Sulguni, Georgian Mozzarella

So you’ve made your 10 pounds of Imeretian cheese and you’ve been eating grape and cheese salad for the past two weeks. You’re starting to regret letting me enroll you in that slow food movement. Here’s a half-baked solution: make sulguni! Why half-baked? Because it will shrink your cheese supply by half! 

Like mozzarella, sulguni is a stretched-curd cheese — the technique employed in making it is called pasta filata in Italian. However, the result has a firmer texture than mozzarella, closer to Polly-O than the real Italian stuff. At least, this is the version I’ve encountered most of the time, but I know that several variations exist.

Georgian Cheese - Sulguni

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Imeretian Cheese, the Gateway Cheese from Georgia

So you want to make your own cheese but don’t want to break the bank buying a cheese press? You don’t want to spend your weekends monitoring the temperature of your milk, or get up in the middle of the night to heat / stir / drain / flip your curds every 30 minutes? Well why not try Imeretian cheese!

Georgian Food - Imeretian CheeseImeretian cheese is a fresh cow’s milk cheese. Although it originated in the Imereti region, you can find it everywhere in Georgia, whether it’s homemade or bought at the market. There are many variations, the subtleties of which haven’t really been recorded in a book so far, to the best of my knowledge. This is the cheese traditionally used in khachapuri, the infamous Georgian cheese bread. This is also the basis for another well-known Georgian cheese called sulguni (more on this in another post).

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Vladimir Poutine

Poutine is a dish from Quebec consisting of French fries and cheese curds topped with gravy. Not very Eastern European, you may say. I could argue that there’s nothing more Russian than a recipe containing both potatoes and cheese, but that’s not the point. Poutine is also the French spelling of Vladimir Putin‘s last name, and I intend to use this uh-hum pun on words as the inspiration for my recipe.

The former Russian President turned Prime Minister is known as Russia’s Man of Action. His more recent feats include crossing Siberia in a Ladaco-piloting a fire-fighting planeriding a Harley-Davidson trike in Ukrainesinging patriotic songs with deported spies and even checking sausage prices in a supermarket. He’s every woman’s dream.

Can such a man eat an ordinary plate of fries? Of course not! I needed an ingredient unusual and extreme enough for this fearless living legend: bear meat — medvezhatina in Russian. Bear, Russia’s national personification and symbol of Putin’s own political party, United Russia.

Note: the cheese curds in this image are NOT the ones in the final recipe. See below for the good ones!

Preparing a really tasty version of this simple dish is much harder than it seems, because each ingredient is better suited for factory production than in-house preparation. Good fries take time: peeling, cutting and blanching the potatoes can easily occupy one person full time in a restaurant. Of course you can buy frozen, peeled, cut and pre-blanched fries instead. Cheese curds are even more time-consuming. Home cheese-making remains a marginal hobby, and it’s extremely rare for a restaurant to make its own cheese — except maybe mozzarella, and even then the curds are sometimes bought elsewhere. To make things worse, in a good poutine, the cheese must make squeaky noises when you eat it, a property that requires homemade curds only a few hours old! Again, factory-made curds are an appealing solution. As for gravy, how the hell are you supposed to get all those meat juices for a dish that doesn’t even include meat in its original recipe?! Too often, if not always, the answer consists of a can or a powdered mix — check out the scary ingredients of this one — producing a sticky, gluey mess that almost makes you feel sorry poutine contains gravy in the first place.

So block your whole weekend and make your own Vladimir Poutine from scratch! The French fries recipe is adapted from Heston Blumenthal’s In Search of Perfection. These are guaranteed to be the best fries you’ve ever eaten. To make the cheese curds, I used the beginning of the cheddar recipe from Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheese Making. The resulting curds are tasty without being acidic and do make squeaky noises, though maybe not enough to my taste. I purchase my bear meat from Czimer’s Game & Seafood. Since this is farmed meat, it doesn’t really need to be marinated. If you happen to have killed your own bear, marinate it in red wine overnight first (and send me a couple pieces of that bear!).  The ribs are an excellent choice for braising. The braise also provides the perfect basis for an all-natural gravy: all we have to do is reduce the cooking liquid and thicken it with a liaison of egg yolk and heavy cream.

Braised bear ribs
Yields 4 servings

8 oz onion, large dice
4 oz carrot, large dice
4 oz celery, large dice
1 garlic clove, sliced
olive oil
2 lb bear ribs
salt
pepper
6 oz red wine
4 thyme sprigs
2 cloves
2 juniper berries
16 oz smoked pork stock

  • In a pot, sauté the onion, carrot, celery and garlic in olive oil until golden brown, then reserve. Season the bear with salt and pepper, and sauté in the same pot until brown on all sides. Add the red wine, and simmer for a couple minutes. Return the vegetables to the pot, add the thyme, cloves and juniper berries, and stir well. Add the pork stock and enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer, cover with a lid, and cook in 180 F oven for about 4 hours, until very tender. Let cool for 30 minutes.
  • Take the meat out of the cooking liquid. Pass the liquid through a chinois and reserve. Discard the bones and any excess fat. Shred the meat into finger-sized pieces, transfer to a plastic container, top with cooking liquid and reserve.

Bear sauce
Yields 4 servings

5 oz mushrooms
1/2 oz olive oil
42 oz bear cooking liquid (this should be almost everything you have)

  • In a saucepan, sauté the mushrooms in olive oil until soft. Add the bear cooking liquid, bring to a boil, and reduce to 1/4.
  • Pass through a chinois and reserve.

Ah, the perfect squeaky cheese curds!

Cheese curds
Yields slightly over 12 oz (4 servings)

3 qt whole milk
3/4 packet direct-set mesophilic starter
3/8 tsp liquid rennet, diluted in 1 oz water
1 tsp salt

  • Heat the milk to 86 F, then stir in the starter. Cover and keep at 86 F for 45 minutes.
  • Add the diluted rennet and mix for 1 minute. Let rest for another 45 minutes.
  • Cut the curds in 1/2″ cubes and let set for 15 minutes. Slowly heat to 100 F and keep at 100 F for 1 hour, stirring gently every 10 minutes. Let rest for 30 minutes.
  • Pour the curds into a sieve and let drain for 5 minutes, shaking occasionally. Do not drain for too long, or the curds will mat. Mix in the salt, then keep at 100 F for 1 hour, stirring every 10 minutes to prevent matting. Drain again and reserve.

French fries

Yields 4 servings

kosher salt
4 lb Idaho potatoes, peeled
canola oil for deep-frying

  • Fill a pot large enough to contain the potatoes with water mixed with 1% salt, and bring to a boil. Cut the potatoes into 1/2″ thick fries. Add to the pot, return to a simmer, and cook over medium heat until the potatoes are just starting to break when you pick them out (you should start watching for this after about 15 minutes of simmering). Using a skimmer, transfer the fries to a cooling rack, let cool, then refrigerate until cold.
  • Fill a deep-fryer with the canola oil, and bring to 250 F. Proceeding in batches if necessary, deep-fry the fries until they look dry and slightly colored. Don’t overfill; the potatoes tend to release a lot of water, which increases the liquid-level in the fryer. Transfer to a cooling rack and discard (or eat) the small broken potato pieces — there will be some, unavoidably. Let cool, then refrigerate until cold.

Note: the cheese curds in this image are NOT the ones in the final recipe. See above for the good ones!

Assembly
Yields 4 servings

braised bear ribs
bear sauce
2 3/4 oz heavy cream
1 3/4 oz egg yolk (between 2 and 3 egg yolks)
French fries
12 oz cheese curds

  • Reheat the braised bear meat in the cooking liquid very gently.
  • Pour the bear sauce into a saucepan. Mix the heavy cream and egg yolk, then stir into the sauce. Over low heat, stir constantly, until it coats the back of a spoon. This gravy must never boil.
  • Bring the deep-fryer to 375 F, then deep-fry the fries again until golden brown. Transfer to a bowl lines with paper towels.
  • Pile some fries at the center of each plate, top with cheese curds and bear meat, and cover with sauce.

Brynza, Eastern European Feta

Brynza, a cheese similar to feta, is made throughout Central and Eastern Europe. The word comes from brînză, Romanian for cheese. It is an important component of Ukrainian, Moldovan, Romanian and Balkan cuisine, and there’s even an annual Brynza Festival every fall in the town of Rakhiv, in Transcarpathian Ukraine. The cheese is usually made from sheep’s milk, but cow’s and goat’s milk can be used, as well. Sometimes all are used together.

My usual provider didn’t have any sheep’s milk available, so I used cow’s milk this time around. I think there’s still some fine-tuning required (see below), but this recipe does produce a nice cheese already.

You can get cheese-making supplies here.

Brynza
Yields about 8 oz

2 qt pasteurized milk
1/8 tsp calcium chloride, diluted into 1 oz milk
1/2 packet direct-set mesophilic starter
1/4 tsp liquid rennet, diluted into 1 oz milk
salt

  • Combine the milk and diluted calcium chloride, and heat to 86 F. Stir in the mesophilic starter, cover, and let ripen for 1 hour.
  • Add the diluted rennet, mix thoroughly, and let set at 86 F for 1 more hour.
  • Cut the curd into 1/2 cubes, let rest for 10 minutes, then stir gently for 20 minutes.
  • Pour the curds into a colander lined with a double layer of cheesecloth (or a thin kitchen towel). Let drain for at least 6 hours. After a couple hours, you can tie the corners and hang like a bag.
  • Remove the curds from the cloth and cut into 1″ slices. Sprinkle with 1 tbsp salt on all sides, transfer to a bowl, cover and refrigerate for 4 days.
  • Transfer the cheese to a quart container, and fill with a a brine made of cold water blended with 7% salt. Refrigerate for at least 1 day. The cheese can be kept for about a week.

Now, for future improvements:

  • The cheese is not quite as firm as store-bought brynza or feta. I’m considering increasing the amount of calcium chloride, or adding some powdered milk.
  • I may try to shorten the 4 days of aging before the brining, as I’m not sure it actually brings much to the texture or flavor.
  • If you know where to find sheep’s milk in New York, let me know! I’ve used Udder Milk Creamery in the past, but they’ve been out of stock for a while now.

Tvorog, Russian Fromage Blanc

I like preparing food from scratch. I have been making my own stock, cured meats, cheese, bread, jam, soda, wine and liquor to name a few. Some of the recipes take months or even years before the final product can be tasted, but we’ll start with something faster (36 hours or so).

Tvorog is the Russian equivalent of fromage blanc, an acid-set cheese traditionally produced without the addition of rennet. It has a lower fat content than cream cheese, but it can still be used to make cheesecakes (more on this very soon). You can also enjoy it much like a yogurt, mixed with sugar, honey or jam.

I get the starter culture from New England Cheesemaking, a site founded by Ricki Carroll, author of the invaluable Home Cheese Making.

Tvorog

Tvorog
Yields about 2 lb

2 qt whole milk
1 pint heavy cream
1 packet direct-set buttermilk starter

  • Heat the milk and cream to 88 F, add the starter and mix thoroughly. Cover and let rest at room temperature for 24 hours.
  • Skim off and discard the harder top layer. Ladle the curds into a sieve lined with a clean kitchen towel and placed over a pot. Cover with plastic wrap and let drain in the refrigerator for about 8 hours.
  • Discard the whey. Transfer the tvorog to plastic containers and refrigerate.