Poutine - the Canadian national dish of fresh cut fries, cheese curds and gravy - gained a soft spot in my heart when I lived in British Columbia for a few months back in my mid-20s. The combination of textures and flavours bathed in a meaty, salty gravy is comfort food at its finest, perfect after a day out snowboarding in -47 deg C when your body is yearning for calories. With this recent cold spell I have been hankering after this heart attack on a plate but have been held back by the availability of cheese curds. Whilst some people use mozzarella it just doesn't have the right texture, it's too soft and stringy and lacks the squeak of fresh cheddar curds which stand up to the gravy and chip heat far better. Unlike in Canada though the option of buying them doesn't exist in the UK and so I looked around on the web to see if I could make them. Whilst a little trickier than paneer making - the only cheese making I'd ever done - it looked bearable and I'm always happy to be in the kitchen learning something new. When ebay showed rennet was both easy and cheap to get hold of the last obstacle was gone.
As with anything cheese related the first stage was to coagulate the milk with my newly acquired rennet. When making paneer, as you're probably aware, you add something acidic to milk and it curdles. When I've done this you end up with lots of small particles in the milk which then come together when you strain them out and hang in muslin. The first thing I noticed with rennet though was how the milk set into one huge lump, like a bowlful of soft tofu. To get this to something usable you have to first cut the curds then heat them up very gradually - 8 degrees over 30-40 minutes, a thermometer is a must. This heating process seems to squeeze whey from the curds, moving them from the softest tofu to slightly rubbery lumps floating in a saucepanful of whey. Once strained if you were making cheese this is where you'd start to salt it and press it into rounds, but for me - and you if you give it a go - this is when they were ready.
For a first attempt I was more than happy. It's a fairly involved process, obviously, but if you like being in the kitchen then it's not too much of a chore. The poutine was a delight, the curds rich and with the tell-tale squeak on the teeth and the chips, using the thermometer again to get the saucepan of oil to the right temperature, crisp without and fluffy within. Even the packet gravy (half chicken and half beef to mimic the traditional veal) didn't let it down.
After making it I still had some curds left so turned to Google to see what other uses I could find for them. There wasn't much out there but one thing that did pop up was fried cheese curds, specifically Wisconsin fried cheese curds. I like niche recipes and you can't get much more niche than that. I'm a big believer in battering and deep frying improving almost anything and here the bland curds and spicy coating are proof of that theory. The curds stand up to the heat well leaving crisp nuggets with a delectable chew. Another win.
Makes about 350gr (I think)
1.5 litres unhomogenized full fat milk (Sainsbury sell it)
NB unhomogneized milk is important as normal milk does not coagulate properly
2TB live yoghurt
Scant 1/4 ts rennet in 2 TB of water
1/2 ts salt.
Warm the milk to 20C then add the yoghurt and leave for an hour. This reduces the acidity (which I believe helps with the setting) and adds some flavour.
Warm the milk to 30C then add the rennet and leave to set, it should be fairly solid within 15 - 30 minutes.
Now you need to cut the curds, I used a palette knife and went for about 1.5cm squares. You can see this in the first curd photo of the post, up there on the left.
The next stage is the trickiest, you need to gradually heat the milk to 40C over the course of 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally with your hand (I found it pretty hard not to break the large lumps of curd when doing this). Even using the lowest flame on the smallest gas ring the temperature still rises quicker than required so I put the saucepan in a larger saucepan of water to slow the heating down. I still couldn't leave it on a small flame though and turned it on and off every couple of minutes to get a suitably slow rise. The second curd photo up there on the right is halfway through the process and you can see the yellowish whey coming out.
Once you're at 40C the curds and whey will be properly separated so ladle out as much of the whey as you can (rumour has it it makes a fine buttermilk subsituture when baking but I just poured it down the sink) then drain the curds through muslin and leave over the sink for half an hour.
Sprinkle the salt on and mix through and your curds are ready to use.
1 baking potato
75gr cheese curds
100-150ml gravy (I use 2 parts chicken Bisto Best and 1 parts beef Bisto Best)
Cuts the chips to 1cm thick, I left the skins on but do as you please, then wash well and dry.
Heat the oil to 120C then fry the chips for 7-8 minutes until tender and cooked through.
Remove from the oil then heat it to 190C before adding the par-cooked chips again, cooking till golden brown and crispy - about 3-4 minutes.
Wisconsin Fried Cheese Curds
200gr cheese curds
50gr plain flour
1/4ts chili powder
Pinch dried thyme
1/4 ts garlic powder
1/4 ts white pepper
Scant 1/2 ts salt
3 TB milk
Make the batter then dip the curds (break larger lumps down to 2cm odd) in it to coat. Take the battered curds and cover well in flour then spread on a plate and put in freezer for 20 minutes.
Heat some oil to 190C and then deep-fry for 1-2 minutes until golden.
Enjoy, with your fingers and something cold to wash them down.