Friday, January 14, 2005

Science and History of the Really Rotten (Food) - Part II The Joys of Fermentation

There's nothing like letting something rot or ferment in order to get some decent flavor or a tasty treat. Cheese and yogurt provide examples of how foodstuffs are created from the fermentation of dairy products. I remember discovering how to make coffee yogurt for the first time after I'd discover a half empty coffee cup that was left on a windowsill for a week. Though I often wonder how cheese was discovered. Maybe Herkle the Shepherd forgot that sack of sheepsmilk in a leather bag somewhere, and later out of desperation decided to try some of the end-product. Smells of sheep and nasty feet...hmmmm. Many cheeses, including the everyday varieties of cheddar and Swiss contain rennet which is an enzyme extracted from calves stomachs that act as coagulating agent. I'll hypothesize that rennet was discovered when the curdled milk was aged in a calf stomach.

I have made homemade paneer or Indian cheese. It's similar to cottage cheese or farmers cheese, in the sense that it's curdled milk that is not fermented. Once the cafeteria at work (hoping to cater to the tastes of the South Asian Employees) presented cabbage stuffed with paneer... or steamed cabbage leaves wrapped around cottage cheese. I asked for my money back. When you're making paneer, your actually souring the milk with lemon juice and therby speeding up the curdling process.

1 Gallon of Whole Milk
Juice from several lemons

Turn your burner on low heat. Heat the milk slowly for about 45 minutes. Add the lemon juice. The milk solids will float to the surface of the liquid. Drain the liquid completely from the solids. Place the solids in the center of a cheesecloth and bring up the corners and twist to form a bag. You will have to insure that most of the liquid has been pressed from the cheese. Place the cheese in the cloth on a cutting board and press down with a flat heavy object. I used a cast iron pan covered with plastic, and pressed down as hard as I could. You could also leave a book on top of the pan, and leave the paneer to drain. Roll the cheese into balls and serve as part of an Indian Dish such as Saag Paneer (Spiced Spinach with Cheese). I've read that you should use the cheese the day it's made to insure freshness.

Recently, J. picked up my Sourdough cookbook and suggested that we breakout some starter. The secret to healthy starter of course is keeping it in a warm dry place and never using a metal spoon to stir it. Sourdough became a popular way of leavening breads in Gold Rush Alaska as it was very difficult to transport and store yeast because of the cold temperatures and harsh shipping conditions. As a result, Alaskan bakers resorted to creating their own leavening from starter made with think boiled potato water and a spoon or two of flour, maybe a pinch of sugar. This starter would be left in a warm dry place and allowed to ferment over several days. It's been ages since I've made sourdough pancakes, and it takes a few days before the sourdough is ready to use, but it's well worth the wait. I have to dig up for the recipe, but I will post as soon as I've found it and used it.


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