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Better Than a Silver Packet: DIY Cream Cheese

DIY Cream Cheese

The deeper I dig into DIYing basic household foods such as rice milk or nut butters, the weirder I sometimes feel about sharing those processes here. Sure, a recipe for homemade cereal bars might come in handy, but a lot of these typical grocery store items–from tahini to garlic powder–end up being pretty simple to produce from scratch in the average kitchen when all is said and done. So perhaps you might think of these posts as more of a Pinterest board of reminders or inspirations when it starts to feel like everything you buy has soy lecithin and whey derivatives added. Sure, you can toss readymade items into your shopping basket as needed, but if you have a few minutes and don’t like the ingredient list on a given product, you can probably whip up your own with a few pantry staples.

For as easy as culturing buttermilk or kefir turned out to be, cream cheese was not a project I was expecting to be so simple. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Yogurt making is almost challenging in comparison.

Pasteurized vs. Ultra Pasteurized

Almost all the articles I’ve read on cheese making have stressed that you cannot use ultra pasteurized milk or cream (the structure of the milk proteins have been damaged). However, I find it increasingly difficult to acquire dairy that is not ultra pasteurized when shopping at a standard grocery store. The organic milk is especially bad in this regard. Apparently people paying big money for these products do not want them to spoil quickly, a concern that supersedes other considerations. And while I love using the rich fresh-from-the-cow, non-homogenized, lightly pasteurized milk I can get from the local dairy at the farmers market, that’s not always practical logistically (only obtainable on Saturday) or financially ($4 per half gallon). Many people will violently advocate for raw milk, whatever it takes to get your hands on it. I haven’t tried it, but I have made other substitutions–the cheap (probably just?) pasteurized whole milk and ultra pasteurized cream available–and still produced a tasty cream cheese.

DIY Cream Cheese: Strained

This Is Not Your KRAFT Philadelphia Cream Cheese

Philly cream cheese is surely the standard most people (Americans, at least) will be judging any cream cheese against, and in my experience this is not that–and that’s a good thing. No matter how long I let my cheese drain, there is a shiny, spackle-like consistency to commercial cream cheese that I have not produced here. This cheese is richer and more buttery, slightly softer but not in any way runny. When adding in flavorings such as maple syrup or dill and salt and whipping briskly with a fork to incorporate, I am able to produce a lovely spread that contains no Xanthan Gum, and/or Carob Bean Gum, and/or Guar Gum, no preservatives, and no “natural flavor”. Seven days later, it still tastes fantastic.

The Verdict

I seriously doubt I will ever buy commercial cream cheese again. There is definitely a cost consideration here in terms of both the dairy and the special ingredients, but I think the taste and quality make it worth the investment (and might even encourage me to eat less and savor more). This cream cheese made me want to bake a dozen everything bagels and invite the neighbors over for brunch….At least until I remembered that my bagel baking, unlike my cream cheese making, is still a work in progress.

DIY Cream Cheese: Thick and Rich

DIY Cream Cheese

Makes: 13 ounces of cream cheese and two cups of whey

DIY Cream Cheese

for tips and supplies, see Cultures for Health

Cream cheese starter cultures containing both the starter culture and rennet are available.

While culturing the cheese with buttermilk rather than a mesophilic starter is riskier due to variations in the active cultures present, I found that the taste of the resulting cream cheese was just slightly more tangy and very attractive.

2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
1 drop liquid vegetable rennet dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
1/8 tsp. (one packet) mesophilic starter culture OR 1 ounce buttermilk
1/4 teaspoon salt or other flavorings (optional)

In a pot (with a fitted lid for later steps), heat milk and cream to 75°F, stirring regularly.

Remove pot from stove and add the buttermilk OR sprinkle the mesophilic starter culture over the surface of the milk and allow to dissolve for two minutes. Stir gently. Add diluted rennet mixture and combine using an up and down motion with your spoon under the surface of the milk just until evenly incorporated. Cover pot with lid, wrap in a few kitchen towels, and place in a warm location (70°F-75°F) to incubate, about 14 hours.

When cheese is ready to be drained, it will resemble yogurt. Spoon into a strainer lined with a piece of butter muslin. Clip the corners of the muslin together and allow to drain over a bowl (cupboard handles and safety pins can come in handy here) until desired firmness is reached, 7-10 hours.

Mix in a 1/4 teaspoon salt or other flavorings as desired. Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate.

http://wonderlandkitchen.com/2013/04/better-than-a-silver-packet-diy-cream-cheese/

NOTE: Produces 13 ounces of cream cheese and two cups of whey.

Cream cheese starter cultures containing both the starter culture and rennet are available.

While culturing the cheese with buttermilk rather than a mesophilic starter is riskier due to variations in the active cultures present, I found that the taste of the resulting cream cheese was just slightly more tangy and very attractive.

2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
1 drop liquid vegetable rennet dissolved in 2 tablespoons water
1/8 tsp. (one packet) mesophilic starter culture OR 1 ounce buttermilk
1/4 teaspoon salt or other flavorings (optional)

In a pot (with a fitted lid for later steps), heat milk to 75°F, stirring regularly.

Remove pot from stove and add the buttermilk OR sprinkle the mesophilic starter culture over the surface of the milk and allow to dissolve for two minutes. Stir gently. Add diluted rennet mixture and combine using an up and down motion with your spoon under the surface of the milk just until evenly incorporated. Cover pot with lid, wrap in a few kitchen towels, and place in a warm location (70°F-75°F) to incubate, about 14 hours.

When cheese is ready to be drained, it will resemble yogurt. Spoon into a strainer lined with a piece of butter muslin. Clip the corners of the muslin together and allow to drain over a bowl (cupboard handles and safety pins can come in handy here) until desired firmness is reached, 7-10 hours.

Mix in a 1/4 teaspoon salt or other flavorings as desired. Transfer to a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate.DIY Cream Cheese: Savor It!

DIY Black Tahini and Beet Hummus

Black Tahini Beet Hummus

There are few constants in my kitchen, but one of them might be the high probability that there is a semi-full can of tahini hiding out at the back of the fridge on any given evening. Its precise origin and month of purchase are murky. I’m sure I thought about inking the date on the lid when I first open it, but I didn’t.

Lurking tahini

For anyone nodding along with me here, I have a new philosophy: I will henceforth buy sesame seeds and make my own tahini as needed, a 1/2 cup at a time. True, DIY versions of the purée may not be quite as smooth as the commercial variety. However, I found that a cup of seeds and a couple tablespoons of oil given a two-minute run in my blender came way too close to argue over. And if you were thinking about arguing, let’s talk again after you’ve tried to stir the separated oil back into the that neglected-for-weeks tahini in your fridge.

To make things a little more exotic, when I spotted some black sesame seeds at the grocery recently, I wondered: Was black tahini a thing? Yes! And not only that, I found it to blend smooth with half the amount of oil needed to convert white sesame seeds, plus the flavor was less bitter. I got a sweeter, nuttier paste. Plus, the color is just amazing (or terrifying, I suppose, depending on your tastes).

With such black gold at my finger tips, I decided to add it to a hummus that could stand up to it, pigment-wise. The Hungarian in my soul cried out for beets, though even if you are not normally a fan of this superfood, you may yet enjoy this dip. The color alone is sure to turn a few heads at your next gathering.

I decided to use my blender to process the tahini rather than my food processor, as the bowl is narrower and there are more blades on the job. Unlike my food processor, it is much harder for the seeds to cling to the sides away from the cutting action. However, my hopes to make even smaller batches in the blender and process the hummus in the same container right on top were, sadly, a fail. A cup of sesame seeds made a beautiful 1/2 cup of black tahini in minutes; a 1/4 cup of seeds just made a splattered unprocessed mess. Your appliances may serve you better.

Black Tahini

The Method: DIY Black Tahini

1 cup black sesame seeds, toasted just until fragrant (since they are black, take care not to burn them)
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus addition as needed

Place toasted sesame seeds and olive oil in a blender. Purée one minute, scrape down sides, and purée an additional minute, adding more olive oil as needed. Continue blending until smooth and pourable. Transfer to a jar with a tight-fitting lid and store, covered, in the refrigerator.

NB: The process is identical if using white sesame seeds, though I found that I needed twice the amount of oil. Using untoasted white seeds, however, produced a bitter tahini that I could not recommend.

The Verdict

Like many condiment projects, the major benefits of DIY-ing your own relate to freshness and control over ingredients. Once again, there is also a cost/time consideration. Even without making a bulk purchase, I paid $3.99 for 8 ounces of black sesame seeds which (using the method above) results in about a cup of tahini. Commercial versions of the same volume retail for anywhere from $5.29 to $12.59. Personally, the chance to step back to just a jar of sesame seeds in the pantry that can be used both to whip up small batches of tahini and in other projects as well makes this the way to go.

Beet Hummus: Processing

DIY Black Tahini and Beet Hummus

Makes: about 2 1/2 cups

DIY Black Tahini and Beet Hummus

4 medium beets (about 8 ounces), roasted, peeled, and cubed
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted and ground
2 tablespoons black tahini (or substitute regular tahini)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional as needed
parsley for garnish

Place all ingredients in a food processor and run until smooth, adding additional oil as needed to achieve desired consistency. Garnish with an additional drizzle of olive oil and chopped parsley.

http://wonderlandkitchen.com/2013/02/diy-black-tahini-and-beet-hummus/

4 medium beets (about 8 ounces), roasted, peeled, and cubed
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon cumin seed, toasted and ground
2 tablespoons black tahini (or substitute regular tahini)
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 clove garlic
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste
4 tablespoons olive oil, plus additional as needed
parsley for garnish

Place all ingredients in a food processor and run until smooth, adding additional oil as needed to achieve desired consistency. Garnish with an additional drizzle of olive oil and chopped parsley.

*

This recipe and post were created for my “DIY vs. Buy” column on Serious Eats.

Back to Basics: Bread and (Macadamia Nut) Butter

macadamia_top

Since we spent the majority of our time on Kauai lulled by the sound of the surf and napping in lounge chairs, it’s probably good that we didn’t do a ton of eating in the off hours. Most of our food came from the grocery just down the street or right from the hotel (including a fantastic dinner at the on-site restaurant, Red Salt). I ate lobster tail for the first time–an even bigger surprise, since apparently my jet lagged brain did not read the entry for the ravioli carefully enough and so I didn’t see it coming–but what I really loved was the bread, served with a delicious butter and a small bowl of red salt for sprinkling on top.

Glass Beach on Kauai

Glass Beach on Kauai (mostly black sand and scampering crabs when we visited at dusk, very sparse sea glass)

We did put on real clothes long enough to check out the beer at the Kauai Island Brewery & Grill one night and to grab a pizza at Brick Oven (which gets bonus points in my mind for their fabulous mascot). And for a big road trip one evening, we drove halfway around the island to catch a meal at the vegetarian-friendly Postcards Cafe.

Koa Kea Pool

Photo by @briansacawa

By the time we set out on the 1.5 hour drive, I think I may have built up the restaurant in my mind beyond reasonable expectation. The venue was charming and the staff excellent, but I didn’t find my entrée of tofu, vegetables, and rice in a coconut curry broth to be remarkable in any way. Perhaps that was just a poor selection on my part, but since the GF/V options seemed to be a point of pride for the establishment, I was ready to be dazzled. The trio of artichoke/mushroom/walnut, creamy roasted eggplant, and traditional olive tapenades that we started with was indeed fabulous, however. And there was another sidelight brought to the table that really captured my attention: slices of house-baked bread sharing a basket with a dish of macadamia nut butter. I quizzed the friendly waiter about the makings; this was a souvenir of island life I was intent on taking home with me.

Yes, in the midst of tropical drinks anchored down with fresh pineapple slices and excellently prepared seafood everywhere you looked, leave it to me to get obsessed with the bread and butter. Home again and dreaming of the seashore, I took to baking some rosemary bread just so I could top it with my new favorite spreads.

Macadamia Nut Butter & Red Salt

Macadamia Nut Butter

1 cup macadamia nuts
1 tsp. agave nectar
1/4 tsp. salt
2 scallions, sliced

Place nuts in the bowl of a food processor and let run for a couple of minutes, stopping to scrape down sides as needed. Once the nuts resemble a coarse meal, add agave, salt, and scallions, and continue to process until the butter has achieved desired smoothness.

The butter at Postcards is very chunky. If I had reserved another quarter cup of the nuts, I would have hand chopped those and stirred them into the finished butter before packing into a serving bowl. Next time!

Peas, Wonderful Peas!

peas_bowl

We scanned the market vendor stalls and spotted our guy down the aisle–and, just as importantly, his big blue cooler.

“I can see them!” I shouted back over my shoulder, doing my best to move forward through the Saturday morning crowd without kicking a stroller or bumping a shopper. “He has the peas!”

I was sad that the party last weekend was just a shade too early to incorporate this personal highlight of the early local produce season. As a 2 lbs bag of already-shelled deliciousness was filled for me, the ladies behind us wondered how on earth you could use that much in a week. I wanted to reach into my supply and just grab a handful for them to snack on raw, but even I recognized in the moment that that would have been…weird.

Meanwhile, in addition to last week’s Mint Pea Soup and just crunching down on the little darlings straight out of the fridge, here are a few other things to do with peas. If you have a great pea recipe, please drop it in the comments. I’ll have another 2 lbs to deal with next week!


Mint Pea Dip (pictured above, left). I still had mint leftover from the party, so I whipped this up (literally–it took about 5 minutes, including blanching time) for a snack last night. It’s minty, garlicky, springtime in a bowl.

Crushed Peas with Tahini Possibly my favorite pea recipe, but I’ll have to keep testing that–for science!

Pea Pesto Crostini Haven’t tried this one yet, but it sure looks tasty.