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The Altered Cheese Project

I know. It sounds like the name of a really, really bad ’80s art rock tribute band. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. (Well, actually there is; I survived the ’80s by stubbornly ignoring everything from the Talking Heads onward, especially after I went to one of their concerts and heard the drummer. Maybe it was just a bad night, but I thought only David Byrne was allowed to be that far off.)

Altering cheese also sounds like the ultimate DIY, grow-your-own, cure-your-own, grind-your-own, fill-in-the-blank foodie optimism project. Weird, more work than it’s worth, but a good experiment to try once (if you’re under 30) so you’ll appreciate the effort that goes into it all when you go back to buying the professionally made version.

You might have noticed that all the nicer cheeses that get newspaper and food magazine reviews cost upwards of $15/lb and even though I’m a cheese freak, I’m just not in that league more than once a year, perhaps on my birthday. I deserve nicer cheese than I can get at the supermarket, I just know I do.

So let me just say it: I’m nobody’s idea of a dedicated cheesemaker or affineur. Mostly because I can’t stand heating and clabbering and then pressing large amounts of milk just to get the starting curd. I also hate scrubbing everything to death before and after, and the idea of cleaning scorched milk off the bottom of a soup pot is my idea of wrong. I’m not authentic. And I don’t wanna be. Even clabbering by microwave is probably not my idea of a good time when it comes to anything more complicated than paneer or yogurt–I’m not sure it wouldn’t destroy the cultures for hard cheeses.

Last year I got the idea to start with something already in cheese form–a lot less waste of both milk and time. After all, standard bland goat cheese is pretty inexpensive–an 11-oz log is about $5, about a quarter of the price of the goats’ milk you’d need to produce it (4-5 quarts at about $4 each). So are other fresh white cheeses. And you can get inexpensive domestic brie and bleu cheeses in supermarkets and–my preference–Trader Joe’s. They’re not bad, they’re just bland compared with the European originals. But they have the requisite blue or white mold cultures you need to add flavor to other cheeses, if the cultures will take.

Last year’s achievements may give you some idea of where I’m going with this:

  • Bucheron (fresh chèvre log, bit of white mold rind from inexpensive, bland Trader Joe’s Canadian brie, sealed in a sandwich baggie with some air for about 2 months in the fridge until it ripened)
  • Bleu de chèvre or Goatgonzola (another fresh chèvre log, this time with some crumbled cheap gorgonzola in the baggie, also about 1-2 months in the fridge)

and the accidental but serendipitous

  • Marbled Feta (the byproduct of storing above-mentioned source gorgonzola next to ziplock bag containing a block of feta cheese)

But ever since I posted these first attempts at turning boring American supermarket cheese into something more flavorful and interesting, I’ve been haunted by the thought that I’d only scratched the creative surface of cheap cheese transmogrification. So I’ve been cheating with cheese yet again.

A Fungus Among Us

Goat cheese and feta are both fairly wet fresh cheeses that take mold pretty well if you do it on purpose. What about drier standard American varieties–cheddar, for instance, or brick mozzarella? These are bound to be more difficult to persuade, but if you have a bit of patience, it might be worth a try.


Cheddar after aging with bleu cheese mold

Cheddar after aging with gorgonzola starter


Now I know, normally you look to cut any developing mold spots off your cheddar–it’s what we’ve all been taught for decades. But the blue and white mold cultures are key to developing flavor and–I shouldn’t even be spelling this out–when it comes to flavor, America’s standard supermarket cheeses are in dire need of help.

Four or five weeks ago, I put a small end piece of Bel Gioioso gorgonzola in a ziplock bag with a couple of ounces from a brick of ordinary Trader Joe’s extra-sharp yellow Wisconsin cheddar and some air and kept it in an isolated part of the fridge to see what would happen. I’d actually diced the cheddar into bite-sized pieces to increase the surface area and maybe decrease the culturing time if the bleu mold managed to take.

Nothing much seemed to have happened except that the cheese looked a bit drier. No visible culturing going on at the surface. The gorgonzola crumbs had shrunk and dried out as well. But I took a cube out and cut into it with a knife, and the flavor had stopped being tangy standard cheddar and was moving toward Morbier or Emmenthal–something nuttier and more subtle. All I could think was that the cheddar was aging without actually culturing and growing the blue mold. But because the mold is a penicillium strain, what there was of it might have inhibited unwanted bacterial intrusion and helped steer the cheese toward a more nicely controlled aging process.

And then again, a week later, the mold had taken on the remaining cheddar cubes, and the taste, once I cut into it, was like a mild cheddar heading toward blue. Still not very potent, but encouraging.

Time is a definite factor in deciding whether a $3 brick of cheddar is worth attempting to alter this way, because I definitely hadn’t ended up with Stilton. And really, a wedge of actual Emmenthal, Jarlsberg or baby Swiss isn’t that much more expensive, maybe $7-10/lb., and it’s better aged (but again, kinda bland if you’re buying it in a US supermarket). Such is life when you’re playing with cheese. I started thinking of next steps anyway.

Actual cheesemakers’ sites advise perforating the block of fresh-pressed, still-moist white curd in several places with a skewer before injecting or inserting the blue mold, so that it gets some air inside the block to help it grow. Supermarket cheddar probably isn’t either moist or young enough to take culture this way.

A more likely candidate than cheddar is probably queso fresco, which is pretty abundant here in southern California and runs $2.50-5.00 per 1-lb wheel, depending on whether you shop at a Latino neighborhood supermarket or a mainstream boring overpriced chain. Queso fresco is drier and more solid than chèvre but still a relatively fresh wet-packed cheese and somewhat porous, so I always check the package to make sure the whey is clear and not very yellow or tinged with red (avoid at all costs). Worth trying both bleu and brie molds  separately to see how each works.

The other strategy I thought of, for cheddar or mozzarella, was to shred the cheese first (note: don’t buy it preshredded; sometimes they add silica “anti-caking agents” to it, so shred it fresh at home), mix with the gorgonzola crumbs, pack it down tight again into a molded shape, and see if the tiny air pockets shredding creates would encourage culturing better than surface contact only.

Other (quicker?) transmogrifications

Finally, mold isn’t everything. I have ideas about smoking or marinating a variety of cheeses in either wine, port or dark beer, with or without herbs and spices such as black peppercorns or caraway seed. I’m not sure how to mix spices into already aged cheeses, but maybe the shredding and pressing scenario would work there too. It might or might not work, in the end, but it’s got to be better than trying to melt the cheese and mix in the herbs and then congeal it again. Shredding, or at least crumbling into lumps, certainly seems like it would be the best way to approximate the official method for making Irish porter cheese using an already-aged cheddar to soak in dark beer instead of the more usual fresh-pressed curds.

Niall Harbison of iFoods.tv interviews Dan Cahill about his porter cheeses. Video on YouTube.com

But for quicker cheese transmogrification, because I’m impatient and a pretty big cheat at heart, I’ve just tried two other non-mold ideas that don’t take weeks–more like a day or so. And as cheaty as they are, they’ve come out better than I expected for such an amateur effort.

Stacking Up is Hard to Do (neatly, anyway)

The first was a faux Huntsman-style layered cheese with a brick of extra-sharp TJ’s Wisconsin cheddar and a wedge of Bel Gioioso gorgonzola.

Faux Huntsman cheese is harder to layer neatly than you'd think

Result: Taste 8, Looks 3.

Now let’s tell the truth here. This is where that appreciation for the professional product really kicks in, because not only is cheddar hard to slice evenly with the standard home tools (kitchen knives, plate, fingers) but the gorgonzola or other inexpensive blue is really, really crumbly and keeps spilling out from between the cheddar layers in the stack.

My one live-and-learn lesson here is to leave the cheeses out on the counter for half an hour or so to warm up before trying to slice them. They’ll both be a little oilier and more pliable, or, in the case of the gorgonzola, sticky and spreadable or smearable, which may help a bit. I didn’t want to just cream the gorgonzola before layering it, because I wanted it to keep its own solid texture and the look of the blue veins intact, but it would have been quite a bit neater if I had.

But I always rate taste higher than looks (for people as much as food) and I have to say, the cheddar/gorgonzola combination tastes terrific, even if both are in the $4-5/lb range.

Maybe the cheddar will get enough contact with the blue mold to start developing veins if I leave it alone in the fridge for a while (ok, probably not). Maybe I’ll just get impatient and eat it as-is and not worry about it. I could go for that.

Faux Huntsman Wedge

  • Extra-sharp but inexpensive brick of yellow cheddar
  • Bel Gioioso or other inexpensive sliceable gorgonzola or bleu
  • plastic wrap
  • heavy pan, bags of dried beans, or other suitable weight

Slice each cheese into playing card-sized layers about 1/4-1/3 inch thick. On a length of plastic wrap, stack about five alternating layers cheddar and gorgonzola or bleu, starting and ending with cheddar so it encloses the more crumbly bleu. Press down carefully, filling in any gaps at the edge where the bleu may have leaked out. Wrap the stack tightly and weight down the cheese on a plate with a heavy saucepan or the like on top until the layers all stick together and can be sliced crosswise to look stripy and impressive.

No-alarm smokin’

My second “project” this week was fake-smoked mozzarella. As you might guess, if I’m not crazy about clabbering milk, there’s no way I’d want to clean up after trying to turn my kitchen into a smoker. So of course I went to it using the old southern barbecue standby, liquid smoke.

Don’t wince so much, I’m perfectly aware this isn’t what they mean by home-smoked anything. If it’s any consolation, the ingredients on the little bottle of liquid smoke are exactly these–hickory smoke residues and water. Incredibly natural, sort of. The nitrites just come with the territory, but they would even if you did it all the hard way.

Result–Surprisingly good. It wasn’t as strong as standard smoked provolone or anything, but it worked surprisingly well. The cheese tasted good with a mildly smoky flavor throughout, and wasn’t (to my great surprise, I must say) soggy, crumbly or otherwise off-putting. And it didn’t spoil over the course of a week. Or set off my hypersensitive fire alarm. And it took 2 minutes tops.

Fake-Smoked Mozzarella (no picture, looks the same after as before, unfortunately)

  • block of supermarket mozzarella, part-skim is fine
  • a few drops of liquid smoke flavoring (Wright’s or another smoke-and-water-only brand, in the barbecue sauce and ketchup section of your supermarket)
  • spoonful or so of water
  • ziplock bag

Dilute 2-3 drops–no more!–of liquid hickory smoke in a spoonful of water in a ziplock sandwich baggie. Add a 3-4 ounce slab of standard brick mozzarella and squeeze out the air before sealing the bag so the liquid smoke solution touches the cheese at all surfaces. Refrigerate. The cheese should absorb all of the liquid within a day.

What about fresh mozzarella…Burrata? You could, I suppose, but I’m just not that keen on wrestling a ball of fresh mozzarella into a pouch around any kind of sour cream center. That sounds messy and like actual work–leave it to the experts. Marinating fresh mozzarella balls with olive oil, hot pepper, garlic and Italian herbs and maybe some lemon juice or rind would be about my speed–long live the ziplock bag. Maybe doing the liquid smoke thing would work a little better on fresh mozzarella as well, particularly if you shook a little salt into the baggie before sealing it, since water-packed fresh mozzarella usually hasn’t had salt added yet.

Raison d’être

But why try these odd cheese experiments at all, you ask? Is it necessary? Will it become a weekly habit? Not really, of course, but it’s fun (once in a long while).

I’ve decided to do them partly out of curiosity, because I like to play with my food. And really they’re neither terribly expensive or difficult (see above, extreme laziness clause). They just take time, some sandwich baggies and an unused corner of my fridge. And of course basic hygiene–hand washing, using scrupulously clean utensils, and not touching the cheese or breathing all over it are kind of key for safety.

I also want to try these ideas out of plain cheeseparing (sorry, sorry) cussedness to give me more flavorful options at lower cost per pound. And finally (and the only really dignified one of my reasons), to see if I can extend the range of possibilities for vegetarian-rennet cheeses.

Some of those are now coming into popularity, especially at Trader Joe’s, which seems to be seeking out microbial- and vegetarian-rennet cheeses to put its label on. For years, the only strictly vegetarian or kosher hard cheeses were extremely bland, but the new non-animal coagulants are appealing to a much wider audience these days.

In England and Ireland, these non-animal rennet cheeses are starting to overtake the more traditional ones. Neal’s Yard makes a mean, aromatic Stilton and a number of classic cheddars, and Cashel Blue, from Tipperary, is just about ready to rival France’s animal-rennet roqueforts. It’s also worth mentioning Pastures of Eden’s vegetarian-rennet Israeli feta, which is fresher-tasting and a little less pungent than the standard Greek or domestic American versions.

But most vegetarian cheeses still aren’t really being cultured as Italian, French (with the exception of some very bland bries and a so-so TJ’s Morbier), or Spanish varieties. There’s still no popular or high-quality vegetarian-rennet provolone, parmigiano or camembert, not to mention Manchego. Or Havarti. Or Tilsit. Or Limburger or Port Salut.

So I figure a little experimentation is in order. Perhaps  if I start with vegetarian-rennet cheeses and culture them successfully into something more interesting and flavorful (and still edible) in my home fridge, I’ll have demonstrated what can be done on a grander scale too. Because cheese without flavor is just not worth the mouthful.

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