When I see a cheese platter on a dessert menu, I always consider ordering it first. Give me cheese over chocolate any day of the week. There was only one food I refused to give up back in my Weight Watchers days: full-fat cheeses. And I still managed to meet and exceed my goal weight. To this day, oven-baked macaroni and cheese makes me feel like I am five years old; you’d think The Muppet Show was airing in my mother’s oven as I sat on the floor in front of its window joyfully watching the cheese bubble and brown. Give me a sweet swiss, a pungent bleu, a creamy havarti, or even a tube of string cheese, and I’ll gobble it up so greedily you’d think I was going through cheese withdrawal.
It’s a gross underestimation to say I adore cheese of any kind. I am flat-out addicted to cheese.
When Sarah and I decided to do a cheese episode for Spatula, I knew she would make her own cheese. And I do appreciate homemade and artisan cheeses, but the cheese that I can’t refuse is a tangy extra-cheddar. Cabot is my favorite brand, mostly because it’s easily accessible, but I’ve fallen cheese-knife over cutting-board both for a rare Irish cheddar from Zingerman’s as well as a local, grass-fed aged cheddar from Canal Junction. It’s perfect enough for me to unwrap a stellar cheddar, slap it on a platter, stick a knife in it, and serve Nut Thins next to it. Fast, simple, and easy. But that doesn’t make for a good cooking show, so I chose my go-to appetizer, Pimiento Cheese Dip, a zesty cheese dip with creamy mayo, spicy pimento peppers, and a little cayenne for heat.
Traditionally, Pimento Cheese is a Southern dish, but it’s made its way across the country, especially after Bon Appetit’s Andrew Knowlton shared his grandmother’s recipe in the December 2009 issue. When I make this treat for my husband and me, I add a lot of homemade chili powder (aka Fairy Dust) to give it even more kick, but I tone it down when I take it to potlucks, parties, or family gatherings. Don’t be afraid to adjust the seasoning or get creative by adding dried herbs or a mix of pimiento and hot peppers or even, dare I say, bacon. And definitely put aside a little for yourself as it’s awesome for grilled cheese sandwiches or on juicy burgers.
(Adapted from Andrew Knowlton)
In Nabokov’s memoir, Speak, Memory
, he writes of a key, talisman, or personal touchstone that one can follow to get to the deeper meaning of a life. Nabokov susses out the repetitions between physical objects to get emotional resonance. Like Nabokov, I have talisman, but most of the time, it is an edible symbol. When I think of a particular ingredient or dish, I see the timeline of my life. Each exposure to a certain food marks a tick on my memory chronology. Food connects memories and meaning. Thinking about even the most banal and bland ingredients, I uncover rich emotional flavors.
Take for instance, ricotta cheese. For most of my adolescence, ricotta cheese is marked more by an absence than a presence. Tick mark, year 2001: It wasn’t until I was in college, learning to cook on my own, that I realized the authentic way to make lasagna was with ricotta and not cottage cheese. When I found that out, I began buying tubs of slightly gritty, grayish-white, flavorless ricotta at Kroger. This was an attempt to throw off ignorance from my childhood. My twenties were full of ricotta-buying moments, living up to the expectations of what being an adult meant. These tubs of ricotta were cheap, mass produced, and stamped with the Italian flag. I never finished a whole carton. It would sit in my fridge, turning various shades of rosy, rust colored mold until I threw it in the dumpster behind my apartment.
Tick mark, year 1989: In third grade, the lasagnas I knew had cottage cheese slathered between the layers. Linda Kenner’s lasagna comes to mind. Linda’s teenage daughter, Shannon, was our babysitter and one day we watched Linda make lasagna with a carton of small curd cottage cheese. She scooped spoonfuls of cottage cheese over the tomato-meat sauce, and the sauce and cheese bled together, watery and pink. Tick mark, year 1990: A boy in school, Lonny Monton, boasted that he knew the secret ingredient in lasagna. “It has cottage cheese in it,” he said, while I eyed his wild blonde cowlicks, curling opposite directions on his head. “You’d never know it, though, because I hate cottage cheese, but I love lasagna,” he declared. Big deal, I thought, and I wanted to punch him right in his annoying dimples. His bragging was unwarranted. Cottage cheese wasn’t news to me.
But, looking back at it, the fact that my mother and Shannon’s mother, and Lonny’s mother all used small curd cottage cheese in their lasagna means something. We didn’t use ricotta because we lived in a very rural, isolated Midwestern community on the edge of the Nebraska Sandhills. This was a community that had been populated by Eastern European emigrants only five or six generations previously, and ricotta had no place in that historical narrative. There were few, if any, Italians among us—and besides, in our small, poorly stocked grocery stores—we couldn’t even buy ricotta if we wanted to. That has changed by now, of course. But I think of the significance of growing up without ricotta cheese, of growing up with the ersatz, but very Midwestern adaptation of lasagna. What does that say about me as a person? Does this speak to my Midwestern pluckiness? Is it a sign I am resourceful and adaptable? Is the mysterious meaning of ricotta in my personal narrative about how I make the best of bad situations? Or somewhat more negatively, does this speak to the isolation, ignorance, and lack of cultural diversity I grew up with?
Tic mark, year 2008: It is September. I have finished grad school and moved away from Nebraska, and now live in a house with a large yard for a vegetable garden, and I dream about spring. I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and pine for her life of writing and vegetable gardening. Kingsolver makes her own mozzarella cheese, but it requires rennet and a microwave, and I have neither. Still, in a desire to be authentic, I want to make my own cheese. My idea of adulthood has moved well-beyond buying ricotta into a complete cliché. I’m now part of a middle-class, white, highly educated, childless couple. It is no longer enough to buy the ricotta, now I want to know that the dairy cows whose milk went into the ricotta were fed right and treated humanely. I want to know if the milk contains traces of recombinant bovine growth hormone, a synthetic drug given to cows to up milk production, but which may cause cancer in humans. What does this say about me? I have the luxury of time and knowledge. I have followed the trend of localism in food because it is meaningful to me. What I read about food has changed the way I think about food.
I look up recipes online for homemade cheese. I find that ricotta cheese doesn’t require any complicated ingredients or methods. I buy a gallon of local, grass-fed, hormone free milk in a glass jug. It is simple and mindful to heat the milk with an acid (lemon juice or buttermilk) until it curdles, and to strain the curds from the whey. When I am finished, this ricotta is creamy, shockingly white, and intensely milky in flavor. I feel satisfied that I learned how to make something with my own hands, something that is higher quality than I could ever buy. I eat it plain, on toasted baguette or crackers, and I scrap every last bit from the bowl.
Yields approximately 2 cups
2 quarts whole milk
2 cups buttermilk
1. Line a wide sieve or colander with cheesecloth, folded so that it is at least 4 layers thick. Place in sink.
2. Pour milk and buttermilk into a heavy-bottomed pot. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently; scrape bottom of pot occasionally to prevent scorching. As milk heats, curds will begin to rise and clump on surface. Once mixture is steaming hot, stop stirring.
3. When mixture reaches 175 to 180 degrees on a candy thermometer, curds and whey will separate. (Whey will look like cloudy gray water underneath a mass of thick white curds.) Immediately turn off heat and gently ladle curds into sieve.
4. When all curds are in sieve and dripping has slowed (about 5 minutes), gently gather edges of cloth and twist to bring curds together; do not squeeze. Let drain 15 minutes more. Discard the whey.
5. Untie cloth and pack ricotta into airtight containers. Refrigerate and use within one week.