Did I mention I had invited people to a dinner featuring homemade cheese? Secreted in my refrigerator was subpar water-cheese from the supermarket, as if I'd known all along I couldn't hack it. I was tempted to ditch the entire mozzarella-making idea, but I washed all my pans and thermometer and cleaned the kitchen counters and took a breath.
This time I got tough; I doubled the rennet and let the mixture sit for twice as long before draining. Now soft, breakable curds did form, so I made a desultory stab at the microwave method. It was late in the day and I was getting sweaty and depressed.
After heating and kneading, the curds became marginally firmer and more cohesive. But then, somewhere between the second and third heating, something happened: I suddenly was holding not a bunch of dissolving curds throwing off milk but an amorphous ball of something that was having a distinctly cheeselike moment. I began to see just what one should see in fresh mozzarella: the paper-thin layers of stretchy proteins that allow you to smoosh the hot cheese around like bread dough.
At this point things became extremely exhilarating. I began to knead and heat compulsively, even breathlessly, maybe for a bit too long, and soon I was cradling an ivory orb the size of a small grapefruit.
An hour or two later, I cut the mozzarella into chunks to serve with fresh tomatoes and pasta. It was compact and mild, with the firmness of a provolone, a tangy, dairy-sweet kind of flavor, and not quite enough salt. It was cheese, but not quite the cheese—the rapture—I'd envisioned. My guests, tactfully silent about its unorthodox solidity, marveled at the fact of its existence.
Not long after, I stopped at a midweek farmers' market and for the first time noticed a table bearing ziplock bags of the satiny white grail itself. The cheese had been made two days earlier, and I guessed it would have about the same texture by now as what I'd made at home. I considered explaining to the cheesemaker that I used to procure a truly life-changing cheese in the Bronx, or that I had made some mozzarella one time myself, which he would likely greet with the same expression I have when people tell me they've always thought they'd get around to writing a book someday. In the end, I bought half a pound. It couldn't compete with the freshly made cheese in the Bronx, but it was nice. It was better than mine, if you must know.
Now that I've experienced mozzarella's unpredictable temperament and the huge quantity of milk needed to turn out a semisuccessful half pound of cheese, I admit I'm a bit daunted. But there's still no obtaining that perfect mozzarella moment unless I perfect my own. I suspect that the mozzarellas of my future will proceed like clockwork, once I figure out precisely what the cheese wants and when and in what quantity and according to what moods and weather patterns—except that my cheese isn't telling me a thing. That sort of mystique can enthrall a person, particularly when the reward is so transporting. Just the idea of it makes me want to play a little soft music, put up my hair, and saunter into the kitchen to try again.
Get the recipe for a delicious salad with fresh mozzarella