“Lindsey, meet Annapoorna.” I am standing in the horse barn at Lakshmi Farms, a family farm and growing community center in Anchorage. A large Jersey cow is before me, her coat a dusty brown, her udder heavy with milk. It is a beautiful early spring morning, and the smell of new, dew-kissed grass and wood shavings coating the barn floor surrounds me.
Annapoorna turns her large, soft eyes my way and gives me a slight grunt. She is clearly ready for her daily morning milking and likely is not pleased that I am running 10 minutes late. Lakshmi Farms sits just off the Gene Snyder Freeway. I am enchanted by how quickly the highway and commercial development slips away as a slender road leads me over train tracks and toward the lush landscape of the farm. A family operation, Lakshmi Farms is not focused on selling the gifts from its animals but is rather a community gathering center, acting as a host location for Community Supported Agriculture farmers to distribute their products, while also creating a farm incubator program, supporting first-time farmers with land and resources.
There is a beauty to this farm extending beyond the rolling hills and clucking chickens that greet visitors at the gate entrance. When I was offered a day’s share of Annapoorna’s milk, I was touched and determined that I would do more with this gift than simply drink it. Making my own cheese had been on my cooking bucket list for some time, a goal I often skipped over, moving on to something I deemed less daunting. As I watched the farmhand gently grip and pull the milk from the udder, Annapoorna dining contentedly from a pail of feed, I knew it was time to put aside doubt and fear of failure. And something told me that Annapoorna, named for the Hindu goddess of nourishment, wouldn’t lead me astray.
In preparation for my cheese making, I ordered a kit from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. that contained all the necessary tools for making fresh ricotta and fresh mozzarella cheeses. I began with ricotta, which proved to be a wise choice, the process as simple as adding citric acid to milk in the form of lemon juice or a powder source (included with most kits).
I poured Annapoorna’s milk into a large stainless-steel pot and added the citric acid along with a bit of salt. I stirred the contents of the pot, warming the milk to nearly 200 degrees, and watched the transformation of the milk into curds and whey, soft rolls of curd floating placidly to the surface of the pale yellow whey. After the curds were off the heat for a short time, I ladled them into a colander lined with butter muslin, draining off as much of the excess whey as possible. Butter muslin was included with my cheese-making kit. Through my research, however, I discovered that cheesecloth would work as well and is easier to find. I used kitchen twine to pull the edges of the muslin together, encasing the ricotta, and suspended it in the air to continue to drain over a bowl for an additional 30 minutes. I was in near disbelief by the pillowy texture of the resulting ricotta, the malleable cheese spreading over my tongue and dissolving creamily, the flavor milky. I slathered the cheese over warm, crusty bread, dusted it with pepper and drizzled it with honey, overwhelmed by the simplicity of my creation.
With ricotta under my belt, I was ready to try my hand at mozzarella, which seemed simple as well, but proved to be a more temperamental process. Cheese making is akin to baking in that measurements and natural chemical reactions determine whether your work will pay off. I stumbled through my first attempt at mozzarella, warming the milk and incorporating citric acid as with the ricotta. The addition of rennet, a natural enzyme that encourages cheese curdling, was a new step and one in which I somehow went astray. Perhaps it was my lack of attention to exact temperatures or my slightly too-aggressive stirring of the curds, but where I should have found a semi-firm layer of curd after removing the pot from the heat for a short time, I found a flimsy layer that easily crumbled beneath my fingers. I continued through the remaining steps of the recipe, but my cheese never left that fragmented state, and I had to throw in the towel, frustrated and discouraged.
I took a few minutes and, while nibbling on another piece of ricotta toast, reviewed the recipe, making mental notations of where I might have gone wrong, and set about washing and resetting my pots. The day was not done, and I would have fresh mozzarella with tomatoes and basil before the sun set.
I warmed fresh milk once again, blending with citric acid and then rennet. I removed it from the heat and covered the pot for five minutes to let it set. I held my breath as I lifted the lid of the pot, trying to ignore the whispers of failure mounting in my mind. As if by magic, a custard-like layer had formed at the top of the milk, a blanket of curd smooth and just sturdy enough to hold together when I carefully pulled it away from the side of the pot, a pool of whey spilling over the surface. I let out a long breath. Maybe I could make mozzarella after all.
The next step in the process called for separating the curds into small squares, using a knife to make deep cuts through the surprisingly thick layer of coagulated milk. I carefully stirred the sliced curds in a slow motion while warming to 110 degrees. The curds held their shape but were quite fragile. However, instead of breaking into a grainy mess, this time they seemed to melt into one another and to clutch the neck of my spoon, sticking and stretching ever so slightly as I continued to rotate the mix off the heat.
It was time to drain off the whey and transfer what was beginning to bear a striking resemblance to mozzarella into a colander. My confidence was mending at this point, and visions of tomatoes and basil were blossoming. Following the instructions from my kit, I transferred the colander of drained curds directly into a pot filled with water warmed to 185 degrees. Lifting the colander in and out of the water, I could see the curds melding together, warming quickly and taking on the distinctive elastic texture of mozzarella. It was the sign that it was time to stretch and form the mozzarella balls. The cheese was nearly too hot to handle as I grasped sections and pulled them high, watching the shiny taffy-like cheese elongate and flow from the base of the colander.
I added one teaspoon of cheese salt and rubbed it into the cheese that was taking on an increasingly smooth and silky texture. I molded the cheese into six small balls and placed them into a cool bath of 50-degree water for five minutes before transferring to a bowl of ice water for a quarter of an hour. The cool water helps set the mozzarella’s shape and, at that point, it was ready for consumption.
While it wasn’t as perfectly formed or smooth as the mozzarella from the neighborhood grocery store, I couldn’t help but take pride in the natural, homemade badge my cheese wore. I had crafted this mozzarella and the ricotta with my own two hands, watched the slow but steady process of milk turning into curds and whey and, eventually, taking the form of cheese. It felt as natural as watching the milk from Annapoorna drum the stainless steel pail. It was real, whole food, and the entire process, from cow to cheese, reminded me once again why cooking with local ingredients brings me such peace, happiness and nutritious fulfillment. Q