It all began because the cheese was too sour. Executive chef Michael Abt of Le Diplomate in Washington, D.C. wanted to utilize Cloumage, a creamy fresh cheese made by Shy Brothers Farm, in some of the restaurant’s salads and tartines. However, its tanginess dominated more delicate flavors. Like a growing legion of chefs-turned-curd-nerds, he decided to start making fromage himself so he could have complete control over every element.
Becoming a cheesemaker wasn’t as overwhelming as it might sound. “The perception that it’s much more challenging than it actually is,” says Abt. “It’s as simple or as complicated as you want it to be.”
Most chefs opt to make fresh cheeses, which don’t require aging in a highly controlled environment. These types are typically ready to eat the day they’re made. Abt crafts a variety he calls farmer’s cheese. He begins by mixing together locally sourced heavy cream and whole milk. Placing the mixture in the oven, it takes about 45 minutes for the curds and whey to separate. Afterward, the divided mixture is taken out and strained. “Then it’s a blank canvas and you can do whatever you want,” says the chef, who makes approximately 12 gallons of the fresh cheese a week.
Depending on the season, he might serve it with honeycomb, toasted hazelnuts, mint, black pepper, and olive oil or with figs, port reduction, basil, and olive oil.
Every week, chef-co-owner Bonnie Morales of Portland, Oregon’s Kachka produces 12 pounds of Russian tvorog. Soft and creamy with a rich milkiness, it’s analogous to cottage cheese. Milk is combined with housemade sour cream and then sits for a day to sour and thicken. The mixture is cooked until the curds and whey separate. “If you take it out too soon, you’ll have a low yield and a wet tvorog,” says Morales. “If you wait too long, it gets dry and overcooked. There’s an art to it.”
After straining the curds, she hangs the cheese to dry. For her beet salad, she lets it hang longer until it has lost most of its moisture. Its smoked with alder wood for 30-45 minutes and then crumbled over the beets and finished with toasted caraway vinaigrette.
These chefs aren’t alone in their cheesemaking pursuits. Many Indian restaurants forge paneer in-house, since the process to make the firm, but crumble-able, cheese simply involves curdling heated milk. At New York City’s Junoon executive chef Akshay Bhardwaj features generous cubes in cashew korma; IndeBlue in Philadelphia showcases it in a tikka masala preparation, and Washington, D.C.’s Indique offers a classic paneer makhani with thick tomato-based sauce.
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Nevin Martell is a Washington, D.C.-based food and travel writer and the author of several books, including Freak Show Without A Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations. Find him on Twitter @nevinmartell and Instagram @nevinmartell.
Photo credit: Carly Diaz (Kachka).