Photo: Lara Robby
Freshly made mozzarella is a royal treat, best devoured when the cheese still glistens with whey. Michelle Wildgen discovered the perfect ivory orb in the Bronx. Years later, she tried to make her own but found there is a fine line between milky bliss and a ball of glop.When I was 26 I got married, moved to Yonkers, New York, and tasted devastatingly fresh mozzarella for the first time. The cheese remains the most vivid memory of the three.
It came from the tiny Little Italy neighborhood in the Bronx, which is far superior to Mulberry Street's gaggle of hawkers and shamefaced tourists. My husband, Steve, and I would make the 20-minute drive there every month for olive oil, pasta, cured meats, and mozzarella. The store we always went to, Casa Della Mozzarella on East 187th Street, is essentially a long, packed hallway, and at the back men stand over vats of water, stirring and ladling balls of cheese. The choices are large or larger, salted or unsalted. I tried unsalted once, thinking vague thoughts about purity and simplicity, before remembering that if anything improves pure and simple foods, it's salt. No one bothered to tell us to eat the cheese immediately, or not to refrigerate it, both of which we learned through trial and error. At the height of my devotion I would save that store for last and dash back to the car, cradling my cheese like an infant.
I soon realized that there is a ruthlessness to fresh mozzarella, much as there is with tomatoes: The best of science and ingenuity cannot fake that optimal moment when the food is at its peak. From the second mozzarella is formed, it is never again as good as it was the moment before. It's not that mozzarella gets bad after a few hours in the fridge, but it becomes...less. The delicacy of the flavors begins to blend into an overall mildness, the texture firms, and the cheese ceases to release those silky ivory droplets that give the impression of a food so dense with glory it cannot help sharing a little. I'm pretty sure this is not hyperbole. The stress I felt just trying to orchestrate my cheese-eating makes me glad I never tried to be an EMT.
The day I learned how much timing matters to a mozzarella, Steve and I had purchased our cheese and then hurtled back up the Bronx River Parkway. Still wearing our coats and surrounded by unpacked grocery bags, we each tore off a velvety shred. The cheese glowed on the cutting board, demurely shedding whey.
At the first taste, we both said, "Oh my God" and locked eyes. The cheese was barely springy but yielding, with a gentle, fresh, milky tanginess. Silently, dazedly, we nibbled another piece. It was difficult to believe that something so pillowy in texture, so graciously light, was in fact a dense concentration of butterfat. When I turned away for a split second, Steve lost all reason and took a bite straight from the cheese, as if it were an apple.
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.
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