There is something perversely satisfying about spending an excessive amount of time recreating commodity food items at home. I know I’m not alone in this affliction, as one of my favorite food blogs, Smitten Kitchen, seems to excel at making her own oreos, graham crackers, pop tarts, marshmallows, and so on. Thus, having confirmed that I’m in good company, I decided to fritter away yet another Sunday in the kitchen, this time making cream cheese and bagels (sorry, no lox).
I’ll have to give bagel details at a later date, lest your eyeballs glaze before you make it to the glamor shots at the end of this post. If you simply cannot wait, I’ve got some photos of the bagel process in my bread products Flickr set.
First step! Lay all your utensils and goodies on the counter in a neat and fussy arrangement. Get up on a stool and take pictures. Express thanks for a kitchen with a nice wood countertop right next to the lovely light of a large, north facing window.
You may notice the counter is pretty bare. Compared to the last time I made cheese, this is going to be relatively simple. Hooray!
Step two: warm up the milky bits. I used half and half. You can probably use straight-up light cream, or even heavy cream if you’re a crazy cheese daredevil. Seventy-five degrees is your target. Precision isn’t terribly important here, we’re just trying to make the bacteria cozy, and they do tolerate a range of temperatures.
One slight complication: there’s a twelve hour long step coming up, so you’ll probably want to start this the night before and let your microbe friends work while you slumber. Plan ahead!
Now that we’re up to temperature, it’s time to add our bacterial culture. This comes as a packet of powder, which you keep in your freezer in order to prevent its inhabitants from waking up and hulking out in your pantry or other such inconvenient location. Snip the packet with the scissors you’ve previously sanitized (you sanitized all your equipment, right?), sprinkle it on top of the milk, and mix it in thoroughly.
Now, here’s where my various cheese books disagree. Some of them tell you to add rennet as well. So, I did. I’m starting to think that’s unnecessary/cheating. The lactic acid produced by our bacteria should be able to curdle the milk on its own, given enough time. It sounds like the result would be lumpy curds floating in whey, instead of the uniform gel that I got, and I suspect that would be more authentic. I’ll try it the other way next time, if I’m feeling lucky and adventurous.
Either way, we now need to keep our pot o’ milkstuff warm for twelve hours. In my yogurt making days I learned that a cooler and some warm water will keep things toasty for quite some time. So put your pot in a “cooler”, pour in some warm water, close the lid, call it a “warmer”, and go to bed. How much water to add—and at what temperature—is an experiment I’ll leave to you. I try to err towards more water at a not-too-hot temperature, so there’s enough thermal mass to last through the night.
All of this assumes that you’re not making cheese in a balmy climate. If you do happen to roost where “room temperature” is between seventy and eighty, just leave the pot out, taking appropriate precautions re: marauding cats and curious primates.
I did these first steps at about five in the evening, so needless to say, twelve hours came and went before I rolled out of bed the next morning. No worries. I got to it at eight or so. Poking around in the pot with a washed finger revealed that our experiment had indeed firmed up overnight.
Step one million. Make yourself some tea, line a strainer with muslin, and grab an old-timey slotted spoon with a handle that’s quite likely covered in lead paint. Scoop and plop. Gather up the cloth to make a nice hobo sack (optional: contemplate “hobo cheese” for a bit), then hang it over a whey receptacle for about six hours while it drains.
And there you have it. It should be firmed up and dried out a bit. Add some salt and you’re done. It’s never going to have the same texture as the cream cheese you get from the store, as it’s not full of odd gelling agents and fillers, but once you cool it down it’ll be nice and creamy and spreadable. It should last at least two weeks in the fridge.
Or rather, it shouldn’t spoil for at least two weeks. Whether it lasts that long depends on how many bagels you have on hand. Out of a half gallon of half and half I ended up with about 1.8 pounds of cheese, or—at current rates of consumption—about two dozen bagels worth.
Unlike all the other cheeses I’ve made so far, I’ve actually tasted this one! I think it came out really well. Pretty tangy and creamy. Maybe a little drier on the mouth than store-bought cream cheese, but at the same time a bit fresher and less gummy feeling. It’s probably not something I’d make terribly often (too many other cheeses to try!), but I’ll call it a success. It has certainly gotten good reviews in my limited test market of one.
The whole process of making cream cheese reminded me of making a strained yogurt cheese, and indeed I’m feeling like the final result is quite similar (though a bit richer). Soon I’ll document the idiotically easy process of making said yogurt cheese, for those of you unwilling or unable to sacrifice so much time in pursuit of cultured dairy products.