Ever since I watched Meg Ryan extol the virtues of cheese in French Kiss, I have been fascinated with cheese and how it is made.

The art of cheesemaking has been long established. There were very few methods of preserving fresh milk, whether from a cow, a sheep, or a goat. Cheese making evolved as a perfect way to preserve the nutritional components of milk for the purposes of storage. It isn't clear exactly when cheesemaking first came into being, but I've read accounts anywhere from 8000 to 3000 BCE. I'm not enough of an historian to really go into that much detail. Cheese makers adapted their culinary preparations as the result of their culture and what was locally available to them.

Suffice it to say, cheesemaking is a truly ingenious way of utilizing every bit of food available. In that era, people often used the stomachs of animals to store things like milk or water, or wine. In the case of milk, a curious reaction would take place because the stomachs of animals contain rennet, a key ingredient in the production of cheese. It would cause the milk to separate out into curds (the solid portion) and whey (the liquid portion).

Here in America, cheese was brought over with the Pilgrims and the very first cheese factory was built in New York, in 1851 by Jesse Williams.

Prior to this time, people made their own cheese at home. These processes aren't as difficult as they might seem, and future articles will detail ways of making simple and easy cheeses in your very own kitchen. In this day of trying to eat more organically, and to consume fewer preservatives, many people will welcome this information.

Some cheeses you know well came from specific parts of the world:
  • Swiss Cheese - Switzerland
  • Mozarella, Provolone, Gorgonzola - Italy
  • Cheddar - England and Ireland
  • Gouda, Edam - Netherlands
  • Muenster, Limburger - Germany
  • Colby - America
Cheese making requires a few basic items, and just a little bit of knowledge. Here is your list of essential tools if you want to embark on cheese making in your own home:
  1. Stainless steel double boiler
  2. Stainless steel spoons
  3. Stainless steel long-bladed knife
  4. Cheesecloth
  5. Plastic or Stainless steel strainer
Cheese develops because milk has some very unusual qualities, whether it is cow, sheep, goat, or yak milk. Cheese is made of five components, water, lactose, fat, protein, and minerals; all of which are available in milk. When you are ready to make your own cheese at home, see if you can find a source of fresh milk that is not homogenized and not ultra-pasturized. Both of these processes ruin the cheesemaking process. When you've compiled your tools and found your milk source, you're ready to make cheese.

Cheesemaking Recipe Section:

***Homemade Mascarpone Cheese Recipe

Making homemade mascarpone cheese requires only two, count them, two ingredients!

· 2 cups heavy whipping cream
· 1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Start with 2 cups of heavy whipping cream in the top of a double boiler. If you don't have a double boiler, use a pan of water on the stove and a stainless steel bowl that will fit into the pan and touch the water. Bring the water in the pan to a boil.

Place the bowl of heavy whipping cream over the boiling water.

Whisk gently until your cream reaches 120 degrees (Fahrenheit). You don't want to do this fast, it should take 15 - 20 minutes.

Whisk in 1 tablespoon of fresh lemon juice (don't use the stuff in a bottle, please...) Continue to gently whisk over the heat until the cream reaches 180F. Everything will thicken and coat a spoon. Cook for an additional 5 minutes, then remove the bowl from the pan and place it on a cooling rack for 20 minutes. You'll see more thickening as it is cooling in the refrigerator overnight.

Mascarpone does not make large curd like cottage cheese or ricotta cheese.

Once it has cooled, pour the mixture through a strainer lined with 4 - 6 layers of cheesecloth. You can use a coffee filter if you like...this works especially well. Because you will be straining overnight in a refrigerator, your strainer needs to fit inside a bowl, and the entire contraption has to find room in your fridge! Cover it with plastic wrap. I place it directly on top of the "cheese" so minimize any oxidation. Once the cheese has drained to your satisfaction, store it for up to 4 - 5 days.

Easy Mascarpone Recipes:

Crostini - Mix half a cup of mascarpone cheese, half a cup of parmesan cheese, add a pinch of Marjoram, salt, and pepper, spread over sliced Italian bread, broil until golden, and you have yummy crostini! Perfect for serving with soup or just a glass of wine.
Strawberry Tart - Bake a sheet of puff pastry. Cover with slightly sweetened mascarpone cheese (do this to your taste), top with strawberries that have been mixed with a little bit of sugar. Do this in a bowl ahead of time so the strawberries begin to juice a little bit. Spread the strawberries over the mascarpone cheese. Drizzle about a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar over the top. Be prepared to swoon!
You can immediately make tiramisu.

***Making Homemade Ricotta Cheese, Recipe 1:
You can use ricotta in lasagne, on pizza, in stuffed shells (remember my trick of putting pumpkin in with it!) on bagels, on top of baked potatoes...and the list really does go on...cheesecake...

I learned that you can make ricotta cheese from milk and buttermilk. This is not quite how ricotta is traditionally made, which is traditionally made from the whey that is left over after making cheese, like buffalo mozzarella or pecorino. Because most of us don't have the luxury of these raw ingredients, and it is easier than most cheesemaking techniques (except making yogurt cheese) so you should try it at least once. (Traditional Mozzarella and Ricotta Cheese recipes will be included soon).

Keep in mind that your cheese will taste and smell like the milk products you use to make it with, so use fresh milk and buttermilk. Consistency is fully controllable as well. For softer cheese that is creamier, watch carefully and stop draining as soon as you reach the desired consistency. For drier ricotta, drain it for another 10 to 15 minutes.

Mix equal quantities of whole milk and buttermilk. If you want to make 4 cups of cheese, use one gallon of each. For two cups of cheese, use half a gallon of each.

Mix both milks in a stainless steel pan with a thick bottom and put over med to med-hi heat. Stir frequently so the milk doesn't scorch, stopping once the milk becomes hot the curds will rise to the surface.
While the milk is heating, line a colander with 5 - 6 layers of cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl, or you can use the sink if it is more convenient. (You'll make less of a mess.)

At 175 degrees, the curds and whey will separate. Carefully ladle the curds from the pan into the lined colander. Be fairly gentle with this process. You'll discard the remainder of the whey.

Gather the cheesecloth edges together and gently squeeze from the top, but don't squeeze the cheese directly.
Drain until you have reached the desired texture for your homemade ricotta cheese. Store in the fridge in an airtight container. Use within 5 days.

I'm curious to know what you've decided to use your fresh ricotta on!