Sunday, April 28, 2013

springtime for fritters, and morel cheese

I can't actually use that title, much as I like it, since these are baked, not fried.

Homemade Morel-Ramp-Nettle Cheese Baked in Puff Pastry

1 gallon raw whole milk
1 packet fromage blanc culture
2 drops animal rennet
2 oz dried morels, crushed
2 tablespoons minced blanched nettles
4 ramp bulbs, minced
1 egg yolk
2 sheets puff pastry, thawed

For Marx Foods' annual dried morel cook-off, this year all entries had to use baking as their primary cooking method, and they sent along a bag of dried morels to use. I thought about pastas, I thought about a hot dish centered around a homemade morel version of cream of mushroom soup, and I wound up deciding this was a good time to make homemade cheese for the first time.

Okay, it's not quite the first time. I've made ricotta before, which just involves adding vinegar or lemon juice to warm milk in order to curdle it, and then straining the whey off. I've made labneh, which is yogurt strained to the consistency of cream cheese. But I haven't made a cultured or rennet-thickened cheese.

Now, in a sense, cultured cheeses are not a world apart from ricotta. Both are curdled by acidity. In the case of a cultured cheese, the various strains of lactobacillus bacteria eat lactose and convert it to lactic acid, which is a more gradual process of acidification than adding lemon juice. Because you're changing something in the milk, though, rather than just adding something, the flavor is much more complex, and obviously there's a great deal more variety in the types of cheeses you can make.

I'm far from a cheesemaking expert. I've done it twice now. I'm not even really a cheese-eating expert, not by foodie standards (I don't like blue cheeses, and have mixed luck with washed-rind cheeses). The fromage blanc culture and liquid animal rennet I used to make this cheese both come from New England Cheesemaking, who I highly recommend - not only do they sell the ingredients you need, they have a lot of helpful how-to's.

This fromage blanc is very simple: you heat a gallon of raw milk (use pasteurized milk if it's all you can get or you have health concerns about the raw milk, but I'm able to get raw locally now) to 86 degrees, which is just below body temperature and thus "feels neither cool nor warm" to the touch, dissolve a packet of culture in it and 2 drops of animal rennet (which help thicken it) and stir, and let it sit overnight.

What you see in the photos is half a batch, for the record. I was protecting this blog entry from the possibility of my screwing it up the first time!

My cheesecloth didn't arrive in time, so I used a clean towel to drain the whey off of the cheese:

Fresh cheese, straining

At this stage, you can see that it's mostly drained -- all the initial whey which was separate from the thick layer of curd has passed through the towel -- but still a very wet cheese. This is where the morels come in. I ground up dried morels and added them to the still-draining cheese, so that they would be reconstituted by whey rather than water. This both softened the morel bits and thickened the cheese.

After the morels were reconstituted and the cheese had about the consistency of chevre (in general, this cheese - which is very tangy - reminds me of a cow's milk chevre, if you see what I mean), I added finely minced blanched nettles and ramp bulbs:

Morel-ramp-nettle cheese

That's all your flavors of wild spring right there, a forager's cheese: the rich umami flavor of the morels is the strongest, followed by the sweet garlickiness of the ramps, with the nettles adding a little of their spinach-like minerality. I added salt at the same time - cheese like this tastes a little flat to me without salt, and it adds to the shelf life anyway.

I let the cheese sit overnight in the fridge for the flavors to mingle, though honestly I'm not sure I needed to - maybe because of reconstituting the morels in the draining cheese, it was very flavorful as soon as I removed the mixing spoon from the bowl.

Mix an egg yolk into the cheese you're going to use for the puff pastry.

Unfold the sheets of puff pastry and cut into squares the size of your liking. Add a spoonful of cheese slightly off-center in each square, fold over, and press edges together to seal. Bake at 400 until golden-brown - about 12 minutes in my oven, but in my experience this sort of thing varies a lot from oven to oven.

Cheese pastry

The pastries are rich and mushroomy, with a lot of tanginess from the cheese and a great spring flavor.


  1. I wanted to drop by and wish you the best of luck in this challenge. Your recipe looks absolutely amazing! It's an honor to compete against you.
    Laurrie @ Baked Lava

  2. This sounds so delicious! I like that you used nettles in your recipe. I'm glad to be part of this contest with so many other talented bloggers!

  3. I love that you make your own cheese! Beautiful!

  4. YUM, love that cross-section shot!