Art + Chemistry = Cheese

April 30, 2011

Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese.
~Luis Buñuel

Combine milk, bacteria, rennet, mold…and you have one seductive and addictive vice.

So simple, yet almost magical and surely sublime is this holy craft of transubstantiating milk into cheese. Even though the fond remains fairly steady, cheeses can range from rustic to elegant in character with noses, palates, textures, hues, masses and shapes across the board. It is about art and chemistry.

There is no fixed date, but cheese is rumored to have originated when goats were first domesticated in the fertile crescent region of the ancient Middle East around 8,000 BCE, give or take a millenium or two. Perhaps some imaginative soul noticed that neglected (1) milk turned acidic and curdled into a thick yogurt which could then be readily separated into solid curd and liquid whey. While the whey provided a refreshing drink, the fresh curd could be salted to produce a crude cheese. Others have suggested that the process was accidentally discovered by nomads who stored milk in skins made from animals’ stomachs naturally lined with rennet, separating the milk into curd and whey.

A primer may be in order. The cheese artisan first acidifies milk to turn the liquid into a solid by use of a (2) bacteria. There are several hundred thousand strains of starter bacteria which devour sugars, converting lactose into a lactic acid. This creates a viscous yogurt-like mass.

Next, the syrupy mass is coagulated by adding rennet to the mix. Rennet comes from the stomach linings of young ruminants. The active enzyme in (3) rennet acts on casein proteins which occur in milk as clumps known as micelles, held together by a calcium “glue.” When the rennet is added, a web is formed which traps water and fat, further thickening the gel.

The curd is (4) heated in a giant cauldron and salt is often added not only for taste but also to inhibit the growth of spoilage microbes and draw out yet more water. The cheese is then (5) molded which proves critical. The shape of the mold, the application of pressure and the proportion of whey removed all affect the texture of the final product.

Finally, the cheeses are (6) aged/ripened, a stage where they are left to rest under controlled conditions and often in special venues, e.g., the caves of Roquefort sur Soulzon. This aging period lasts from a few days to several years. The casein proteins and milkfat are broken down and morph into a complex mix of amino acids, amines, and fatty acids. As a cheese ages, microbes and enzymes transform textures and intensify flavors.

Some cheeses even have additional bacteria or molds introduced before or during the aging process. Think brie, camembert, roquefort, stilton.

Other seemingly minor variations can have a dramatic effect on the finished cheese: animal species, breed and diet, terroir, amount and type of bacterial culture and molds, ripening time, aging locale, rennet volume, curd size, heating rate for milk, length of time stirred, how the whey is removed, and so on.

While cheeses are liberally used while cooking here, there is nothing more mold-ambrosial than an array of artisanal cheeses—from mild to wild—gracing the table with a choice wine and a baguette, ciabatta or other artisanal siren. Staff of life stuff. Khayyám’s standby “a loaf of bread, a flask of wine and thou” seems so often apt (loosely translated). A winsome foursome that brings cheeses on board is even better.

BREAD PUDDING WITH CHEESES & ASPARAGUS

1+ lb baguette loaf, cut or roughly torn into 1″ pieces

3/4 lb asparagus, trimmed and sliced into 1″ pieces

6 large, fresh eggs
1 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 1/2 C gruyère or comté cheese, grated
1 C emmental cheese, grated
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano cheese, grated
1/4 C fresh rosemary, minced
1/4 C fresh thyme leaves, minced

Preheat oven to 375 F

Butter a 13″ x 9″ glass baking dish

Heat a large saucepan with cold water over high, and when boiling, add salt. Cook asparagus until al dente tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold running water, and plunge in an ice bath to cease cooking. Drain well and dry, or the asparagus will become soggy.

Whisk eggs, milk, cream, salt, and pepper in large bowl. Mix cheeses and herbs in medium bowl.

Place half of bread in baking dish. Sprinkle with half of asparagus, cheese mixture and egg mixture. Repeat with remaining bread, asparagus, cheese and egg mixture. Let stand 30 minutes, pressing down to submerge bread pieces.

Bake until nicely browned, about 45 minutes. Remove and allow to cool 15 minutes or so.

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Of all smells, bread; of all tastes, salt.
~George Herbert, English poet

You might guess that I purr at the layers of egg in this dish. Audibly so. Egg bread, egg custard, and poached eggs mated with a medley of mushrooms and cheese.

Brioche is a soft enriched bread, whose high egg and butter content make it lusciously rich and tender. It shows a dark, golden, and flaky crust from an egg wash applied just after proofing.

First appearing in print in the early 15th century, this bread is believed to have evolved from a traditional Norman recipe, pain brié. Some even posit that brioche has Roman origins, as a similar sweet bread is made in Romania (sărălie).

In his autobiography entitled Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau notes that an unnamed “great princess” is said to have commented about starving peasants: S’ils n’ont plus de pain, qu’ils mangent de la brioche (“If they have no bread, let them eat cake”).

Although there is no record of her having uttered these words, this callous aside is often mistakenly attributed to Marie Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI. No doubt her frivolity and extravagances in a time of dire financial straits and xenophobia played a role. But, the comely teenage Austrian Archduchess (soon to named Madame Déficit) had yet to even arrive in Versailles when Rousseau’s book was published. To cast further doubt, Rousseau had even mentioned the same phrase in a letter in 1737 — a full eighteen years before Marie Antoinette had even been born. Most historians suggest that either Rousseau was actually referring to Marie Thérèse, the wife of Louis XIV, or that he altogether invented an anecdote which has little source support.

Sound familiar? Seems strikingly similar to a recently published memoir, Decision Points, which is rife with mistruths and spins. Ironically, GW was just down the street peddling signed copies of his Alice in Wonderland remembrances of things past. While the mollycoddled man — who eerily admitted “I miss being pampered” during his days at the White House — was jovially exalting his exploits in a cozy, warm chapel, others were huddling and shivering in the cold nearby at the somber funeral of another fallen member of the 101st Airborne.

Befitting a bread, the etymology of the word brioche is hotly contested. It is believed to be derived from the Norman verb brier (an old form of broyer, “to grind, pound”) used in the sense of “to knead dough.” The root word, bhreg or brehhan (“to break”), is thought to be of Germanic origin

BREAD PUDDING WITH MUSHROOMS, GRUYERE & POACHED EGGS

1 lb. loaf brioche bread, cut into 1″ cubes
2 C whole milk
2 C heavy whipping cream
6 fresh eggs
Slight drizzle of white truffle oil
4 thyme sprigs, stemmed and leaves chopped

1 shallot, peeled and minced
2 C morel mushrooms, sliced
2 C crimini mushrooms, sliced
2 C shittake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced
2 pinches of dried herbes de provence

4 C gruyère or comté cheese, freshly grated, divided
Sea salt and freshly grated black pepper

6 fresh eggs
1 tablespoon white vinegar

Parmigiano-reggianno, freshly grated

Preheat oven to 350 F

Bread Pudding
In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, cream and eggs. Season with salt and pepper and mix in the cubed brioche, truffle oil, and chopped thyme leaves. Set aside.

In a large skillet over medium high heat, sauté the shallots for a minute or so. Then add the morels, shittakes, criminis, and herbes de provence. Season with salt and pepper and sauté for another 2-3 minutes. Place in a bowl and allow to cool to room temperature. Add half of the gruyère cheese to the brioche mixture, then stir in the mushrooms and shallots.

Pour the bread pudding mixture into a deep sided baking dish or casserole. Strew with the remaining gruyère cheese. Season with salt and pepper and bake until puffy and golden brown on top, about 45 minutes. Allow to rest, tented with foil, while poaching the eggs.

Poached Eggs
Fill a large, heavy skillet deep enough to cover the eggs with water. Bring to a simmer, and add the white wine vinegar. Crack each egg into a shallow bowl or saucer to assure they are not broken. Then, using a slotted spoon, spin the boiling water into a sort of vortex. Once the water is spinning rapidly, gently drop the egg from the bowl in the center of the whirlpool, where it will spin around and coat the yolk in a ball of egg white. Cook until the eggs are barely set, about 3 minutes. Remove the eggs, draining well with a slotted spoon and dab the bottom with paper towels to dry.

On each plate, top a serving of bread pudding with a poached egg and then a fresh scant grating of parmigiano-reggianno.

Bread Pudding & Alchemy

September 7, 2009

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. By a small sample we may judge of the whole piece.
~Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra

Not for the cardiopathic or even faint of heart, bread pudding had its genesis in 13th century England. Known as “poor man’s pudding” it was created as a means of salvaging stale bread. Before it was baked, the bread was soaked in water, and then sugar, butter, fruit, and spices were added. The luscious, decadent modern version has been traced back to antebellum America when cooks began thickening custard based desserts with either powder or cornstarch and then flavoring them with vanilla, chocolate, nuts, or fruits. The powder and cornstarch were later replaced by bread.

Bain Marie (Mary’s bath) refers to the method of placing a pan of food in another pan with hot water in it to stabilize the heat reaching the food. Bain maries are rooted in the practice of alchemy as a means to heat materials slowly and gently. The term purportedly derived from the Italian bagno maria, named after a legendary medieval alchemist, Maria de’Cleofa, who developed the technique in Firenze in the 16th century. She was the reputed author of Tradtor della Distillazone (About Medicine, Magic, and Cookery). This thermodynamic concept was soon introduced to the French court’s kitchens by the cooks of Catherine de’ Medici. It has also been asserted that the process was named after Mary the Jewess (or Maria Prophetissima), an esteemed yet more ancient alchemist who was said to have discovered hydrochloric acid. Some have equated her to Moses’ sister Miriam—a chronologically disputed claim.

There are almost endless possibilities of added flavors and textures—chopped nuts, chocolate, citrus zest, brandy or rum, dried or fresh fruits. My weapons of choice for bread are brioche, boules, challah, or even croissants or buttermilk scones (Scones, May 23, 2009 post). To rachet up the richness, serve with crème anglaise (March 27, 2009 post).

BREAD PUDDING

10 C bread cubes, crusts removed, cut into 1″ cubes
4 large eggs
4 egg yolks
1 C granulated white sugar
1 1/2 t pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 t ground cinnamon
1 t freshly grated nutmeg
4 T unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 C heavy whipping cream
2 C whole milk
3/4 C black currants, plumped in hot water, then drained
3/4 C walnuts, roughly chopped

Preheat oven to 300 F

Lightly butter a 9″ x 13″ baking dish.

With an electric mixer or whisk beat the eggs, yolks and sugar until thick, ribboned and lemon colored. Beat in the vanilla extract, ground cinnamon and nutmeg. Then beat in the milk and cream.

Toss the bread cubes with the melted butter in the baking dish and strew the raisins and nuts over the bread. Gently pour the prepared custard over the bread cubes until completely covered. Press down the bread cubes some so they are covered with the custard.

Prepare a bain marie. Place the filled baking dish into a larger pan, such as a roasting pan. Carefully pour in enough hot water in the larger pan so that the water is halfway up sides of the baking pan. Bake until the custard sets, about 45 minutes to 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove and cool slightly before serving.