Cheese With Care

Fresh mozzarella needs TLC, from curd to the dinner plate

Alberto and I went to the circus a weekend or so back, and then to Vero Amore for pizza. The circus was bad. "Back in the day," as Alberto often delicately phrases it, there was Tension! Mystery! Anxiety! No Nets! Now, it seems like the safest show on Earth.

The pizza, on the other hand, consistent with the half-dozen times I've been there, was excellent. I like this little place lodged in the strip shopping center at Camp Lowell and Swan roads. The last few times, I've seen people I know, and it's feeling like a "regulars" spot. It also reminds me of being in a much more urban environment with a casual, smart, uptown storefront panache. The service is friendly and consistent, the mood upbeat.

It took owners and brothers Aric and Joshua Mussman, 25 and 22 respectively, some time to get their restaurant open, in large part because of the construction of a massive woodburning oven that required special venting and roof reworking. The oven is going 24/7. After he told me about the work involved, I expressed the hope to Aric that they had a good, long lease. "When we go, that oven stays," he laughed. "It will be easier to build a new one." Not that it's likely they'll be moving anytime soon--business is good and building, word of mouth strong, the reviews positive.

Jane, who is the glue and centrality of my universe, tries hard to make sure I eat lunch every day. I think it is something my mother talked with her about years ago. Last week, she brought in some Trader Joe's mozzarella that had been marinated in olive oil, garlic and hot peppers. With the Carr's cracked-pepper crackers, it made for a tasty light lunch. While eating it, I remembered the Mussman brothers' offer to show me how they make their mozzarella every day.

Post-circus and filled with pizza, I asked Joshua when he'd be doing the next batch. Right now, he said--"I've got some curd I want to use." So, it being later in the evening and the restaurant relatively quiet, I dutifully followed him through the tiny kitchen to the stove to make the cheese.

Two stockpots were on the stove, one heating with water and the other in readiness for the 10 pounds of Grande Brand Fresh Curd (whole milk, vinegar and rennet) from the Grande Cheese Company of Brownsville, Wis. They usually use the BelGioioso curd, it being from Denmark, Wis., but Joshua wanted to work with the Grande mozzarella.

"The Grande is not as smoky as the BelGioioso, but the BelGioioso works better on the pizzas. I'd like to use the Grande for some new salads we're thinking about," he said. The Mussman brothers use 20 pounds of mozzarella every day, all of it made daily in their kitchen.

We put the curd into the empty stockpot and broke it up into golfball-size chunks. To that was added very hot water to cover, about four ounces of sea salt and a couple of tablespoons of heavy cream. It was allowed to heat, and then stirred with a stick and worked with our hands, until it began to break down and meld. Like taffy, it transmutes itself into a pliable mass that, stretched, becomes a shiny, smooth sheet. Joshua pulled a blob of it from the pot and stretched it over the end of the stirring stick, checking for consistency and uniform smoothness. Satisfied, he moved the pot to a sink where he could gradually transfer the cheese, ball by ball, to a brine solution. The process is hugely tactile and pleasing: We take handfuls of the hot cheese, squeeze out the moisture, and roll, knead and fold it in on itself to make a firm ball before dropping it into the brine to cool and harden.

Within a few minutes, Aric takes up a newly cooled mozzarella ball and slices it thinly for us to test. It is rich, warm, creamy ... delicious, and I'd love to make a meal of it alone. For a moment, I get a little dizzy thinking about this mozzarella and August tomatoes from the farm. Mmmmmmm. ... can there really ever be too much of a good thing?

The packaging of the Grande Cheese Company carries the following message: "The finest of curd, abused or in the hands of the unskilled, will result in an inferior end-product ... as will all end-products made from inferior curd."

Without a whole lot of reworking, that's not a bad point of view to have about everything.

From the Inbox:

To Mark: Thanks for the props on the burger recipe from months back. I'm glad you're still enjoying the recipe.

To A.R. and the other five: Right! It's the same so-far unnameable place. Let's see what shakes out in the next couple of months.

To Paul N.: From one neighbor to another--food is ALWAYS a common ground.

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