Prepare the cornbread. This may be done several days in advance. Preheat the oven to 450˚F with a 9-inch cast iron skillet inside. Add to the skillet and allow to liquefy:
Back when I was writing about home cheese making, I forgot one very crucial cheese that is, frankly, the easiest of all and perhaps the most rewarding cheese to make at home. It is simple, dry and salty, it keeps for a long time, and it requires no pressing or special conditions for aging: feta. Dig it.
One day on the goat farm, the head cheese maker was going to be away from the farm for the day. Rather than having me do as she usually did, which was to pasteurize and set three batches of milk as chèvre or lactic bloomy, she told me to just make a big batch of feta with the 250 or so gallons in the bulk tank.
I was mildly horrified (if such a thing is possible). I had made feta with her several times, and I had all her batch notes to reference, but I was looking at 250 gallons of precious goat's milk and shaking in my Crocs. So much milk. So many things that could go wrong.
But I worried over nothing. I made the batch and had it draining in molds by the time she got back to the farm, and not because I'm a prodigy or even especially talented, but because feta is easy.
The process is straightforward. Heat the milk, add culture, add rennet, cut the curd, stir gently, drain, salt or brine. I've never made a bad batch of feta, and believe me, there are plenty of things I've made bad batches of. What's more, once you make a batch of feta, it will keep indefinitely in its brine. We still have some in a jar from at least 8 months ago, and it tastes great.
Of course, feta is not the most nuanced cheese, and it really isn't made for the cheese plate, but crumbled feta can improve a lot of dishes--salads, bruschetta, quiches and frittatas, roasted vegetables, soups. It's like reaching for the salt shaker, except you're adding a nice tart, cheesy flavor as well. Feta is also very versatile, and because it's so easy to make, you won't feel like you have to save it for a special occasion.
As with some of the other cheeses we've discussed on the blog, you will need a couple special ingredients: a mesophilic starter, rennet (this is often available at health food stores), and lipase (this is optional). If you do purchase these items, store the starter and lipase in the freezer in plastic bags, and keep the rennet in the refrigerator.
Finally, don't let words like "mesophilic" and "lipase" ruin your fun. Think of these strange-sounding components as powdered flavor. They are what helps you, along with time and temperature, to turn milk into the stuff cheese-lovers' dreams are made of.
Combine and heat in a medium saucepan until it reaches 86˚F:
1 gallon whole milk, preferably not ultrapasteurized
(1/8 teaspoon lipase powder dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water)
Turn off the heat and add:
1/8 teaspoon powdered mesophilic starter
Cover and allow the milk to ripen for an hour.
Add and stir with an up-and-down motion for about 30 seconds:
3 drops double-strength rennet dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water (if using regular-strength rennet, there should be directions on the box or bottle telling you how much to use)
Cover and let the curd form for about an hour.
To test the curd, wash your hands well and, using the back of your hand, gently press the curd mass down at the edge where the curd meets the pan. The curd should pull away from the edge of the pan fairly neatly.
Cut the curd into 1/2-inch cubes and allow it to rest for 10 minutes.
Gently stir the curds for 20 minutes. At first, the curds will be fragile, but they will begin to firm up as they expel whey.
Pour the curds into a colander lined with a clean dish towel (I like to use flour sack towels as they aren't too thick to drain properly, and they're cheap enough to be expendable). If you like, save the whey for another application. My chickens love it. Otherwise, just drain the curds over the sink. Bring the corners of the towel together and tie them with kitchen twine. Hang the curds to let them drain. I hang mine from a hook over the sink, but you can hang it anywhere, provided you put a bowl beneath it to catch the whey as it drips.
Let the curds drain for 4 hours. Unwrap the curds, flip the curd mass, and hang it again for another 2 hours. This simply ensures an evenly-shaped cheese, but is not crucial. If you like, you can just hang the curds for 4 hours and be done with it. However, I think that even, adequate draining is important to the final product.
Unwrap the curds and cut into 1-inch squares. They don't need to be perfect. Toss the squares in a large bowl with:
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Cover the cheese and allow it to continue draining for about 2 more days. Every so often, pour off they whey that has collected in the bowl. For this reason, I like to use a bowl with a spout. Be sure to keep the cheese covered tightly with plastic wrap. The first couple times you drain the cheese, you may have to manually separate the squares as they tend to want to knit together until they firm up a bit.
When the cheese stops emitting whey, make a brine solution using:
2 cups cool water
2 tablespoons plus 2 1/4 teaspoons kosher or cheese salt
Stir the solution until the salt has dissolved. Pack the cheese squares into a glass quart jar, and pour the brine over the cheese. You may not need all the brine, but it should be about perfect. If you can, use a plastic lid on the jar as the acidity of the cheese and the saltiness of the brine tend to corrode metal.
Store, refrigerated, indefinitely. When you use the cheese, make sure you use clean tongs or a fork to take cheese out of the jar so as not to introduce bacteria or other contaminants into the jar.
*Note: Sometimes, feta stored in brine gets soft and can even dissolve completely. This is due to calcium leaching out of the cheese. I use farm fresh milk and have never had a problem with my feta going soft before I use it. I also think that draining your cheese adequately before placing it in the brine makes a difference. However, you can add calcium chloride to your brine as insurance.