I think I have finally found a cheese that few of our cheese makers have ever heard of. As many of you may already know, I love all things Italian (even though my background is Welsh and Irish ... go figure!). I do belong to a "Circollo Italiano" group in the valley where we live and one of my friends from this group has been after me for years to make this particular cheese for him since it is from his family home in Northern Italy. After some time researching this, I soon found out that it's not just a cheese but a meal as well as a lifestyle.
A Bit of History:
This month's cheese comes from the eastern area of the Dolomite mountains, centered around the town of Belluno in Northern Italy. This has been an area with a rough history of invasions, wars, and folks needing to make do with very little - so, this cheese was born of their resourcefulness.
Today, in spite of improved economic times, there is still a grand effort in this region to preserve the tradition of simple good food such as this.
Schiz was traditionally a part of a cheese destined for market that was set aside to feed the dairy folks on the mountain. When the curd was closed in the molds and pressed, the surplus curd would squeeze out, so it was cut away and carefully collected. This surplus curd, referred to as ‘Schiz,’ was cut into strips and fried in a pan. It was a humble but very nutritious meal for these people from the Alpine pastures. The cheese would not keep well and sensibility called for it to be eaten quickly, so into the frying pan for lunch it went.
Fried with a bit of butter and cream this cheese holds up to the fire quite well and to this day is one of the favorite traditional cheeses of this area. It is normally accompanied by their local Polenta.
What is Schiz?:
Schiz is made from whole or semi-skimmed cow's milk cheese and is produced in the province of Belluno. It has a very traditional history and is usually prepared by cooking in a pan with butter, salt, and some added cream. The name was probably suggested by its sizzling sound (in Italian that's schizza) during cooking as it's moisture is released.
The cheese is rindless, soft, semi-cooked, and is lightly pressed into square molds. This cheese is salted only at the time of consumption. It has a compact body, elastic texture and retains the flavor of sweet milk.
Now, you will notice no mention of bacteria culture in this guide, which makes this cheese very unique. From a process point of view, this means that none of the lactose in the milk is converted to lactic acid, so the final cheese will retain it's sweetness.
This will affect the cheese in 2 ways:
- Since no lactic acid production takes place to cause moisture to flow from the curds, the cheese will retain a much higher moisture. The lack of acid will also give a much more elastic texture to the cheese.
- This cheese will hold up to the fire, it will soften but not melt and the residual milk sugars will caramelize and produce that wonderful rich flavor.
- The cheese must be consumed fresh because even at refrigeration temps the milk sugars will be good subjects for any ambient bacteria to feed on, causing the cheese to become sour in a matter of 6-10 days resulting in off flavors and smell. My friend from Belluno says that in his home town they would need to place an order with the dairy to pick up the cheese the next morning to get the freshest cheese possible for their meal.
Another interesting point is that no salt is added to the cheese during the cheese making. Since this normally is added to slow/stop the bacteria and causes more whey to be expelled, this will add to the final high moisture in the cheese and the need to use it quickly.
A Recipe for making Schiz from the Dolomites
This cheese may just be one of the easiest cheeses I have found for you to make at home.
Before you begin:
You will need:
- 1 gallon of milk (not ultra-pasteurized)
- No culture is used in this cheese
- Liquid rennet (1/4 tsp) or 1/4 tablet. 25-40% less if using raw milk
- No salt is added during the cheese making but may be added when the cheese is fried
- A good thermometer
- A knife to cut the curds, and a spoon or ladle to stir the curds with.
- 1 of Ricki's basket molds or any other good draining mold.
- Calcium chloride for pasteurized cold stored milk
Everything needs to be clean and sanitized.
Heating the milk:
Begin by heating the milk to 96F (35C). You do this by placing the pot of milk in another larger 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.
No culture will be added. This will allow all of the lactose in the milk to remain in the cheese, which gives the cheese a very sweet flavor and that wonderful caramelization when the cheese is fried. It will also mean that the cheese needs to be eaten fresh to keep any non-dairy bacteria from producing bad flavors and smells.
If using pasteurized cold stored milk or having problems with forming a firm curd add 1/4 tsp calcium chloride to the milk while heating.
Coagulation with rennet:
Then add 1/4 tsp (1.25ml) single strength rennet or ~ 1/4 tablet.
Stir for one minute with an up and down motion with the spoon or ladle, then stop the milk moving with a slight back stir.
The milk now needs to set (still) for 30 minutes while the rennet works and coagulates the milk into a firm curd. You will notice the milk beginning to thicken at about 5-10 minutes, as in the photo to the right.
The thermal mass of this milk should keep it warm during this period. It is OK if the temperature drops a few degrees during this time.
Cutting curds and releasing the whey:
Next, cut the coagulated curd in a vertical direction with your knife both ways across.
Allow this to set for 2-3 minutes while the whey begins to show in the cuts.
Then, cut horizontally with a ladle or spoon, resulting in the final curds being the size of beans or corn.
Cooking the curds :
Now, it is time to begin drying out the curds. This will be done by returning the heat to 96F (35C). The total cooking time will be 20-30 minutes. The longer it is cooked, the drier the final cheese will be.
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:
The whey should now be removed with a ladle to about an inch above the surface of the curds.
Leaving a bit of whey for the transfer will help the cheese consolidate.
Simply transfer the curds to the basket mold and allow the whey to drain.
A small amount of weight (1-2 lbs) can help consolidate the curd and produce a slightly drier curd, but this is optional. Here, I have used just a bit of hand pressure to consolidate the cheese. Plus, the weight of the cheese during the drainage seems to give me the texture I want.
Turn the curds as they drain and firm up. Doing this several times during the draining will keep the moisture even. The cheese is now ready to use and due to its high lactose (milk sugar not fermented) it will go "off" in just a few days.
The draining cheese should be placed in the refrigerator as soon as the whey drainage slows, but with a bowl underneath to collect the small amount of whey that continues to drain.
This is all pretty much the way it was done on the mountain pastures and it is still done today in the dairies of Belluno, as shown below.
Cooking the Schiz:
Okay, now I have made the cheese and it's time to get serious about lunch.
I met up with my Italian friend at another friend's home and he has his own traditional Cantina for making many great things there. Since he had a great old wood stove, my friend brought his dad's 'HEAVY' copper Polenta pan from Italy. So ... Polenta over a wood fire and fried Schiz done the traditional way ... Life is good! (Have I ever said I love my work?!)
We start with half a block of cheese I made from 2.5 gallons of milk the night before.
We slice it up to size for the pan.
Then, a bit of butter goes into the pan to melt along with a pinch or two of salt.
... Now, into the pan it goes. Much of that liquid is the whey cooking out of the cheese.
The smells of wood smoke and frying cheese is just ... so right!
Note how the cheese will soften but doesn't melt. Also the beautiful caramelization.
Finally, we pour in a little more cream, just in case there isn't enough butterfat.
This will make a great combo with it's cream sauce to go with polenta or even over some wide cut pasta like Pappardelle.
Now, do remember that this was traditionally eaten by folks who did a LOT of manual labor and walking, burning off tons of calories. They could probably eat this on a daily basis, but in today's world, even in Italy, it is a special treat.
Now for the polenta:
Polenta is a coarsely ground corn, typically used in this northern region of Italy as the major carbohydrate and can be anything from a base of simply ground corn and water to richer dishes with the addition of cheese, peppers, truffle oil, etc. It can be served directly from the pan or cooled and grilled for a greater depth of flavor.
A bit further south along the Po River Valley, the dominant starch is rice and further south it becomes wheat-based as in pasta.
This fried cheese can be served with any of these but here in the north it will be served with polenta.
With the wood fire throwing out a good amount of heat, one of the lids is taken off the wood stove and the heavy copper polenta pan is placed right over the open fire. Don't worry, Italians say that all good polenta needs to form a good crust, but just don't burn it.
Our basic recipe is:
- 3 cups of water for every 1 cup of polenta (coarse grind is our choice)
- Add about 2 tsp salt for every 3 cups of water
- Get the water boiling good then add the polenta slowly while whisking to keep it from clumping
- Let the fire die back a bit (or turn the burner down) to a low boil and keep stirring for 25-30 minutes
- If it thickens up a bit you can add more water
Once the polenta is finished, it can now be either served up or poured into a pan to cool, where it can be cut and reheated or grilled before serving.
Our fried Schiz in cream with Polenta is now ready and it is time for lunch.
Ah! The smell of wood smoke, fried dairy, and polenta ...
Have I said yet how much I really like my work !! YUM