Blame my Midwestern roots, or the 10 years I’ve spent as a vegetarian, but no single category of food can make me swoon like cheese. I have been known to devour a block of cheddar, sliver by salty sliver, over the course of an afternoon. And when Shavuot rolls around — celebrating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the season’s first fruits and all things dairy — my heart and kitchen fill with unbridled, cheesy joy. So imagine the blow to the belly I experienced upon realizing that koshering my kitchen when I got married required me to leave behind my favorite fromages. A trip down the kosher dairy aisle only deepened my distress.
The dearth of good-quality options is largely a result of low consumer demand. Cheese, along with other milk products, has been marginalized to the edges of the contemporary kosher table. (Think nondairy whip, ersatz coffee creamer and fake ice cream following a meat meal; or kosher Subway sandwiches, sans the slices of provolone and Swiss.) And since many traditional kashrut keepers never have experienced the alternatives — a sharp pecorino, say, or creamy Bucheron — when they do “go milchig,” they have little incentive to seek out anything beyond the waxy, highly processed status quo. As Mark Rosen, who founded the Chicago-based specialty kosher cheese company Sugar River, put it: “There was a rabbi who came to [inspect our] plant who was like, ‘I don’t know why anybody buys [your cheese] when they can just buy something less fancy.’”
Over the past decade, however, a handful of food entrepreneurs such as Rosen — those who believe that while kosher cheese should not necessarily have to be “fancy,” it should be delicious — have emerged. An Italian company called Fanticini helped pioneer the trend in 1998 by releasing the first authentic, kosher parmigiano-reggiano. American companies have since followed suit, including California’s Redwood Hill Farm and the Colorado-based Meyenberg, which make goat cheese, as well as Cabot in Vermont and Tillamook in Oregon, which offer hekhshered versions of their popular cheddars. Sugar River launched its kosher, flavor-infused jacks and cheddars in 2002, and in 2007, a New York-based company called 5 Spoke Creamery began producing artisanal, aged cheeses — two descriptors that rarely, if ever, get paired with a KOF-K certification. Owner Alan Glustoff said he became inspired to start 5 Spoke after turning strictly kosher as an adult. “I just could not find any kosher cheeses that were as good” as nonkosher cheese, he said.
Most recently, Pomegranate, a Whole Foods-style kosher supermarket that opened in late 2008 in Brooklyn, began selling homemade cheeses. While the store carries national brands like Miller’s, it also produces cholov yisroel mozzarella, mascarpone and a variety of flavored cheeses in its on-site dairy kitchen. Jacob Glauber, who manages Pomegranate’s cheese and appetizing department, estimated that his staff churns out “more than 240 pounds of mozzarella” at the store each week.
While gourmet and artisanal kosher cheeses are slowly becoming more available (Sugar River is sold at Super Target, and 5 Spoke can be found in specialty cheese shops and co-ops, and in Whole Foods in 21 states), they are still the exception — a sub-niche within an already niche market. Luckily, dairy lovers who keep kosher have one more decidedly hands-on source for the cheese they crave. Enter Ricki “The Cheese Queen” Carroll.
Since 1978, Carroll has been on a mission to enable people to make handcrafted cheese in their homes. Her business, New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, sells starter kits and supplies to novices and experts alike. As of last year, due to customer request, the company started offering rennet — the enzyme-rich substance used to coagulate milk into curds — certified by the Orthodox Union. This means that anybody with an extra gallon of milk, a stovetop and a large pot can produce kosher mozzarella and ricotta in under an hour. Materials for homemade Muenster, Gouda and other hard cheeses are also available, though making these recipes requires a bit more time and skill. The mozzarella I made — lightly salted and unbelievably fresh tasting — barely occupies the same category as its shredded store-bought cousin. Paired with tomato and basil, or melted on top of lasagna, it brings a smile of hope back to this cheese lover’s face, any way you slice it.
Leah Koenig is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Gastronomica, Saveur and other publications. She lives in New York City.
DIY Kosher Mozzarella
Adapted slightly from New England Cheesemaking Supply Company’s recipe. Rennet and other supplies available at www.cheesemaking.com.
1 gallon milk (low fat is fine, not ultra-pasteurized)
1/4 teaspoon liquid vegetable rennet
1 1/2 teaspoon citric acid
2 teaspoons cheese salt
1) Pour 1/4 teaspoon of kosher liquid rennet into 1⁄4 cup of cold water. Stir and set aside.
2) Pour 1 cup of water into a large pot, and stir in 1 1/2 teaspoons of citric acid, until dissolved. Add 1 gallon of milk (not ultra-pasteurized), stir and heat until 88 degrees. Remove the pot from the heat, and add the rennet solution. Stir gently for 45 seconds. Allow the curds to set for 8-10 minutes.
3) With a butter knife that reaches the bottom of your pot, cut the newly formed curd into 1-inch cubes. Using a large ladle, begin spooning the curds into a microwave-safe bowl, using your hands to gently press together the curds and press out the whey. (You can save the whey in a separate bowl to make ricotta.) This process will take awhile — and you might think that you messed up, but be patient: If you press it, the mozzarella will come.
4) Once your curds are in the bowl, microwave them for 1 minute. Drain off the excess whey, and knead quickly with your hands into a ball until cool. Add 2 teaspoons of cheese salt, microwave again for 35 seconds, drain and knead. Continue in this fashion until you have drained off the whey and can work your cheese into a stretchy ball. When it pulls like taffy and is shiny, it is done. Cool down in ice water and eat (or wrap in wax paper and refrigerate).