who would have thought homemade cheese could be this simple? What with all the equipment and specialized ingredients I had read about, cheese making sounded like it was better suited to a chemistry lab than my tiny kitchen. That is, until I tried quark.
I know. Hear the word "quark" and you may conjure up images of dancing physics particles or "Star Trek" characters. But "quark" is just the German word for "curds." A creamy, fresh cheese, quark's curds come together to form something magical -- rich with a gentle tang, it's spreadable, kind of a cross between sour cream and soft ricotta cheese.
And it's easy to make: Bring a couple of cups of milk to a simmer over moderate heat, then let it cool to room temperature. Whisk in some acid (typically buttermilk, though some recipes call for lemon juice) and leave the mixture at room temperature for a day or so until curds form and the mixture thickens. Strain it to remove the clear whey, and voila! You have cheese.
Methods vary. I tried more than a dozen recipes searching for the method I liked best. Several were more complicated than what I've described, but the most basic method actually made for the best flavor and texture.
I took a couple of batches over to Norbert Wabnig, the Austrian-born owner of the Cheese Store of Beverly Hills, to see what he thought. He took one bite, then eagerly took another. "This is better than what I carry at the store," he said, wanting to know my secret.
In a stainless steel, heavy-bottomed saucepan, bring 2 cups of whole milk to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat and set aside until the milk is cooled. Whisk in 1/2 cup of buttermilk and transfer the mixture to a glass, ceramic or plastic container. Let it sit at room temperature until the mixture is thickened, with a consistency similar to yogurt -- about one day.
Scrape the mixture into a cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a bowl. Refrigerate overnight to drain the whey from the cheese; the whey should be clear, not cloudy.
Use the finished cheese as desired. To store, place the cheese in a glass, ceramic or plastic container and cover. Refrigerate up to four days.
> Using quark
Use it as you would yogurt, stirring in some granola and fresh fruit for an easy breakfast.
Spread it over toast or bagels or in sandwiches for a little extra tang and richness.
Dollop it over potatoes or rich pasta dishes, even ragus.
Use it as a filling for omelets, frittatas or ravioli; quark is used as a filling in certain cheesecakes and strudels.
After trying my batch, Wabnig recommended simply mixing it with a little fresh goat cheese, paprika and chopped chives. It makes a perfect dip or spread.
The following is adapted from a recipe in "Neue Cuisine: The Elegant Tastes of Vienna" by Kurt Gutenbrunner. He calls for a nonstick pan, though a classic crepe pan works well, too.
> Quark crepes with fresh strawberries
3 cups strawberries, quartered lengthwise
1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon sugar, divided
1/3 cup flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter, melted, plus softened butter, for brushing
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup quark (mascarpone or creme fraiche can be substituted)
Grated zest of 1/2 lemon
Powdered sugar, for dusting
In a medium bowl, toss the strawberries with the vanilla and one-fourth cup sugar. Macerate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.
In another medium bowl, whisk the flour with the salt and 1 teaspoon sugar. Whisk in the milk, eggs and melted butter until the batter is smooth. Set aside for 15 minutes.
Strain the batter through a fine sieve set over a small bowl. Spray a 10-inch nonstick skillet with cooking spray and heat over medium-low heat. Add one-fourth cup of the batter, tilting the skillet to coat the bottom evenly, and cook until the edges of the crepe are lightly browned, about 1 minute. Using a spatula, flip the crepe, and cook until lightly colored on the second side, about 30 seconds. Transfer the crepe to a plate. Repeat with the remaining batter, adjusting the heat as necessary and stacking the crepes as they're done. You will need 8 crepes for this dish.
Heat the broiler. Brush a large gratin dish with butter. In a medium bowl, whisk the cream with the remaining one-fourth cup sugar until it holds a soft peak. Whisk a little of the whipped cream into the quark to lighten it. Add the quark and lemon zest to the whipped cream; whisk until smooth.
Spread one crepe at a time with a scant one-fourth cup of the quark cream. Roll up and transfer, seam side down, to the prepared gratin dish. Dust with powdered sugar.
Broil the crepes until the tip is slightly browned and the quark cream is melted, 1 to 2 minutes. Transfer the crepes to warmed plates and dust with more powdered sugar. Spoon the macerated strawberries on top and serve.
> Quark tart with asparagus
3/4 pound asparagus, trimmed of tough ends
1/4 pound double-smoked slab bacon, cut into 1/4 -inch cubes
3 leeks, trimmed and thinly sliced
2/3 cup quark, or 1/2 cup ricotta blended with 2 tablespoons sour cream
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 extra-large eggs
1 cup coarsely shredded Emmentaler cheese
1 (9-inch) unbaked pie shell with a high fluted edge
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Blanch the asparagus in boiling water just until the spears turn a bright green, about 1 minute. Strain and remove to an ice bath. Cut the spears on the bias into one-fourth-inch-thick pieces. Set aside.
In a large skillet, saute the bacon over moderately low heat, stirring often, until it has rendered the fat and is crisp, about 15 minutes. Transfer the bacon bits to paper towels to drain. Add the leeks to the drippings and saute until limp and lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Add the sliced asparagus to the skillet, toss lightly to mix, then transfer the mixture to a large mixing bowl.
In the bowl of a food processor (or with a whisk and bowl), combine the quark, cream, Parmesan, nutmeg, salt and pepper for about 20 seconds until smooth. Pulse in the eggs, one at a time. Combine quark mixture in a bowl with the Emmentaler and bacon; toss well.
Set the pie shell on a heavy-duty baking sheet and pour in the quark mixture. Bake, uncovered, for 10 minutes. Reduce the oven temperature to 325 degrees and continue to bake until the tart is lightly browned and set like custard, 50 to 60 minutes. Cool on a rack 45 minutes before slicing. (Adapted from "The New German Cookbook" by Jean Anderson and Hedy Wurz.)