To make stretched-curd cheese you need scientific precision but a relaxed attitude, writes Alice Storey.
The world of stretched-curd cheeses is an embarrassment of riches, from provolone, a matured version, to mozzarella, made from the milk of the water buffalo, to fior di latte, made from cow's milk.
If you have a handy herd of water buffalo at your disposal you could try making your own mozzarella. But if not, fior di latte is your best bet for making delicious stretched-curd cheese at home.
Using a good-quality non-homogenised cow's milk is imperative. Barambah Organics produces a fantastic organic milk with the requisite cream top. It's available from select delicatessens and supermarkets. Other small-batch milks are available from better health-food shops.
Fior di latte is made using the same technique as mozzarella; its success comes down to the quality of the milk. "If the cow is stressed, the milk is stressed, therefore your fior di latte is stressed," says mozzarella master Giorgio Linguanti of La Latteria in Melbourne's Carlton. You too must adopt a relaxed approach.
That said, cheese-making also requires scientific precision. You'll need scales that weigh to the gram for measuring the citric acid, a pipette or a syringe for measuring the rennet, and a digital thermometer. Ensure that all the equipment is sterile.
Rennet is an enzyme that causes milk to coagulate, separating curds from whey. Rennet can be made from moulds, from the stomachs of some animals, or from plants that have coagulant properties, such as nettles and thistles. Old-fashioned plain junket tablets are one form of rennet, but we've opted to use a liquid form made from plant enzymes, available from specialist cheese-making shops and The Essential Ingredient. You'll also need citric acid, which is available from the baking section of larger supermarkets, to acidify the milk.
Combine the citric acid and the milk and warm the mixture to 37C. Then combine the rennet and the water, but only at the very last second, because the chlorinated water will react with the rennet. Some cheese-makers suggest using filtered water, but this isn't necessary if you work quickly. Stir the rennet mixture into the milk mixture, sit back and wait for the magic to begin.
After about half an hour the curds will resemble silken tofu and will separate from the whey (liquid). Cut your curds into rough 3cm squares and pour over enough hot water to bring the mixture to 39C - this helps to release any remaining moisture in the curds.
Transfer the curds to a muslin-lined sieve, press them to remove excess liquid and set aside until well-drained. This is necessary to produce a coherent curd for stretching. At this stage the mixture should look a little like firm ricotta.
Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, cut again into rough 3cm squares and scatter liberally with fine sea salt. Don't be tempted to skimp on the quantity of salt - it sounds like a lot but it will be diluted by the water. Pour over enough boiling water to cover, then, wearing at least two pairs of rubber gloves to protect against the heat, gently begin to stretch the mixture with your hands. This is going to get hot, so have a bowl of iced water ready to plunge your hands into. It's essential to use boiling water to make the curds both malleable and stretchable. Once the curds begin to stretch they'll become pliable, shiny and smooth. Gently knead the mixture into a ball - don't overwork it or the cheese will become tough - then pinch off pieces of the desired size and transfer them to a bowl of cool water.
Fior di latte is best enjoyed on the day it's made. Achieving the desired creamy texture can be tricky, but practice makes perfect, so if at first you don't succeed, keep trying. You'll be glad you did.