that the flour loses its “raw” taste.

Increase the heat back to medium high, add the chicken stock, and bring to a low simmer; the soup will thicken slightly.  Add the milk; when the soup comes back up to temperature, add the cheese.  If you like, you can reserve a little of the cheese for garnish.  Stir gently until the cheese has melted.  Cover the soup and reduce the heat to low.

Toast the cumin seeds in a small dry skillet over medium-low heat until they are fragrant, being very careful not to burn them.  (If they seem at all burned, toss them out and start over; burnt cumin is very bitter and will ruin your soup!)  When they have cooled, crush them a bit in a mortar & pestle to release their flavor.  Add the cumin to the soup along with the white pepper.  Taste for salt, but it likely won’t need any.

If you want to leave your soup as-is, you’re done.  If you want a smooth soup, transfer to a blender in 2 batches and puree until very smooth.  Alternately (and I think I’d do this next time), puree half the soup and stir it back in- this will give you some body, but you’ll retain the texture of some of the onions.

Ladle into bowls and top with croutons, a little chopped parsley, and a pinch of grated cheese if desired.

pumpkin-pecan and turkish delight cannoli (daring bakers)

I actually made my Daring Bakers challenge early this month, woot! Marvin informed me that we were going to a dinner party a couple weeks ago and volunteered me to bring a dessert, so I figured it was as good an excuse as any to roll up my sleeves and get frying.

I was a little skeptical about frying anything in my tiny kitchen without the aid of a deep fryer, but it turned out pretty much ok. I used my Le Creuset Dutch oven, which was deep enough to avoid any splattering.  The only collateral damage was a lingering fast-food grease smell that permeated the house for several days after!  I used pasta tubes for the cannoli forms, which was a little challenging but not impossible.

The cannoli were not difficult to make, but they were time-consuming.  Thankfully I had a pasta rolling machine, which greatly helped in rolling the dough to the proper thickness- I can’t imagine if I’d had to roll it out by hand, yikes.  The dough actually behaved very similarly to pasta dough and the machine worked very well at getting it to a workable consistency.  I hit a little bit of a speed bump when I went to make the dough- it was Sunday morning, I didn’t have any wine in the house, and you can’t buy alcohol until noon.  I didn’t have time to wait, so I poked around the pantry until I came across some Chinese cooking wine.  I sniffed it… it smelled close enough to Marsala, so into the dough it went.

For filling my cannoli, I bought ricotta but also bought some whipping cream which I whipped and folded into the ricotta.  It wasn’t traditional, of course, but it gave a wonderful light texture to the filling.  I divided my filling into two bowls and flavored one batch with about ¼ cup pumpkin butter from Trader Joe’s.  The other half of the filling was inspired by Turkish flavors; I used sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, allspice, and a little orange flower water.  The pumpkin-filled cannoli got pecans on the ends, and the “Turkish delight” cannoli got pistachios and apricots.

I doubt that cannoli would be something I’d attempt again at home, not just because of the frying but because they ended up being a little on the expensive side after you factor in the whole bottle of oil I had to use, and the manicotti shells I bought to use as molds.  But it was a fun experience, and after the last challenge, it was nice to make something I had success with on the first try!  (For recipe, please visit our hostess Lisa Michele’s blog at the link below.)

The November 2009 Daring Bakers Challenge was chosen and hosted by Lisa Michele of Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives. She chose the Italian Pastry, Cannolo (Cannoli is plural), using the cookbooks Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich and The Sopranos Family Cookbook by Allen Rucker; recipes by Michelle Scicolone, as ingredient/direction guides. She added her own modifications/changes, so the recipe is not 100% verbatim from either book.

book review: “the cheese chronicles” by liz thorpe

Cheese ChroniclesAs someone who has many interests but never a clear idea of what I wanted to be when I “grew up”, it’s a little hard not to envy Liz Thorpe.  In 2002, she quit a corporate job to work behind the counter at Murray’s Cheese Shop in New York for minimum wage, because she decided on a romantic whim that she wanted to work in cheese (in her paraphrased words, the reason was something like “I thought it would sound cool at cocktail parties”).  In seven short years her new career has skyrocketed: she is now Vice President of Murray’s, has traveled all over the U.S.,  advises chefs as reknowned as Thomas Keller on their cheese menus, and just recently appeared on Martha Stewart. Oh, and did I mention she wrote a book?

The Cheese Chronicles is Liz’s self-proclaimed attempt to trace and document the origins and history of cheesemaking in America.  The chapters loosely group together various artisanal cheesemakers into somewhat arbitrary categories such as “Pastured”, “Farmers’ Markets” and “Restaurants”.  Within each chapter, Liz describes her visits and experiences with the cheesemakers, their back stories, and of course their products.  The cheese operations she features run the gamut from tiny creameries who only sell their cheese locally, to larger, nationally distributed companies such as Cypress Grove, and everything in between.  Each chapter has several sidebars that are interesting and informative but tend to interrupt the book’s “flow”, requiring the reader to hop around a lot.

If the book’s organization is its biggest flaw (and it’s a minor one at that), its most shining quality is Liz’s ebullient prose.  You can tell that, dammit, this is a woman who loves cheese!  While her descriptors sometimes verge on wanky (think snooty wine critic), I can forgive her that because a) let’s face it, there are a limited amount of adjectives one can use when describing cheese flavors, and b) her willingness to go out on a limb just goes to show her enthusiasm.  Rather than come across as pretentious or stuffy, Liz’s tasting notes convey the depth of her infatuation and continued excitement for her subject.

With its narrow subject matter, you may think The Cheese Chronicles would only be of interest to a very small minority of food-snob cheese fanatic types, but I think anyone who loves good food and who cares about artisanal production will find something of interest in this book.  There are lots of “people stories” here too, so it’s a good balance of factual information and storytelling and never gets dull.  Cheesemakers, as it turns out, are a colorful bunch.

I picked up The Cheese Chronicles in part because my burgeoning food curiosity has led me to want to explore whether there might be any feasible careers in food.  Having worked in restaurants, I know the life of a chef is not for me, but what about producing and selling a food product?  One of the great things about this book is that Liz goes into detail of how each and every producer got started.  It’s reassuring and inspiring to know that there are success stories from those who had never had a whit of experience as well as from those who had dairy farming in their blood.  I did attend a cheesemaking class at a goat farm recently and am investigating the possibilities of home cheesemaking, so who knows?  Meanwhile, I’ve got a new list of must-try cheeses to get my hands on.  Expensive, yes, but hey, it could end up being “market research”!

Follow Liz on Twitter: twitter/LizCheese

cheese class at dancing goat creamery

barb holding fresh cheeseAnyone who knows me is aware that I love to try new recipes and have a very curious mind when it comes to anything food-related.  Lately my curiosity has prompted me to go beyond the kitchen proper and to explore things like charcuterie and cheesemaking.  I decided that reading about it wasn’t enough; I wanted to take a cheesemaking class to really see what it was all about.  Not much was being offered in my area, but I did find a class on the west side of the state near Grand Rapids, at DogWood Farms.  A bit of a drive, but luckily Marvin was into coming with me and making a weekend out of it, so on a rainy late October Friday, we got in the car and headed west.

The class was scheduled for Saturday at 8:00 AM.  Marvin and I are not what you would call “morning people”, but we groggily dragged ourselves out of bed at 6:45 and suffered through some terrible hotel coffee, then got in the car for a drizzly half-hour drive in the dim early-morning light.  I had no idea what to expect as we drove towards the farm.  The website didn’t offer much clue as to the size and scope of cheesemaker Barb Jenness’s operation, and having never visited a dairy or creamery, our minds were a blank slate.

curd in pot

Leaving the freeway far behind, we wound our way down country roads towards the farm.  After a bit of a Mapquest snafu, we pulled up the drive and were greeted by Barb’s husband Jim, who informed us that Barb had gone to get some cow’s milk from a farm up the road for the day’s cheesemaking.  Barb has a herd of Alpine goats and primarily makes chèvre, but it was too late in the season and the goats were in their drying-off period.

barb pouring milk

Barb showed up shortly after, and sat down with us for a few minutes to chat.  She was very hospitable and had a sampling of cheeses out for us, as well as thick slices of a delicious banana-coconut bread, a welcome sight after the nasty factory muffins on offer at the hotel buffet.  We talked to her about why we were there, what we hoped to get out of the class, and discussed the little we did know about cheesemaking.  It turned out that we were the only two students that day, which was perfect as it gave us the opportunity to ask any and all questions that came to mind, and gave Marvin the chance to take lots of photos!

barb spooning curd

Barb’s creamery turned out to be about as tiny as they come, but it was perfect for learning, and for getting an idea of what’s possible on a small scale.  Barb had converted a room that was once her laundry room (probably no more than 40-50 square feet) into her cheesemaking room; another space that was little more than a hallway accommodated her packaging area and her “aging cave” (a couple of wine refrigerators rigged to the proper temperature and humidity).  Even with just three of us in the cheese room, it was a little tight, and I was glad we were the only students that day.

hand in vat

barb with egg timer

Given that the goat’s milk was done for the season, we made two cow’s milk cheeses.  One was a fresh cheese that Barb called cream cheese, but which bore very little resemblance to the gummy cream cheese in square foil packages.   It tasted like the cow equivalent of a chèvre- a mild, creamy, moist and somewhat crumbly cheese with a bit of tanginess to it.  She had milk/curd in a couple of the stages of production, and working backwards, showed us the process from the finished cheese to the curd to the milk she had started with.  We were able to participate by ladling the curd into molds to drain.  It had the same texture as yogurt, when you spoon into it and it releases liquid.

noelle spooning curd

The other cheese we made was a Tomme-style cheese.  This one, an aged washed-rind cheese, had a few more steps and involved pasteurizing the milk, cutting the curd, and forming it into blocks.  She showed us some bricks of the cheese being aged and it had a ruddy rind that was the result of a paprika and olive oil wash.

curd in hand

barb tying curd

hard cheese

Cheesemaking involves a lot of what Barb termed “hurry up and wait” time, where you’re waiting for curd to set, whey to drain, etc.  During these “breaks” she would sit us down at her dining room table and go over slides she’d prepared on different aspects of cheese and cheesemaking.  Barb was a great teacher and very well-prepared.  She had a packet for us to take home that included all of the information given in the class, as well as some recipes, a list of books and websites where cheesemaking supplies could be ordered.  She was extremely encouraging and kept asking us if we planned to open a creamery.  I certainly have thought about it, although I think Barb has a big advantage not having to own or lease a secondary property for her facility.  I’m not sure that would work with my tiny little Ferndale house!

Barb with goat

After we were done with the day’s cheese-related activities, we headed out to the barn for a visit with the goats and chickens.  After hanging back a bit watching Marvin in the pen photographing Barb, Jim and the goats, I decided to take the plunge.  A few goats escaped, but were quickly rounded up by Alice, the resident canine goat-herd.  It was hilarious to watch this little dog corral goats twice her size, nipping and barking until they ran back into the pen.  Barb looked amused to see us city folk interacting with the livestock, and had a twinkle in her eye as she asked us whether we thought we could have goats of our own.  As much as I thought the goats were pretty cool, I doubt this city girl could get the hang of milking and breeding livestock.  But Barb assured us that it was perfectly “OK” to just have a creamery and leave the animal-tending to someone else. Phew!

Alice

chicken in window

We left the farm with a few of the fresh cheeses as well as some goat’s milk soap I bought from Barb- she’s been in the soapmaking business since before she got into cheese three years ago.  Barb urged us to keep in touch about our cheesemaking adventures, and told us to feel free to contact her if we had questions or issues.  I was pleasantly surprised at how encouraging she was about starting a cheesemaking business- she went out of her way to tell us about her experiences getting started, how to avoid certain pitfalls, etc.  She didn’t get into details about how much she is grossing, but she did tell us how much her cheese sells for (retail and wholesale) and that she easily sells out of everything she produces.  She gave me the impression that, while it may not be a way to get rich, you could definitely support yourself.

Jim with goats

I plan to try my hand at a few different cheeses at home as soon as I get a chance to order some supplies and figure out a good milk source.  I’ll be sure to post about my successes and failures here as I go!

All photographs (except chicken) courtesy of Marvin Shaouni Photography

yogurt economics

Several weeks ago, Harold McGee wrote about making your own yogurt in the New York Times, and Mother’s Kitchen happened to  post about it.  It got me thinking I should give it a whirl, seeing as how I almost always have yogurt in the fridge and use it for a variety of purposes.  It took me a few weeks to get around to it, but once I did, I wondered what on earth I had been waiting for.  Call me converted!

yogurt bowl 2

The process itself couldn’t be simpler: just heat some milk to about 180 degrees (it will just be starting to steam), let it cool down to about 110, stir in a spoonful of yogurt, let it sit in a warm place, and let nature take its course.  McGee provides specifics for keeping your yogurt warm, how long to leave it out, etc. but I found the “recipe” to be forgiving- I accidentally left my yogurt on the counter overnight rather than the 4 hours prescribed, to no ill effect.

McGee suggests that if you don’t have an “heirloom” starter, the major supermarket brands are actually the most reliable as they contain the most active cultures. I wanted to experiment a bit, so I bought small containers of both plain old Dannon and Fage Greek yogurt so I could taste-test and compare.  For the milk, I just bought a gallon of organic milk from Meijer*.  I made 2 cups of each type of yogurt.  I obviously had lots of milk left over because I had planned on making homemade ricotta as well, but that’s another story.  I taste-tested the two after they had chilled, and I couldn’t detect a huge difference- they both tasted more mellow and less sour than their originators, and both had a pleasant texture.  Obviously, the yogurt from the Fage starter was unstrained, so it didn’t have the thickness of the purchased product, but that can easily be obtained with some cheesecloth and a strainer.

yogurt with jarsSo, on to the economics:  My total investment was about $3.35 for 8 cups of yogurt (actually, almost 9 cups, if you count the cup of purchased yogurt).  Now, I don’t know where you shop, but the cheapest I have seen organic yogurt is at Trader Joe’s for $2.99 for 32 oz (4 cups).  As you can easily see, this works out to about half price, especially when you consider that once you have your yogurt going, you can use that to start the next batch, so future batches would only cost as much as your milk.  If you compare price to the individually-sized containers, the savings get even more ridiculous.  And if you’re wondering whether it’s worth it time-wise, I really only spent a few minutes actively “doing” anything.  As an added bonus, I love the thought of all the plastic containers it will save.  I do recycle them, but even still.

Of course, over and above all of this, the satisfaction of knowing you made something from scratch is (as the ads would say) priceless.

*random linguistic aside: For some bizarre reason, many Southeast Michiganders feel compelled to add an “S” at the end of some business names, as in “I work at Ford’s”, or “I shop at K-Mart’s”.  (In trying to avoid this awkward-sounding linguistic oddity, it even feels unnatural for me to say “Trader Joe’s”, and I sometimes overcompensate and call it “Trader Joe”…)  So when typing “Meijer”, I actually had to check to see if it was in fact Meijer or Meijer’s.  (It’s Meijer now, but it actually DID used to be Meijer’s, because the full name of the store was Meijer’s Thrifty Acres… anyone remember that?)