Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Little Miss Muffet

Most nursery rhymes must have been written back during England and America's days of villagers, milk maids, shepherds, and farmers. When I walk around Shamgona, I often think of those rhymes that meant little to me before living here --

"Little Boy Blue, come blow your horn,
The sheep's in the meadow, the cow's in the corn..."
(If the cow is in the corn, you won't have much corn for very long....)

"Baa, baa, Black Sheep, have you any wool?
Yes, sir! Yes, sir! Three bags full."
(And grandma can spin the wool into yarn and knit you a new sweater....)

"Peter, Peter, pumpkin-eater, had a wife and couldn't keep her --
Put her in a pumpkin shell and there he kept her very well."
(The pumpkins that are grown here have shells so thick that if a pumpkin were big enough, one could certainly live in the shell!)

But the one that runs through my mind the most often is --

"Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey.
Along came a spider who sat down beside her and frightened Miss Muffet away."

In fact, I say this rhyme to myself every other day when I do the household chore that I have claimed as my own.

Back in the middle of winter, I tried making cheese -- a job that has to be done every two days. Not everyone can do it well, and since, at my first attempt, Tea admitted that I do it better than she does, I told her that it would be my job from now on. She was more than happy to relinquish this time-consuming chore that she dislikes -- I love it! Maybe because it's something novel to me -- but I don't think that is the reason. I love it because it is a very tactile job.

First stage of breaking up the viscous semi-solid
The initial stage is the one that I like the best -- the first plunge into the coagulated semi-solid of heated milk with the rennet enzyme added -- silky, smooth, and soft. I run my hands through the pot, breaking up the tofu-like block. The texture immediately changes into small, chunky pieces -- still soft and gelatinous. These are the curds that start to separate from the whey. (This is when I run through "Little Miss Muffet" in my mind.)

When I have squished all the large pieces through my fingers, I start to gather the curds from the opposite side of the pot. Slowly, I pull the solids forward and gently hold them for a minute before pulling more curds forward and gently pressing them into the loose lump. I do this motion several times until all the stray pieces of curd floating in the whey have been gathered together.

At this point, I start constricting the lump of curds -- slowly and gently at first. In the first several minutes of this stage, there is little cohesion to the ball of cheese that is beginning to form. A heavy hand would make the form burst apart. With little more than the weight of my hands, I compress the curds like a testing a memory-foam mattress. I let my hand sink into the surface, then move it an inch or two, and let it sink down again -- over and over, both hands slowly, steadily shrinking the size of the form.

The form starts becoming solid
Once the ball has been compressed about half-way, the texture changes -- it becomes rubbery, allowing me to add more pressure to the surface, which changes the texture even further -- more rubbery -- add more pressure -- more rubbery -- more pressure. And over, and over, and over.

Depending on how warm the milk was when I started the process (or if the pan is on the stove during the process), it can take up to twenty minutes to get the ball of cheese compressed as far as it will go. The warmer, the better -- the curds bind together more quickly.

Once the ball is solid and holds together, I lift the cheese out of the whey, and let it drain. I turn the ball around and around, gently pressing on the soft spots to release any liquid still trapped inside. It can take ten or fifteen minutes to drain out all the whey still trapped inside the cheese. I like to drain as much out as I can -- the drier the ball is, the better the cheese is the next day.

And there you have it -- fresh cheese!

In a few hours, it can either be squished-up for khatchapuri, or it can be sliced up, covered with boiling water until it is stringy and melty, then drained, kneaded like bread dough a couple of times, coated with salt a,nd allowed to sit for a couple of hours -- that's called Sulguni Cheese. It's the best cheese around!

Little Miss Muffet would like Sulguni better than plain old curds and whey!

1 comment:

  1. Great story! USDA (or Georgian counterpart) will have a heart attack seeing you make cheese while wearing a ring :)