A few decades ago I lived in Dubai. It was during the boom years of the 70s and 80s. You may wonder what that has to do with cheese. It does and it doesn’t.
5 star hotels and liquor license apart, it wasn’t always possible to acquire the ingredients or products that we were used to at home. My sister used to ship in foot lockers full of Herbal Essence shampoo and Balsamic conditioner. My desires were more specific to the baking realm. Cream cheese, sour cream, buttermilk, crackers and spices that came in jars, for example. If I am perfectly honest, I should also probably admit to the wish for cans of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup.
Dozens of milk or cream and lemon mixtures and uncountable bechamels with sauteed mushrooms later I realized that I preferred and prided myself on the homemade version. I had just never figured out that I could just as easily have made the cream cheese and crackers.
Most years I try to come up with a goal. Nothing to save the world but something that I would like to master. One year it was to learn Portuguese, another it was to make sour dough bread and one year it was to learn to make cheese.
One of our sons and his wife got me started with 2 boxed kits from Williams Sonoma. Our other son and his wife coordinated with them and got us a cool cheese board. No excuses to start the process. All I needed was a gallon of milk, regular or goat’s milk. Ricotta was easy, so was goat cheese. Mozzarella took a little more time what with folding and stretching.
I was pretty proud of my first mozzarella. It only took about 30 active minutes to make. That was 3 years ago.
Now back to this week and the cream cheese and crackers. These in fact are even easier to make. The creamy cheeses actually only take 2 minutes. That doesn’t count the leaving it alone for 12 hours and then straining the whey for another 4 to 8 hours, but you don’t have to hang around while that is happening. The crackers can be mixed up, placed in the refrigerator and sliced and baked when you want them.
I knew that I needed some new rennet. The supply that came with my boxes would have long expired if it hadn’t been inadvertently thrown out with a freezer clean out after Hurricane Irma. Thank goodness for the internet. I found New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. Like all good internet shoppers, I perused their site and managed to buy a few extra items. In addition to the rennet that I needed for mozzarella I bought some soft cheese molds and I purchased their Soft Cheese Sample Pack. Boy, is it good.
Please note the frosty appearance that assures you that I am following instructions to store in the freezer.
So far I have made the Fromage Blanc and Ricki’s Fromagina.
They both have only a couple of instructions.
Heat the milk to 86 degrees. (The Williams Sonoma boxes include a cheese thermometer that registers lower temperatures than your average thermometer.)
Sprinkle the packet of culture over warmed milk. Leave 2 minutes then stir. Cover for 12 hours. Scoop out solids into muslin lined strainer over large pot. Leave 4-8 hours.
At this point you have made the Fromage Blanc. It can be used in various recipes.
You can mix it with fresh herbs and a little salt or mix it with honey. It helps to have fresh herbs in your garden. I made it with honey, with basil and salt, with kalamata olives and oregano and with rosemary, garlic and lemon zest.
The same method is used to make the Fromagina. You just use a different culture. It gives a more sour cheese, much like Greek yogurt. That’s how we like it.
Now for the crackers. The basic recipe lets you be creative. I can’t help but add three suggestions. Be sure to bake them a little longer than you think they need and don’t slice them too thickly. If you decide to freeze the dough be sure to let it really thaw before slicing as you won’t be able to get them thin enough otherwise.
The original recipe for these crackers came from a Martha Stewart article too long ago for me to remember. I have switched up the ingredients to use what I had in my cupboard. She also had a Cheddar and Gruyere cracker recipe, but honestly, it wasn’t as good as these two.
Dried Plum and Walnut Crackers (Martha’s were Fig and Almond)
8 dried plums, finely chopped (or figs)
1/4 Cup madeira (or port)
1/4 Cup walnuts (or raw almonds)
1 Cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon coarse salt
4 Tablespoons cold unsoftened butter, cut into small pieces
- Soak the dried fruit in liqueur for 10 minutes.
- Pulse the nuts in a food processor with the salt until finely ground. Add the butter, pulse until crumbly. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the dried fruit and liqueur with a fork until dough forms. Shape into a 2 inch wide log. Wrap in plastic and freeze 1 hour or up to 3 months.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the log into 1/8 inch rounds. Arrange on a baking sheet. Bake, rotating the sheets once, until edges are golden, 14- 16 minutes. Let crackers cool on a wire rack.
Whole Wheat and Za’atar Crackers (or sesame)
1 Cup whole wheat flour
2 Tablespoons sesame seeds, plus za’atar (or more sesame seeds) for sprinkling
2 Tablespoons sugar
3/4 teaspoon coarse salt
4 Tablespoons cold unsalted butter cut unto small pieces
1/4 Cup heavy cream (I used Greek yogurt)
Flaky sea salt and Za’atar for topping. Za’atar recipe to follow.
- In a bowl, whisk together flour, sesame seeds and coarse salt. Work butter into flour mixture until crumbly. Stir in the cream or yogurt wit a fork until dough forms. Shape into a 2 inch wide log. Wrap in plastic, freeze 1 hour or up to 3 months.
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut log into 1/8 inch thick rounds. Arrange on baking sheet and sprinkle with za’atar or sesame seeds and sea salt. Bake, rotating sheets once until edges are golden, 14-16 minutes. Let crackers cool on a wire rack.
Za’atar (you can buy this at Ethnic markets but it is easy to make)
1/4 Cup sumac
2 Tablespoons thyme
1 Tablespoon roasted sesame seeds
2 Tablespoons marjoram
2 Tablespoons oregano
1 teaspoon coarse salt.
Grind the sesame seeds and stir in the rest. Store in an airtight container.
Just because I get a kick out of making my own doesn’t mean that I don’t enjoy the real McCoy made by other hands. This cheese from Humbird Cheese Mart in Wisconsin, courtesy of my sister is divine.
If you are fortunate to find your year’s supply at Costco of these Panzanella Crackers, be sure to go for it. If not, Trader Joe’s has their version in the standard size and they are just great.