Ever since I learned to cook, I'd pursued gastronomy's holy grails—the elusive raw milk Camembert, the enormous black truffle. The actual encounters were often disappointing—perhaps the result of a subpar specimen, perhaps of my subpar palate. Either way, like an agnostic slipping toward atheism, I had begun to wonder if nothing was as glorious as everyone said, a melancholy view I renounced that day. It was like finding out unicorns had been hanging out in the Bronx all along.
After seven years in New York, we moved to Madison, Wisconsin, where I had gone to college. Of course I knew there were certain areas in which Wisconsin could not compete—but I hadn't expected one of them to be cheese. I could buy "fresh" mozzarella, but it tended to be a week old, a touch sour, and sometimes mushy. It's the dairy version of those Mulberry Street tourist-trap restaurants, and the cheese and I both felt a bit degraded in the end.
Then tomato season arrived, and the lack of that celestial mozzarella took on phantom-limb proportions. I felt a great weight lifting once I accepted the eventuality that I had to make my own. The very idea made me feel both homespun and chic, a self-sustaining hippie with a yen for cocktail rings and leather boots. A little research turned up Ricki's Cheesemaking Kit, for both ricotta- and mozzarella-making. Inside a box replete with hearts and stars and cows were citric acid, cheese salt (no additives), cheesecloth, tablets of rennet (an enzyme that separates curds from whey), a dairy thermometer, and directions. I headed to the farmers' market for local milk, which tends to be pasteurized at a lower heat; ultrapasteurized milk may be spot-on for transcontinental journeys but is of little use for cheese.
The process seemed simple on the page: Add citric acid to the milk, heat milk to 90 degrees in a stainless steel pot, add rennet, stir for about a minute, then back off. After several moments, big, soft curds were supposed to separate from lemony-colored clear whey. I would fish the curds out with a slotted spoon and heat them in the microwave, knead the hot curds and pour off the whey, repeat, then cool my cheese in ice water. Ricki emphasized the cheerful ease of the whole process.
My first attempt was marred by uncertainty and a small pot. Pouring the milk mixture into a larger pot devastated the nascent curds, which are apparently temperamental and wary of bonding, like hollandaise or sixth graders. My beautiful golden milk remained mostly milk, but was now shot through with tentative pearls that dissolved on contact with my slotted spoon. I drained the mixture, hoping for ricotta, and ended up with what I can only describe as firming glop.