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The Original Italian Basket Cheese

This is a cheese I have been thinking about doing some research on for quite some time now. It is called Canestrato in Italy because of the beautiful reed baskets it was traditionally formed in.

I find variations made from ewes milk, goat, cow, as well as a mix of these milks.


On a recent trip to visit cheese makers in Sicily I realized quite soon that what I found in the local markets was not the international array of cheeses but primarily cheese being made in the mountains and valleys surrounding these markets. A perfect example of what many "Locavores" aspire to achieve but in Sicily has been the way of life for centuries now. The dominant cheese was the "Basket Cheese" made in the countryside from ewes milk but also from goat and cows milk in some areas. The farm I visited in the mountains east of Palermo had 600 ewes milked twice a day by the cheese maker and his 3 helpers. Believe me this is no small undertaking with 7 days a week, 365 days, year after year.

The name for these wonderful looking 'Canestrati' derives from the fact that they are made by being pressed into a 'Canestri' (Italian word for wicker basket) and the pattern, will show on the cheese itself.

The Sicilian Canestrato is a true delicacy, it is considered among the most valuable cheeses in the Italian casearia, or dairy, tradition. Canestrato cheese is traditionally produced by small farms that breed specific types of sheep and cows in order to confer to the cheese a particular and refined flavor.

A thick outer rind leads to the superficial striations left from the traditional wicker basket where the curd is set. The flavor is sweet and delicate and tends toward slight tanginess when fresh, its customary form when consumed as a table cheese.

The 'Pepato' variation with added peppers is quite spicy.


A Bit of History

From ancient writings, there is evidence that this cheese goes back to the 10th century and perhaps further.
Historical documents bear witness to the fact that Sicilian Canestrato was also used as a precious form of payment for tenancy contracts.
Initially, it was made from the milk of goats and sheep, left in baskets, coagulated spontaneously, or the coagulation was induced by adding the sap from figs. They separated the denser parts that coagulated and acquired a certain consistency, from the whey. These remaining curds were the origins of the first cheese, also called giuncate  (because the cheese was placed in a basket made of giunco or reeds).

Variations in Style

This cheese is not to be confused with the American-Italian version for making the Easter Pie. That is really a fresh cheese with little to no aging and a very mild flavor.

The Italian cheese is the basis for many other similar cheeses throughout Italy such as Pecorino Romano and Ragusano as well as many local variations throughout southern Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia.

Canestrato can be made from whole cow's milk, sometimes diluted with that of goats or sheep. It is quite similar to Pecorino, made with the same process, and there is a theory that Canestrato was developed to obtain a similar product while using cow's milk. Today there are similar versions made with cows milk as in the Ragusa area of southern Sicily. The term Canestrato seems to be used more with the cheese made from cows milk (Mucha) and the ewes milk cheese is Pecorino Siciliano (Pecora for sheep) but I have seen the ewes milk offered as simply Canestrato in Sicilian markets.

This cheese can be found or made as a young table cheese or a late ripening cheese with more character.

I 'Canestri' ... The Baskets

For years I have been in search of these beautiful baskets. I have pleaded with everyone having "La Nonna" connections for help but to no avail. During this visit to Sicily we traveled to visit a cheese maker in a small mountain village and after the mid morning cafe, I decided to visit the heart of the village, "the hardware store" which was really nothing but a small room jumbled with everything to "fix-it" PLUS everything to make the essential Italian food groups: wine, cheese, sausage, etc. There I found what I was looking for, 2 beautiful baskets made from local material by an elder in the village. Right besides them was the modern version made of plastic.
In the past an important trade was that practiced by the fiscellari, the craftsmen who wove these reed baskets.

Notice the beautiful patterns of the basket and how there has been an effort to replicate this in the modern version. These baskets are sized to make a very convenient 3 gallon batch of milk into cheese. I really must say that I love the history and beauty of the craft as much as the cheese making.

A Recipe for making Canestrato

I have chosen to make this cheese with cows milk since ewes milk is so hard to come by in our area but the following recipe can easily be applied to ewe or goats milk. Even a blend would be great.
You may need to decrease the culture/rennet for the higher proteins of ewes milk and some trials may be needed.

The recipe for this cheese will make two 3-3.5 lb. cheeses and will also produce about 1.5 lbs of the best Ricotta ever from this milk.
Using our smaller (M3) 2 lb molds will make 3 nice cheeses for aging.
You can easily modify this to as small as 2 gallons or as large as needed.  Simply alter the list below proportionate to your own milk supply.  

See measurements for using 2 gallons below.  (We do not advise making smaller than 2 gallon cheeses for aging since the surface to mass ratio becomes too high and aging will not go as well.)

Before you Begin:

You will need:

  • 6 Gal Good Quality Whole milk (Not UltraPasturized). The butterfat is what will make the Ricotta special
  • Cultures:
    • 1 packet of our C101 culture OR MA011 1/4 tsp. This will only produce early acid until the temperature goes past 102F then the enzymes left behind will aid in ripening
    • Y1 Yogurt made up (Thermo/ Bulgaricus @ 50:50 blend).
      Use 1% of milk volume. 7.5-8 oz. of active Y1 yogurt.
      This is the thermophilic culture that will do most of the acid conversion at the higher temperatures in this recipe.
  • Liquid Rennet  3 ml single strength diluted in  1/4 cup cool non chlorinated water
    For those not using the metric ml and have only the teaspoon measure, this is 3/5 teaspoon. You can measure this simply by placing 9 teaspoons of non chlorinated water plus 1 teaspoon rennet in a sanitized cup and stir well. Add to the milk only 6 teaspoons of this diluted rennet .. (6/10=3/5 teaspoon).
  • A good thermometer
  • A knife to cut the curds, and a spoon or ladle to stir the curds with.
  • An appropriate cheese form and follower. Our M2 mold will do nicely for a single cheese with this much curd or using our smaller M3 2 lb. molds will make 3 smaller cheeses. A pair of basket molds M222 will also work quite nicely.
  • A basin or pan that will hold the cheese forms for the hot whey bath
  • Salt for Brine
For those wishing to make a smaller home scale version with 2 gallons of milk you can modify the above culture and rennet as below:
  • Culture:
    • 1/2 Packet of C101 OR 1/8 tsp of MA011
    • Y1 Yogurt 2.5 ozs. of the made up yogurt
  • Rennet:
    • 1 ml of our liquid single strength rennet diluted in 1/4 cup non-chlorinated water
      For those not using the metric ml and have only the teaspoon measure, this is 1/5 teaspoon. You can measure this simply by placing 9 teaspoons of non chlorinated water plus 1 teaspoon rennet in a sanitized cup and stir well. Add to the milk only 2 teaspoons of this diluted rennet .. (2/10=1/5 teaspoon).

Everything needs to be clean and sanitized.

Acidifying and heating the milk:

Begin by heating the milk to 90F (32-33C). You do this by placing the milk in a pot or sink of very warm water. If you do this in a pot on the stove make sure you heat the milk slowly and stir it well as it heats

Once the milk is at 90F the culture can be added. To prevent the powder from caking and sinking in clumps sprinkle the powder over the surface of the milk and then allow about 2 minutes for the powder to re-hydrate before stirring it in.

Coagulation with rennet:

Then add the single strength liquid rennet.

The milk now needs to sit quiet for 35-40 minutes while the culture works and the rennet coagulates the curd. The thermal mass of this milk should keep it warm during this period.

The first signs of a coagulating gel is apparent at 15 min. but wait for the final firm curd at 35-40 min.

When the rennet has formed a good curd, you will see that by lifting the curd with the flat blade of the knife, a very smooth clean break occurs. The whey that fills this cut should neither be too clear (late on the cut) nor too milky (cut too early).

Cutting curds and releasing the whey:

Here we can decide whether we want a young table cheese or a late ripening cheese with more character. Rice to wheat size grains for long aging and 3/8 inch for young cheese.

I begin breaking the curd up with a pre-cut of about 1-1.5" horizontal cuts at right angles. I then allow this to rest for 3-5 minutes, just long enough for a bit of whey to rise and the cut surfaces to heal slightly.

I then continue the cut with a large whisk, cutting slowly at first and then more quickly until the entire mass of curds is somewhere between a corn and barley size.

Once the curd has been evenly cut, rest 10 min. for whey to rise. Stir just enough to keep the curds from consolidating.

Cooking the curds:

Now it is time to begin drying out the curds. This will be done by increasing the heat slowly
Begin the Scald. For a young cheese 114-116F (45-47C) is good but for longer aged (drier cheese) raise the temperature to 120-122F (49-50C). This should be done slowly over 30 minutes to reach the target temperature and may be extended to 45-50 min. if the curds are still soft.

The curds will firm up from the heat and stirring over the 30 minutes. Developing from what you see in the left photo to the appearance of what you see in the right photo.
In the center photo you will note a differential of about 15F which will help achieve the final temperature of the curd in the 30 minutes.

The final curds should be cooked well through and should be examined to make sure that enough moisture has been removed. A broken curd should be firm throughout and the curds should have a moderate resistance when pressed between the fingers.

When this point is reached the curds can be allowed to settle under the whey.

Removing the whey:

You can now remove 1/3 of the whey and begin heating this for the Ricotta.
Holding at the final temperature continue stirring for another 30 minutes.
Then allow the curds to settle and hold the curds for another 20-30 minutes for the final acid to develop.

Forming the cheese:

The curd is now ready to transfer to the molds which should have been sanitized and ready. I usually heat the molds with hot water or whey just before transferring curds. The forming can be don simply by transferring hand fulls of the partially drained curds into the forms.
Note that I have not used any cheesecloth in these forms because the weave is fine enough to wick the whey away (pun intended). When using the larger M2 or smaller forms do use cheesecloth top allow the whey to flow off.

A firm hand pressure can be used to consolidate the curds. Once into the forms a 3-6 lb. weight will help consolidate the curds. The residual heat from the curd should keep the consolidating curds warm while you now focus on the ricotta production. After about 10-15 minutes the curd should be consolidated enough to flip in the forms. They should already be well on their way to forming a cheese of character.

Making the Ricotta:

By now your initial whey has been heating. Add the remaining whey left behind from the curd transfer to the already warm whey and quickly heat to 185 while stirring (At about 170-175 you should note tiny flecks beginning to form in the whey). Once it reaches 185, then allow the hot whey to sit for 15-20 minutes while the ricotta begins to form and float to the surface.

Note: Because of the sweet character of the whey and the amount of butterfat that goes with it , I find that this is some of the best Ricotta my friends have ever tasted and I now find that it is almost too good for traditional Ricotta recipes such as lasagna and pies. I normally serve this by itself for dessert or with honey drizzled over it and darkly toasted pine nuts on top.

Reheating the cheese forms:

One of the unique aspects of the making of this cheese is the final re-cooking while in the forms.
In several visits I have seen the cheese makers place the new formed cheeses back into the vats of hot whey where the ricotta had been made. I find that this tends to heat the curds and cause the cheese to consolidate very well forming a tight paste and eliminating any small, internal mechanical openings. I find that when doing this the hot whey begins at 150-160F and then cools down over the 60-90 minute period of heating the cheeses in their forms before removing them.

If you do not make the Ricotta from this whey, you can simply use hot water at 150F  to reheat the forms in their baskets.

Once the cheeses have been re-cooked, they are ready to continue their acidification process as they cool down over the next 24-48 hours. It should be noted that the Thermophilic bacteria has been working very slowly if at all while the temperatures of scalding are over 115F. As the cheese cools down slowly into the ideal temperature range for Thermophilic bacteria (98-115F) the primary acid development occurs. Keeping the cheese at a moderate to warm room temp over the next 24-48 hours will help this along. No salting wild take place during this period.

At this point you can see that the cheese has formed quite well and displays the character of these traditional basket molds.

The final cheese is ready to be brined and aged. 2 nice wheels of Canestrato and a fine batch of ricotta to show for the days work.

At the end of the resting phase the cheese is ready for a 24 hour brine bath. If making one large cheese this can be extended to 48 hours.

This cheese is quite dense and needs the extended time to acquire its final salt level.

Aging:

Once the cheese has been salted it can then be moved to the aging space. Holding the temperature at 54-58F and moisture at 80% will produce the final cheese in from 4-12 months depending on final moisture and the complexity of flavor desired.

 



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Thanks for joining our cheese making family, keep those stories & photos coming. We love to hear from you!

In Peace,
Ricki, the cheese queen

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