There’s no question Atlanta loves cheese. More than 2,500 people attended The Cheese Fest at Old Fourth Ward Park in late September. They enjoyed an abundance of cheese with more than 75 vendors serving up everything from tiny cubes to big wedges of cheese from the folks at Murray’s. For us cheese connoisseurs, it was nirvana. Nibble, chat, move on to the next cheese maker. What a way to spend an evening.
As a person who is big into do-it-yourself (I took a class at Parish many years ago just so I could learn how to make my own Worcestershire sauce, and yes, I still make it by the half gallon), I’ve long been interested in making my own cheese. Not that I would ever be able to produce something to rival what they create at Blackberry Farm or Sweet Grass Dairy, but just so I could understand the process and maybe make something simple but delicious.
So in keeping with my do-it-yourself bent, I took a cheese-making class with Mary Rigdon of Decimal Place Farm. Rigdon makes a wide range of goat cheeses served at every fine dining place in town and sold to us mortals at Freedom Farmers Market. In the class, we made feta. I followed up by going to Beer & Wine Craft in Sandy Springs and purchasing vegetable rennet and bacterial starter cultures, and I made a number of batches of feta at home. Rennet helps make a cheese firm, and the cultures are necessary when you want to make something like feta or chèvre or even just cream cheese.
I’m not the only one interested in making cheese. This summer, chef Pat Pascarella of White Bull offered a cheese-making class and walked the students through making mozzarella and ricotta. “We selected recipes that would be easy for home cooks to make in their own kitchens. Once you realize how simple the process is, then you’re more likely to give it a try at home and wow your friends with homemade cheeses,” said Pascarella.
His mozzarella recipe used cheese curds from Rock House Creamery rather than starting from milk. Making mozzarella that way means you just have to heat the curds, then stretch them. The rennet and other elements have already been added to the milk to make the curds, saving you from having to go through the process.
Ricotta is something many chefs make in-house. In late June we ran this recipe from chef Elliot Cusher of Donetto. Cusher’s rich ricotta is made from milk, heavy cream and buttermilk, acidified with lemon juice.
Another cheese that uses lemon juice to turn milk into cheese is paneer. Last May I watched Zach Meloy, the chef and owner of Better Half, make cheese on the spot while doing a chef demo at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market. He made a version of paneer using just milk, lemon juice and salt, and he shares that recipe with our readers today.
I’ve also long been curious about vegan “cheese.” Atlanta is the home of Pure Abundance, a cultured and aged cashew cheese. Melanie Wade of Cultured South took over production of Pure Abundance in June 2017, and I talked with her about how that’s been going.
Wade began working in the world of fermented and cultured food when she created Golda Kombucha in 2013. When she opened her kombucha taproom and fermentation marketplace this year she was ready to take on cheese.
“It seems like a simple process,” she said, “but it’s not. Vegan cheese is based on nuts, and nuts can be different. Some can be drier, some can be richer. That’s fine if you’re just making cheese at home, but we need to make a product that consistently meets our quality standards.”
Another piece of the puzzle was rejuvelac, the probiotic-rich nonalcoholic fermented liquid that’s used to culture nuts and seeds to so they can give the cheese a tangy flavor. Wade and her cheese makers were having trouble with the rejuvelac formula they inherited.
She said, “It wasn’t buttery and creamy. It was making a sour cheese. It dawned on me, there we were in a kombucha factory. We have hundreds of gallons of probiotic liquid all around us. We could use what we are excellent at making and incorporate it into the cheese. Now we use kombucha as the culturing agent. It produces a tanginess that’s really close to cheddar cheese.”
Now Wade and her cheese maker, Sarah Adams, make a double batch each week of the two varieties of Pure Abundance, Pan and Luna, and supply it to Whole Foods, Sevananda, Ancient Awakenings and their kombucha customers at local farmers markets.
If you really want to delve into the world of vegan cheese, you’ll want to get a copy of “Vegan Cheese” by Jules Aron ($24.95, Countryman Press). The author walks you through making spreadable cheeses like the Boursin-style cheese we share the recipe for, but also firm cheeses that require something such as agar, tapioca or carrageenan to give them a firm consistency. That may sound daunting, but these are all ingredients you can get at your local health food store or at a market like Whole Foods. There are recipes for cheeses made from cauliflower, zucchini, sunflower seeds and Brazil nuts. It will open your eyes to a whole world of possibilities.
And finally, I recommend my “old” standby, “But I Could Never Go Vegan! 125 Recipes That Prove You Can Live Without Cheese, It’s Not All Rabbit Food, and Your Friends Will Still Come Over for Dinner” by Kristy Turner ($24.95, The Experiment). It was the chapter titled “I Could Never Give Up Cheese” that sold me on the book. Its recipes for Tofu Chèvre (shared here), Pecan Parmesan and Sunflower Cheddar convinced me that yes, I could make “cheese” at home and yes, it would be delicious.
Cheese-making takes planning ahead. For vegan cheeses, you may need to soak nuts or drain the water from tofu. Dairy cheeses like paneer can be made quickly, but they all need time to drain and firm up before use.
Paneer is one of the easiest dairy cheeses to make. It’s a fresh cheese made by curdling milk with an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar. Zach Meloy of Better Half demonstrated at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market last spring. He made the cheese there, then while it rested, prepared an Indian-spiced sauté of beet greens and added cubes of fresh made paneer. The recipe is full of tips to help you be successful.
Because there’s no coagulant, like rennet, in this paneer recipe, it will make a pretty fragile cheese. Handle the cubes with care.
Beet Green Paneer
Meloy demonstrated this recipe in the spring when green garlic and beet greens were in season and widely available. To make this dish in the fall, we substituted a small bunch of green onions and a clove of garlic for the green garlic and used a mix of chard and kale for the beet greens.
Calling this chèvre might be a slight exaggeration, but this recipe makes a rich tasting spreadable cheese that’s totally addictive. I liked it fresh, but author Kristy Turner suggests baking it so the log of chèvre develops a light brown crust.
Boursin-Style Garlic and Herb Soaked Nuts are the basis for a whole world of vegan cheeses. Soaking softens the nuts so they puree easily. Then it’s what you add to the pureed nuts that determines the flavor profile.
To soak nuts, place them in a jar or bowl large enough to hold about double the volume. Fill the jar or bowl with water and cover. For cashews, let them soak 6 hours. Then drain and rinse thoroughly before using. You can soak and drain the nuts ahead of time and refrigerate them for up to 5 days before using.
For those interested in learning more about making vegan cheese, Wade and Cultured South will offer a class on making cashew-based cheese. Check the website and social for date and details. Cultured South, 1038 White Street SW, Atlanta. culturedsouth.com
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