Italian Cheese

This “Italian cheese” has intrigued me for some time. It comes from UPenn MS Codex 876 (1780). Just under this one is a recipe for “Cow Head Cheese” – containing not just “two Cow Heads” but also “two Calves Feet” plus “two Calves or Sheepe tongues.” I wasn’t feeling daring enough for this one (and didn’t happen to have a few bovine appendages hanging around), but it certainly represents a nose-to-tail approach! Since I’d rather just carry home a pint of cream and a few lemons from the market, I decided that it was time for Italian Cheese. This recipe only requires three main ingredients: cream, lemons, and sugar, plus almonds and raisins (or whatever you’d like) for garnish.

The Recipe

italian cheese

Italian Cheese

Grate the rind of two Lemons,

into a Pint of good Cream, add to

it the Juice of one Lemon, &

a quarter of a pound fine Sugar,

Whip it up together, put it in

a small Sieve, & let it stand

all Night. When sent up, stick

it with blanch’d Almonds &

Raisins — it must not be over

whipp’d —

The Results

The easy availability of these ingredients and the straightforward instructions meant that I followed the instructions above fairly closely.  Since the recipe cautioned that “it must not be over whipp’d,” I whisked the cream, lemon, and sugar mixture lightly, by hand, for about 30 seconds. The mixture was thicker than unwhipped heavy cream but not yet thick or airy. I then poured it into my handy sieve … only to have most of it go straight through into the bowl below. Oops. I lined the sieve with two single sheets of cheesecloth and tried again, which worked perfectly. As instructed, I let it sit in the fridge overnight (plus the non-eighteenth-century addition of some plastic wrap on top) to drain and thicken. It had yielded about 2-3 tablespoons of liquid within a few hours; since that amount didn’t seem to increase much overnight, you could probably rush this recipe in 3+ hours if necessary.

I suspected that it might turn out something like our cream cheese, just sweeter and citrusy, perhaps closer in taste to mascarpone than to the tanginess of cream cheese. And this hunch was mostly correct: it’s thinner than cream cheese or mascarpone (think the consistency of a thin custard or non-Greek yogurt), with a rich, sweet creaminess. The lemon zest in addition to the juice adds a nice zip – since I like citrus, I might increase both the zest and the juice next time. It would be fun to try this with orange, with meyer lemons, or with a mix of lemon and orange. Many citrus possibilities!

Since this uses a pint of cream, and depending on how you’re serving it, it could probably yield at least six servings and up to ten. I spooned a few dollops into a bowl and sprinkled slivered almonds on top. I don’t particularly care for raisins but had some dried sour cherries at hand and used those instead – I really liked the lemon/cherry combination. Raisins could of course work, as would currants or even chopped dried apricots or figs. Basically, I think this recipe lends itself to many variations. I ate a few spoonfuls of the concoction on its own and then remembered some spiced jumball cookies (we’ll post the recipe soon) in my freezer. It turns out that jumballs make an excellent vehicle for Italian cheese! It would also work very well spooned over fresh fruit or in a trifle. Italian cheese: easy to make, easy to enjoy.

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Maccarony Cheese

 

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Photo by Carley Storm Photography http://www.carleystormphotography.com

For our inaugural recipe, we thought, why not start with an eighteenth-century mac-and-cheese?  It’s a modern-day American classic and perhaps the ultimate comfort food.

This recipe comes from UPenn Ms. Codex 1038, a collection of recipes most likely written and bound between 1765 and 1830. (Thanks to Mitch Fraas for pointing us to this particular “maccarony cheese.”)

The Recipe

Maccarony Cheese

Two Ounces of best Glocester Cheese, 4 Ounces Cheshire Do. grated – put it into a Stone Mortar with two Eggs, two or three Spoonfulls of Sack or Mountain Wine, beat it ’till it’s well mixt and Light – Boil the Maccarony in Water very tender, then drain it well, put it on a Dish or Plate and lay the prepared Cheese all over it and brown it with a Salamander.

This recipe, unlike some others to be featured, discussed, and puzzled over here in the next few months, features no ingredients that are mysterious, challenging to obtain, or downright unappetizing. Cheese, eggs, and macaroni are all familiar. Even sack wine can be approximated. Defined in Samuel Johnson’s 1737 Dictionary as “A kind of sweet wine, now brought chiefly from the Canaries.” Also known as “Canary wine,” sack identified a few varieties of sweet, fortified light wine. One of these later became known as “sherry,” so sherry is what we turned to here. For Gloucester cheese, we substituted a sharp, aged cheddar; for Cheshire, a milder cheddar.

Note that although the recipe provides specific measurements for all ingredients of the cheese sauce, the amount of macaroni is left unspecified. Based on the amount of cheese sauce, we determined that approximately half a pound of pasta (ex. fusili) would most likely have been used.

Early modern cooks used salamanders to brown dishes. A salamander was a piece of cast iron with a handle attached; it would be heated in the fire and then held on top of a dish to warm it. Essentially, a salamander was a hand-held broiler. We debated using a culinary torch but decided that an oven would provide more even cooking.

So, our modern version of the recipe looked like this:

2 oz. sharp/dry cheddar

4 oz. mild cheddar

2 eggs

2 tsp. sherry

8 oz. dried pasta

Heat oven to 350F.

Grate the cheeses and beat together with eggs and sherry. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cook and drain pasta.

Transfer pasta to oven-proof dish and evenly distribute cheese sauce over the top. Bake for 15-20 minutes, until cheese is melted and lightly browned.

 

The Results

In a word: delicious. The eggs cooked with the cheese to form a dense, satisfying mac-and-cheese that was remarkably easy to make. And the sherry flavor came through in a unique, rich way. We both agreed that this would be an easy way to throw together a pasta dish for one or two people, using up any scraps of cheese. Even more impressive: unlike many modern recipes for mac-and-cheese, this one does not involve any milk or heavy cream.