Tuesday night I worked at a Mozzarella Making class at Murray's Cheese. It was a bit like playing with playdough in preschool - except now you're supposed eat what you just played with. I had a thing for Elmer's glue too - I guess you could say I started developing my palate at an early age. As for the cheese making, it was more like cheese molding. We started with cheese curd from Lioni's in New Jersey (New Jersey?!) because it's important for the curd to be fresh, so shipping from Italy is out. The curds were flavorless little lumps that reminded me of firm tofu. We bathed the curds in tepid bath water, stretched them into string cheese, rolled it into a croissant-like shape, and then pushed it through the "OK" sign made with your thumb and index finger, which created a smooth surfaced ball. We dropped the balls in the leftover bath water which we salted generously - and voila! - mozzarella (pronounced 'moo-za-rell' if you're Tony Sixpack from Long Island). I may have said it that way all night.
A young mozzarella maker:
We also did a mozzarella tasting as part of the learning experience. We started off with Lioni's own fresh mozzarella, which was delightfully soft and lightly salted. Mozzarella di Bufala was next, a gamier, sharper version of the prior. I may lose some fans with this admission, but I didn't realize that 'di bufala' actually meant that it was made with buffalo milk. Water buffalo to be exact. Call me ignorant, obtuse or just plain silly - but I never saw water buffalo wandering around the Italian countryside. Well, they do - and do so in a highly irritable, noisy way. They can't regulate their own body temperature, so they wallow in water to stay cool, hence their name. If they get hot, they get cranky and bellow excessively (sort of like me in the subway). They eat a ton, need space to roam and will only produce milk if happy. Huh - I guess I'll have to revise my Christmas list.
Next up was a personal favorite - burrata cheese. Not to point out the obvious, but burrata literally means 'butter' in Italian, which explains my affection for it. Burrata is served as a firm purse of cheese, that when cut into, oozes out dairy gold and stracciatella - wait, what? Basically it's a hallow ball of cheese that's filled with sweet cream and ribbons of fresh curd - Mamma it's good. When packaged it comes with a bright green palm leaf, whose purpose, I learned, is to act as a freshness indicator. If the leaf is brown, the cheese is old - brilliant. As if I need another excuse to eat cheese, our instructor suggested we try it for breakfast, with a touch of honey and freshly cracked pepper. If you're looking for the full experience, try it as an appetizer at Lil Frankie's, where it's served as a creamier version of a caprese salad, drizzled with balsamic glaze and spicy olive oil. Stracciatella has also become a favorite - spread over a toasted baguette at Frankie's Spuntino with a bottle of their house red - perfection.
We ended our tasting with a smoked mozzarella that was also from Lioni's. Not normally a personal favorite, I was surprised how much I enjoyed theirs. I was told it was due to the smoking of the cheese, with hickory and cherry wood, rather than adding liquid smoke to the curd, a more common practice that adds an unnatural, strong flavor. The smoked mozzarella was complimented with a surprisingly sweet Portuguese tomato jam, a few slices of a delicious wild boar salami and a crisp glass of prosecco.
I still have four balls of mozzarella cheese in my fridge, which I will hopefully stay away from late-night and instead use in this modified version of a caprese salad. Ina Garten roasts her tomatoes before arranging them in the salad - a lovely change to the tried-and-true favorite:
Roasted Tomato Caprese Salad: (Adapted from Ina Garten's recipe)
- 12 plum tomatoes, halved lengthwise, seeded
- 1/4 cup good olive oil, plus more for drizzling
- 1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
- 2 large garlic cloves, minced
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 16 ounces fresh salted mozzarella
- 12 fresh basil leaves, julienned
- Preheat the oven to 275 degrees F.
- Arrange the tomatoes on a sheet pan, cut sides up, in a single layer.
- Drizzle with 1/4 cup of olive oil and the balsamic vinegar.
- Sprinkle with the garlic, sugar, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper.
- Roast for 2 hours until the tomatoes are concentrated and begin to caramelize. Allow the tomatoes to cool to room temperature.
- Cut the mozzarella into slices slightly less than 1/2-inch thick. If the slices of mozzarella are larger than the tomatoes, cut the mozzarella slices in half. Layer the tomatoes alternately with the mozzarella on a platter and scatter the basil on top.
- Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper and drizzle lightly with olive oil. Serve at room temperature.
His name is Moo Zarell,
- The Heat