December 10th, 2006
Sorry to fall off the face of the earth but I am down here in arctic Texas; it was colder in Dallas than New York when I arrived last Saturday. I am here to help cheesemaker Paula Lambert, owner of the Mozzarella Company, with her holiday gift baskets. Of course I’ve also been dabbling in the cheesemaking room and today I helped make one of the most special cheeses at the Mozzarella Co.- Christmas Cheese.
There are conflicting rumors about how Christmas Cheese was born…something about a misguided batch of Queso Fresco but one decade later the recipe is definitely set (to read the official story check out the Mozz Co newsletter here). One of Paula’s most valuable cheesemakers is a spry, kind woman named Octavia. She brought me into the make room today and got me to roll up my sleeves to mix all the Christmas Cheese fixings into this tub (2ft x 1ft x 1ft) filled with crumbles of Queso Fresco curd. When I saw the orange disks I assumed they were using annatto- the standard orange coloring used for cheddars and things- and I was wrong. The creamy white curds take their color from ancho chili paste which adds nice, rich flavor.
An important detail about this cheese is that all of the ingredients are mixed throughout the curds by hand. It is like giving a tub of cheese a seriously deep tissue massage. It was incredibly satisfying to watch this mass of crumbles turn from white to a light orange color. There are also fresh jalepenos mixed in and they create wonderful variation in texture.
Once all of the ingredients were distributed throughout the curd we took it in sections about the size of a tennis ball and packed them into shallow, round forms that are like cookie cutters- open on both sides. We smoothed off the tops and then popped the disks out onto a tray so that Elena (another cheesemaker here) could adorn their tops with slivers of fresh jalapeno in a little star pattern.
When I first saw the Christmas Cheese I had my reservations as I’ve gone the slightly cheese snobbish, looking sideways at colored cheeses, but this one put my snobbery to shame. Forget about lemon chocolate stilton, sage derby, or mango ginger cheddar and dig in for a Southwestern treat that makes sense. Queso Fresco has always gone with chilis this is simply an unconventional, if not more convenient, format for the pairing.
My favorite tasting of Christmas Cheese so far, other than having chunks of it while I take my breaks from gift basketing, was on a warm roast beef sandwich created by Paula’s husband Jim. We didn’t even speak while we ate them, we just mmm’d and aaah’d. I enjoyed it so much that I had a second one for lunch this morning.
Now for any of you who are out there saying, ‘Well, that is nice for someone else but I don’t like spicey things…’ this cheese is not dangerously hot rather it is well balanced with tang and a nice dose of seasoning. This time around on the Christmas Cheese make I was up to my elbows in curd but I promise I’ll get some photos of the next round on Monday.
And I’ll be sure to capture the ladies stretching out thin rope like strips of Oaxaca which might be heaven in the form of cheese when they lop a warm slice off for you that is still warm and lightly salted with a squeeze of lime on it. As my dear friend Nancy would say- “It is so good it makes you want to hit something.” I am prone to pounding a fist on the table but I don’t recommend this at holiday parties- too many pieces of fancy china and half-filled drinks lying around.
More from me next week. Enjoy your holiday parties.