June 21, 2008

Savor Culture Has Moved!

"Come on, Bessie, let's go to the new Savor Culture site!"

Savor Culture can now be found at

Please update bookmarks and links.

June 5, 2008

Respecting Ricotta

Last week, an article in The New York Times praised the simplicity and versatility of fresh ricotta.  Several chefs declare that fresh ricotta can be profoundly delicious when served with a few intensely-flavored ingredients.  I had never considered ricotta to be a destination cheese, rather a quick stop on the journey of making lasagna, but I'd also never made my own.  My copy of Home Cheese Making in hand, I decided to follow the chefs' advice to make a batch of ricotta.

Traditionally made from the leftover liquid of cheesemaking, true ricotta is a whey cheese.  The butterfat and casein (curd-producing protein) of the milk have gone into the first cheese, leaving albuminous proteins and a bit of lactose floating around in a lot of water.  Whey ricotta (ri cotta, "to cook again") is produced by convincing those albuminous proteins that they want to be cheese, too.  This is rather tricky to do, and whey ricotta is a very low yield cheese: even the experts expect to produce only a cup or two of ricotta from two gallons of whey.  I have had very limited success producing ricotta from my mozzarella whey; however, the few curds I did manage to round up were quite tasty.  

The chefs in the NYT article either had whey ricotta flown in from Italy, or they made whole-milk ricotta in their kitchens.  Whole-milk ricotta eliminates the need for fresh whey (and a day of cheesemaking), and it offers a yield of up to two pounds of cheese per gallon of milk.  Raw milk may be used, because the high temperatures required to curdle albuminous protein also pasteurize the milk.  

The cheesemaking process is simple, the only special ingredient being citric acid, which I didn't have.  I squeezed some fresh lemon juice into the milk, then heated it until it curdled around 180°F.  The curds formed more gradually than I expected, likely due to the lemon juice substitution, but they tasted fresh and sweet.  I will look for citric acid to try in future batches of ricotta; I've heard it can be found at the pharmacy.  I've also seen recipes that call for fresh buttermilk.

I drained the ricotta for only a few minutes, keeping its texture a little loose like cottage cheese.  We were surprised by the sweetness of the ricotta, which isn't notable in the cheese from supermarket tubs.  Its sweetness foiled our appetizer of ricotta on garlic toast; however, I imagine that ricotta and tomato would make a toothsome bruschetta topping.  

Though my savory applications of fresh ricotta need a little fine-tuning, the next morning's breakfast combination was dead-on.  A dollop of ricotta on cinnamon-raisin Ezekiel bread with a drizzle of honey and scattering of walnuts... mmm, divine.

May 29, 2008

Tips from Charles on Building a Compost Pen

Our site for mining "black gold"

Let's take a closer look at the features of the compost pen that Charles designed and built.  It's a simple structure, but its features improve the flow of collecting, turning, and harvesting compost.  Charles also minimized the cost of building the pen by using salvaged and free materials.

1. Drain tile is set into a foundation of compacted dirt, which slopes toward a drainage trench at the rear of the pen. The trench is filled with cobblestones, which were collected from the yard.

2. Charles had intended to fill the bottom of the pen with gravel, but changed his mind when a neighbor offered a supply of wood chips.  Wood chips are appropriate for this application because they absorb moisture and encourage compost-benefical insects.  Wood chips are also preferable to gravel because some of the base layer will inevitably be integrated into the compost during turning.  A layer of wood chips in front of the pen provides an area to stand while adding to and turning the compost.

3. The wood used in the frame was left over from the house construction several years ago.   By saving wood and other materials, the homeowners have a collection of usable materials for many projects, and avoided contributing to the huge amount of waste accumulated by residential construction.  According to the National Association of Homebuilders' Research Center, construction of the average 2000 sq. ft. home generates 8000 lb. (50 cubic yards) of material waste, 3000 lb. (11 cubic yards) of which is wood.

4. Charles's original plan called for 1 cm square-grid "hardware cloth" to line the pen.  However, lighter-gauge chicken wire was a quarter of the price of the hardware cloth. Doubling the chicken wire created a 1.5 cm grid at half the cost.

As you can see, Charles's building techniques include using salvaged materials, working with materials provided by the site, and designing creatively.  Whether you live in a rural or urban environment, opportunities exist to reduce the cost and resources used for your project.

May 26, 2008

Introducing The Nest

It's been several weeks (months?) since the last update on our summer garden.  I'm happy to report that we have sturdy seedlings in the rows marked zucchinibutterpearadish, and every kind of lettuce.  They look so beautiful that we wanted to create a suitable environment for them.  Wonderful Husband Charles suggested a raised bed with wicker walls.  We built it over several days using yard waste.  As you can see, the finished garden looks cozy and inviting!

Behind its fair facade, the garden holds functional elements, too.  We filled the 4' by 6' space with dirt from an old pig pen, vegetable scraps, and a thriving vermicultural  community.  That's right, we transferred most of the red wrigglers from the vermicompost bucket to our new garden.  We topped them off with soil and mulch, and seeded a cover crop of alfalfa.

We were both delighted by the garden's resemblance to the nests found around the yard: those of sparrows, robins, even woodpeckers.  We painted a whimsical sign to introduce our garden to the world. 

A nearby structure is as practical as the garden is fanciful.  Charles spent the weekend building a compost pen.  It's a 4' by 8' pen, three sides of which are lined with chicken wire.  He laid lengths of drain tile inside and stabilized them with a layer of woodchips.  A trench filled with cobblestones surrounds the pen.

The compost heap will be rotated from the right side of the pen to the left as it breaks down.  Charles formed the heap into a volcano shape, so that kitchen waste can be easily integrated into the compost.  Of course, he couldn't resist adding some worms to work on the heap at a macro level.  The final step was to sprinkle dirt over the heap and top it with two conical lids.  Now, we have a compost system that should avoid problems from moisture and pests, and is accessible for turning and harvesting the compost.  (See?  I told you he was wonderful!)

What next?  Before we leave town this weekend, we'll need to transplant our seedlings and sow the remaining seeds into other garden plots.  

Happy gardening!

May 22, 2008

Post Migration

Coming soon: a new look for Savor Culture!

You may have noticed that the Toma post included a link to my new domain.  Soon, the blog will be there, too-- stay tuned!

Thanks for reading!

May 9, 2008

Making Toma

Toma is a semi-firm, natural rind, cow's milk cheese.

Having tackled Camembert and Cheddar, the intrepid beginner cheesemakers set their sights on a semi-firm variety: Toma.  The family of Toma has members in every village of northern Italy; their ages and textures vary, but they're all from the same thermophilic stock.  Our instructor, Jim Wallace, calls this version Vacha Toscano, because it's made with cow's milk in the Tuscan style. 

Toma is a highly customizable cheese because its optimal aging time is determined by the moisture content of its curd.  If you want to eat the cheese in three months, shoot for a quarter-inch curd size and stir it for twenty minutes before draining the whey.  If you can wait a year for the cheese to age, cut the curd smaller and stir it longer.  

By the way, you can throw in some dried herbs or peppercorns when molding the cheese.  Jim recommends whole peppercorns and smoked jalapenos.  We sampled a year-aged wheel studded with white peppercorns in the traditional pepato style.  

Now, if I could just get my hands on some ewe's milk, I could make pecorino Toscano!

May 4, 2008

Making Camembert: A Slideshow

This young Camembert will soon be covered by a thin layer of 
white mold, which the French poetically call, "croĆ»te fleurie."

On the first day of the cheesemaking workshop, we made Camembert while the Cheddar was being pressed.  As you will see in the slideshow, the process for making this soft-ripened cheese does not include several of the steps that Cheddar requires, such as scalding and milling the curd, and pressing the cheese under weights.  

Camembert is an unpressed cheese, its curd drained exclusively by gravity.  A Camembert mold is 4.5 inches tall, and the curd initially fills it to the brim.  After several hours of draining, during which time the cheese is flipped in the mold, the curd settles to about one-third of the height of the mold.   

Jim explained that the drying process of the molded cheese is important in its rind development: blue mold may develop if the Camembert is not dried thoroughly, but the white mold will not form at all if it is too dry.  The rind is actually a product of three distinct microbe populations: yeast, geotricum, and P. candidum.  Full development of the rind takes about two weeks, and the interior of the Camembert will ripen over the following one to two weeks.  Of course, that's a matter of personal preference.