Fresh cheese in ten minutes.

When I taught elementary school in the States, I used to make butter with my students once a year. It’s fairly easy: buy heaving whipping cream, put it in a tiny container with a tight-fitting lid, and shake, shake, shake. First you’ll have whipped cream, and then – right around the time your arm feels like it’s about to fall off – the milk solids will miraculously separate and cohere and wow, you have butter. My kids used to love it; we’d spread it on pieces of bread and talk about liquids and solids while we munched.

There’s not much point to making your own butter in Japan, as heavy whipping cream is probably more expensive than the already ridiculously pricey Hokkaido butter itself, but there’s a principle at work here: there was a time, not long ago, when everyone worth his or her salt knew how to turn milk into butter, cheese, or yogurt. It sounds daunting, but I’ve made all three, and of all of them, fresh farmer’s cheese is by far the quickest and simplest.

I saw a teeny-tiny container of “cottage cheese” at the store the other day for ¥398. Against my better judgement, I bought some – and found out it was actually much closer to a ricotta consistency. Four dollars for 200g of cottage cheese? とんでもない。Tondemo nai. (Don’t be ridiculous). Why don’t you make the same amount for the price of a liter of milk? Superior in freshness, flavor, and price?

IMG_0653

A worthwhile Sunday breakfast: green onion, mushroom, and chile pepper omelet with freshly made farmer’s cheese. Are you convinced yet?

Here’s how to do it.

Fresh Cheese

Ingredients and Materials:

IMG_0642

Again, taking advantage of the leftover kyushoku milk that piles up in my school’s fridge!

1 liter whole milk (please make sure it is 3.5% fat or above 牛乳)

2 tablespoons lemon juice or rice vinegar

Heavy-bottomed saucepan.

Finely woven white cloth (a cloth napkin will work)

Strainer

Large bowl to contain the strainer.

Directions:

1. Pour the milk in the saucepan and heat over medium-low heat, stirring gently every now and then to keep the bottom from burning.

2. You’re going to “scald the milk,” meaning you’ll heat it until it’s just about to boil. It will begin to froth and smell like the warm milk your mom used to make your when you were a kid.

3. At this point, add the lemon juice, stirring in slowly and gently. Don’t stir too much – just enough to mix the lemon juice in. Immediately you will see the milk beginning to coagulate and curds beginning to separate.

4. Turn the heat off allow the mixture to fully curdle a few moments.

IMG_0644

Curds have formed. Don’t stir after this – they’ll be much plumper if you let them sit.

5. Stir in salt and pepper or whatever seasonings you prefer with your cheese.IMG_0647

6. Prepare the strainer by setting it over the bowl and lining it with the cloth napkin. Slowly pour the cheese curds and whey through the strainer. Lift up the strainer and pour the whey off into another container for future use (or, if you hate whey and don’t want to deal with it, you can pour it down the drain).

7. Replace the strainer and lightly wrap the cheese curds into a bundle with the cloth. If you want a drier, more crumbly curd, manually squeeze the bundle a bit until the cheese forms a compact ball. Leave this way and allow to drain a few more minutes before removing the cheese from the cloth.

IMG_0648

Whoa! Take a moment to revel in the fact that you just made cheese! It’s like some Little House on the Inaka Prairie ish up in heah! Show your neighbors in your jutaku! They’re all gonna be so jealous right?

IMG_0650

Whey in a jar.

This is a fresh cheese, which means it will only keep for 3 or 4 days. Use it in omelettes, pasta, on salad, or spread on toast. I like it with sliced tomatoes, spinach, and balsamic vinegar.

As for the whey, you could put it in soup or stir fry, or drink it plain if you’re weird like I am. Apparently, fresh whey was a common drink in British public houses in the 17th and 18th centuries. It’s nutritious and has been shown to help regulate blood sugar in Type II diabetics.

If you’re really starting to feel this whole homesteading thing, as I am (Dane might be getting a little worried, but he’s humoring me so long as I continue to supply him with homemade peanut butter), I highly recommend Jennifer Reese’s Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, from which I’ve drawn many of these recipes.

I made yogurt. I feel like God.

I really did. I feel like Jesus must’ve when he turned water into wine.

IMG_0662

This was lunch milk 12 hours ago.

Lately I’ve been a bit obsessed with fermentation and cultures. I’m this close to preparing a nuka pot to make my own nukazuke pickles. I had a kombucha culture started but, since our apartment isn’t heated, the temperature in the kitchen was so low that mold actually grew in the culture. Foiled. For now.

But, last night was a breakthrough. I heated up a liter of milk, stirred in a few spoonfuls of store-bought Meiji Bulgarian Yogurt, and by morning – fresh, creamy yogurt! I can hardly describe the feeling of joy I got when I peeled back the dish towel to reveal a solid, quivering mass where just hours before had been a pool of milk.

In terms of thrift, this project isn’t going to save you much money. I found it to be only slightly cheaper than buying a 450g container of Meiji. A quart of milk costs about 188 yen, but after the straining process, you’re left with about 600g or so. But you do get superior taste and freshness, a bunch of whey (here are some ideas for how to reuse it), and the satisfaction of knowing you have broken just one more link between you and the consumer machine.

And, it’s Friday, which means the school fridge is full of unwanted whole milk containers. I plan to take about 10 of them home to make even more yogurt with tonight. That means this batch will be mostly free!
Update: I made more yogurt with kyushoku milk, and some ricotta cheese, too. It will now be a weekly activity.

If you’re interested in doing the same thing yourself, here are directions:

Materials:

  1. One to two liters/quarts store-bought milk. For best taste and texture, use whole milk (3.5%). For proper consistency, I’m not sure if you should go lower than 1.6%. I used Midori milk, but you can use anything that says “100%牛乳” or has only milk listed on the ingredient panel. Avoid milk that boasts that it is “ESL” (Extended Shelf Life), as it has been ultra-pasteurized.
  2. A few tablespoons of “starter yogurt” from the store. The yogurt should have live cultures, so the extra-processed sugary stuff won’t work. I used regular Meiji Bulgarian Yogurt. Since you are essentially cloning your starter yogurt, I would use the most premium, delicious stuff you can find.
  3. A thermometer.
  4. (optional) A large thin white cotton dishcloth (clean) for draining the yogurt.
  5. Damp dish towel.
  6. Large mixing bowl.
  7. Large saucepan.
  8. A “warm” place to keep your yogurt bowl overnight. As Jennifer Reese says, “Don’t obsess too much about the warm place.” Inside your oven or microwave is fine.

Directions:

  1. Scald the milk: Heat the milk in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring now and then so the milk doesn’t stick to the pan. When the milk just begins to simmer, remove from heat and pour into mixing bowl. Insert thermometer.
  2. Let the milk cool to somewhere between 105 – 115 degrees F (41 – 46 C). Then, stir in two or three spoonfuls of starter yogurt.
  3. Cover the bowl with a damp dishcloth and put into a warm place for the night. I turned the oven feature of my microwave on for 5 minutes, then turned it off and put the bowl inside. (I’d be willing to guess that the kitchen table is fine during Japanese summer – just secure the top so bugs don’t get in).
  4. Go away for several hours; how much seems to vary. At least 8 and as much as 24. I personally like 12.
  5. Come back. Remove the bowl and behold the magic of yogurt! Store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 10 days.

The yogurt will be slightly thinner than you’re used to, because it’s full of whey (the liquid by-product or milk culturing); it’ll thicken up slightly in the fridge. If you like runny “Australian style,” then you’re done. But if you’re into thicker Greek stuff, you need to drain the yogurt like this:

  1. Line a strainer with cheesecloth or the large white dishcloth. Position the strainer over a larger bowl or saucepan so that the bottom is suspended.
  2. Pour the yogurt over the cloth. You can tie the ends up around it into a little bundle if you like. Let the yogurt sit like that to drain until it is as thick as you’d like – anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours is the norm.IMG_0663  IMG_0647IMG_0664

The longer you let the yogurt drain, the thicker it becomes. You could even let it drain a full 8 hours and then squeeze it until it becomes the consistency of soft cheese; this is sometimes called labneh.

As for me, I’m going to enjoy my delicious yogurt in some salad dressing tonight, and with some oatmeal and fruit tomorrow morning. Or maybe in some Indian curry soup. The supply, for now, looks to be never-ending.