This article was originally published in the September 2017 Princeton Echo.
This summer I signed up for a cheese making course at Olsson’s Fine Foods in Palmer Square. Though a total novice on this subject, I had learned that the selected cheese — mozzarella — is an exceptionally easy one to make. I did, however, wonder if there would be anyone else in the course, this being July in Princeton when the town is relatively empty. To my great surprise, there were 14 other people who wanted to learn how to make mozzarella.
“Is this unusual?” I asked Rudie Smit, the genial owner and cheese maker. “Not at all,” he told me and then went on to explain that four years ago the New York Times had featured his business and since then people have flocked to learn about cheese and cheese making. Indeed, the response has been such that while Smit had been offering about 10 classes a year at the time of the newspaper story, he now offers classes every week that he is in Princeton and not scouting cheeses in Europe, especially his home country of the Netherlands. While Making Mozzarella is the most popular course (and, thus, the most frequently offered), there are also eight other subjects offered, including Unexpected Pairings, the Blues, and Stinky Cheeses.
You can actually learn something about these various cheeses in the mozzarella class because Smit devotes the first 10 minutes to discussing the history of cheese and why there are variations in taste and texture. He illustrates this talk with a detailed poster and then passes out small plates with four different kinds of cheese for each student to sample.
As Smit lectured, my fellow classmates and I were standing on each side of a long, narrow table placed between the store’s wall display and cheese counters. Before assembling, we had followed instructions to wash our hands as Making Mozzarella is definitely a hands-on course.
After snacking on the cheese bits, we then set to work. Each of us was presented with a small bread loaf size dish that contained a lump of cheese curd. We had learned in the lecture that when primitive peoples hit upon the idea of storing milk in the stomachs removed from slaughtered animals, there was something in the stomach lining (now designated as rennet), that caused the milk to separate into thick lumps known as curds and a thin liquid known as whey. (For the record, you don’t eat whey as in the Miss Muffet rhyme about eating curds and whey, you drink it.)
I was glad to learn that we did not have to go through the process of creating the curds (or, to be honest, having to drink the whey). Olsson’s sells curds, as do many other cheese stores. We looked at the lump of curds and were told to break it up into small bits. So glad we had washed our hands. Once they were in very small pieces, we were told to push them all to one side of the dish. And now, Smit instructed, we were to take one of the teaspoons on the table, dip it into the bowl of salt, and scatter that seasoning in the empty area of our dish. Smit recommended a teaspoon but told us we could add as much or as little as we liked. I went with the teaspoon.
So far, so good, and so easy. We spread the curds throughout the dish so that we could knead the salt into them. With that accomplished, we stood back as a soothing warm water was poured into each dish. We were told to let the curds rest for a moment and in doing so saw the water turn a translucent white. This, Smit told us, was the remaining whey, which contains fat solids, being slowly released. We next formed the curds into a ball and poured the liquid into a plastic container (we had each initialed our container earlier so there would be no mistaking whose cheese was whose). Smit’s assistants helped us all throughout the process.
Quite hot water was next added to our dishes and then we had some fun. We picked up our curd ball and started to pull it apart, forming a long string — up to two feet in length. We were told to collapse that and pull apart again. The youngsters in our group — they looked about 10 or so in age — seemed to enjoy this activity most of all.
We were almost there. The final step, Smit explained, was to take our lump and press it through the circle formed by our thumb and middle finger on our left hand. You sort of pinched it through the resulting hole and an Italian gentleman in our group announced that mozza is a form of the word pinch in Italian and the cheese in that country is known as pinch cheese.
Supposedly, when one finishes pinching one has a smooth ball of mozzarella. Not so in my case. It was, however, a better lump than when I first started pinching. Once that task was completed, we put the mozzarella into the salted whey liquid (fresh mozzarella so packaged can last a week in a refrigerator) and were each given that and a half pound of curds to take home. Our class, complete with opening lecture, had consumed slightly less than an hour.
I took my mozzarella to Arlington, Virginia, the next day. My husband and I had driven there to visit our older daughter and her family. They had been warned they were going to have a mozzarella taste test at dinner that night. The results were quite positive — “it’s good grandma,” my older grandson exclaimed — except for the qualifier that Katherine made. “I think it would be tastier if it was a bit saltier.”
And that observation brought home to me the real benefit of making your own mozzarella — you can ensure that it meets your preference rather than the taste dictated by mass production. In modifying a popular slogan, when it comes to making mozzarella, I can honestly proclaim: “try it, you will like it.”
Olsson’s Fine Foods, 53 Palmer Square West, 609-924-2210. All classes are $35 per person. September offerings include Mozzarella Making, September 16 (10 a.m.) or September 18 (7 p.m.); Caseus Montanus Mountain Cheese Olympics, September 12 (7 p.m.); The Blues, September 19 (7 p.m.); and Burrata, September 9 (10 a.m.) or September 25 (7 p.m.), among others.