A Very Special Cheese
with the addition of Saffron
and Black Pepper


A cheese that is every bit as exciting for your eyes
as it is to your mouth!

This month we focus on a variation of a Sicilian sheep milk cheese using the aromatics and intense color of saffron, along with the spiciness of some whole black peppercorns, EXCEPT that we will make it using a cows milk instead of sheep milk.

This cheese will be similar to the traditional basket style cheese made in Sicily, except it has some spicy additions and a shorter aging for a moister and more mellow cheese.

If you make this one now it could be ready for that midsummer Italian Festa or the 'al fresco' Supper you will be planning for July or August
(if you weren't, you just might be when you see this one).


The inspiration for this months cheese is from a cheese called Piacentinu Ennese, a hard pressed ewes milk cheese from the mountains of central Sicily. Since ewes milk is so hard to find here, I have adapted it for making with cows milk.

This cheese is quite similar to many of the basket cheeses made throughout the south of Italy, and the name takes its origin from the dialect word “piacenti” that means ”cheese that is liked”... 'piacentinu' from Sicilian 'piacen+ti', i.e. they like.
Ennese refers to the province of Enna and thus Ennese is Italian meaning from Enna.

So what's not to like about a cheese that says
"everyone likes me!"?

What makes this cheese so special and unique is the color and flavoring from the addition of both local saffron and black peppercorns to the cheese body during molding.

Both the saffron and whole black peppercorns (pepe nero) move the cheese onto the 'Rock Star' pedestal since they both blend so well with the milk and curds.

In my research for this one I have noted that it is a cheese that holds a higher price than other similar cheeses from the area. The price for the regular ewes milk cheese seems to run about 7Euro per Kilo whereas this one fetches double at 14Euro per Kilo (but still cheap by our standards of specialty cheese here in America).


A Bit of History:

This cheese is by no means a new cheese. Legend has it that the cheese goes back to about 1100 AD, when the Norman king of Sicily asked local cheese-makers to start producing this cheese because he believed that saffron caused an uplifting, anti-depressing effect. He intended to serve the cheese to his wife. Pepper, a rare and precious spice, was also added to the cheese because it was popular ingredient in the Sicilian Court.

Traditionally, it was made with raw milk and produced on small farms with their sheep milk. The Saffron is also a product local to this area as well. These small farm productions also used natural bacteria from the ripened milk (no culture addition just the milk) as well as their own natural rennet produced on the farm.
Today, the production can be quite large and the cheese can be made from pasteurized milk, but the process is still quite similar except that lab produced bacteria is added and a commercial rennet is often used.

The Cheese:

The cheese is traditionally made in reed baskets, but commercially they are using plastic forms to replicate the basket patterns. The ewes milk cheese has a rather nutty flavor, a beautiful lemon yellow color studded with the black pepper, and a very characteristic sheep milk texture. It normally shows the distinctive design of the basket and the light/dark patterns from brushing in the cave.

The typical cheese is about 14 to 16 inches in diameter and weighs between 13 to 26 lbs. The cheese has a soft rind, a fragrant, compact and yellow paste, and a delicate, savory flavor.

One of the most unique parts of the process, other than the spices, is the finishing of the cheese post molding.
After a brief molding of the curds in the cheese form, it is dropped into a vat of hot whey (170F) to finish the cooking (the Second Cooking), very unique to southern Italy. This tends to tighten up the body of the cheese into a nice compact cheese. More on this here.

The Spice:

Saffron is most often considered to be the spice of India, best known for it's saffron rice, but Sicily and Spain (Paella) are both known for the spice and its use in cooking. It is one of the most expensive spices in the world due to the intense amount of work for the small bit that grows. It is harvested from the saffron crocus and is only the tiny stigma that grows in the center of the flower (that little spiky bit in the center of the flower). It is then dried to preserve itself. Saffron is best known for its color, an intense red in its native form, that turns to an amazing gold yellow color when added to other foods such as rice, or in this case, milk. It also gives off a somewhat subtle but fabulous aromatic I tend to associate with fresh dried hay but with more piercing floral aroma. I was initially a bit skeptical as to how notable this flavor would be in the cheese but was truly amazed on first taste in the young cheese. The character of the saffron seems to travel well in the cheeses base and a very happy combo.

The Black Peppercorn addition is one that I have always loved in a cheese. I use this often in my Vacha Toscana cheese as well. The milk/curd seems to transform that spicy pepper to a much milder aromatic flavor in the direction of citrus. You will also find this common in the Romano style cheese as well. The cheese seems to mellow this flavor to go perfectly with the saffron.


A Recipe for Making your own Saffron Infused Cheese

If you have read this far, you should now have the idea that this is a very special cheese.
It is not one for the beginning cheese maker, but for someone who has more experience in the concepts of cheese making.

However, for those not up to the challenge quite yet, read on because it is just such a great cheese and you will be introduced to several new concepts in cheese making.

For those that are willing to take this cheese project on, I suggest you read through the entire process at least twice before you begin, and especially grasp the concepts of first and second cooking and perhaps the why of it all.

The make is for a 4-5 gallon cheese because it ages better in the larger size. If you would like to make the smaller 2 gallon size, just cut the additions by half.

Before you Begin:

You will need:

  • 4-5 gallons of whole milk (Not Ultra Pasteurized)
  • Some of our AromaB and ThermoB culture
  • Liquid Rennet
  • Salt
  • A good thermometer
  • A knife to cut the curds, and a spoon or ladle to stir the curds with.
  • LargeMold-M2 or our new M21 mold and 1-2 ricotta baskets M232, M332, or even M222
  • Butter muslin to line the molds
  • Draining mats to allow the whey to run off from the molded curds.
  • A small weight (8-12lbs) to apply sufficient weight for consolidation of the curds.
  • Calcium Chloride for any pasteurized cold stored milk
  • Some Saffron (.5-.75grams) plus
    whole Black Peppercorns (~1Tbl.) (both of these need to be toasted)

Everything needs to be clean and sanitized.


Acidifying and heating the milk:

Begin by heating the milk to 80F, then add 1/4 tsp of each culture (AromaB and ThermoB).
If using raw milk, the culture can be reduced by 25-40%.
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.

This lower ripening temperature for the milk and both cultures will be optimum to allow the 'aromatic' portion of the AromaB to begin working most effectively. This will provide a little gas production to produce a more open texture in the final cheese.
Allow the milk to ripen quietly for 60 min. at this temperature.

During this 60 minute time, prepare your saffron (~ .6 to 1g) by toasting slightly, then grind about half of the toasted saffron to a powder .. leave the rest as whole strands and set aside to add directly to the curds with peppercorns later.


toast the saffron and grind half of it to a powder leaving the other half as whole strands for late addition

When ground saffron is ready, add it to about 1/2-1 cup of your warm milk. This will begin to pull the color from the saffron and will be added to the milk at the end of the first 60 minute ripening time.

Toast the peppercorns and set them aside (leaving them whole) to add to the curd later when molding.
Also, during this rest period, get another pot of water on the stove and heat it to just off the boil. This will be used to heat the curds again once they have been cut.

When the milk has ripened for the 60 minutes, add the saffron infused milk to the main milk batch and then bring milk up to 95F (for ThermoB) before rennet addition.
This higher temperature will now be optimum for the ThermoB culture blend and yet still allow the acid producing portion of the AromaB to do its work as well.

Once the saffron infusion is added to the milk it will change from a pale white to a light golden color. As the process continues and whey separates from the curds, the color of the curds will darken a bit more and then when the cheese dries in the cave it will change again to a bright yellow color.


Note the difference in color after adding the saffron infusion

The milk now needs to be kept at this target temperature until it is time to increase for cooking the curds. Again hold the milk with culture quiet at this higher temperature for the next 30 minutes to allow the culture to begin doing its work. It will be very slow initially but will soon kick into its more rapid rate of converting lactose to lactic acid.


Coagulation with rennet:

Once the milk has been ripened, add about 2ml (slightly less than 1/2tsp) of single strength liquid rennet.

The milk now needs to sit quiet for 45 minutes while the culture works and the rennet coagulates the curd. You should notice that the milk begins to thicken at about 18 minutes but continue to wait for the full time. The thermal mass of this milk should keep it warm during this period. It is OK if the temp drops a few degrees during this time.


Cutting curds and releasing the whey:

When full coagulation time is up, make sure you test the curds for a proper firmness before cutting. If the curds are soft give them another 10 minutes to firm.

This cheese is typically a medium to early ripener, so the curd will be a bit larger to hold more moisture n the final cheese. The final cut will be to a maize(corn) to hazelnut size.

Begin 1st cut by making a series of vertical cuts about 1" apart, and then again at right angles, so as to form a checkerboard in the surface, leaving a mass of 1" columns of curd. Then allow this to rest for about 5 minutes while whey begins to rise in the cut.

The 2nd cut will be to break the cut columns into the smaller pieces ... smaller pieces for a drier cheese and longer aging. For this cut you can use a flat ladle or spoon to cut them horizontally. I use a tool based on the Italian 'Spino' which looks much like a large whisk with thin wires... actually that is what mine is with a long handle added to it. Remember to go slow at this point because the curd is still quite fragile. Once the 2nd cut is complete allow it all to sit for another 5 min. while the fresh cuts heal a little.


Next stir for 5-10min until curds firm and float freely. Then allow the curds to settle and remove about 1-1.5 gallons of whey (leave about 2" above the settled curd), then give the curd a gentle stir before allowing them to settle to the bottom .


Cooking the Curds
The First Cook :

The next step will be to begin drying out the curds by removing some whey and adding back hot water.

Begin by removing some of the whey (about 1-1.5 gallons) and transfer this to a another pot and begin heating this for Ricotta (yes, you are now making two cheeses!)

Next begin adding simmering water (180-185F) to the curd a little at a time to increase the curd temp evenly over the next 10-15 minutes for a cook temperature of 102-104F (If using raw milk target a final temperature of 95-102F would be better). Compared to other cheeses of this style this is a shorter cook period and it will be reflected in an earlier ripening cheese with more moisture.

As you add the hot water continue to heat the whey you removed for making ricotta.
As the temperature of the cheese curds reach their final temperature, the final curds 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 slight resistance when pressed between the fingers.


The curds for cheese in the big pot, the whey for ricotta in the smaller pot
Note that as the curds are heated, more whey is moved to the ricotta
until only about an inch of whey remains above the ricotta

Let the curds settle and remove all of the whey down to about 1 inch above the curds and transfer it to the ricotta pot.

Now add about 1/2-1 tsp salt to the whey now heating in the ricotta pot remember to stir this frequently as it heats. Using a heavy bottom pot will help keep it from scorching.


Forming the cheese:

The curds are now ready to be transferred to the form which should be ready with its cloth and sanitized. I have also divided the saffron up into four groups (1 for each layer to be added) because it will be so hard to handle later with wet hands. This way I can distribute each group evenly over a layer of curds.


everything is now ready to begin molding. note the separation of saffron for each layer.

Begin by placing a layer of curds into the mold followed by a layer of peppercorns, another layer of curds, a layer of saffron , another layer of curds, etc. until its full. Finish with a final layer of curds. This may take a little logistical work to get it even throughout the cheese but I think you get the idea. It is also best to keep the layer additions away from the edges. Peppercorn near the edge tend to leave openings for mold to enter the cheese and maintenance becomes more work.


layering the curds, saffron and black pepper, finishing with the last layer of curd on top.

The curds should now stay warm due to their thermal mass but ladling some warm water over them will help if the cheese room is cool. Normally for the larger traditional cheeses, the weight of the cheese would be enough pressing weight but since we are making a smaller cheese, I add the weight of 1 gallon (about 8 lbs.) of warm water to consolidate the cheese body. After 20 minutes I remove the cloth and turn the cheese in the mold. We are not finished yet but the cheese can rest for the next hour or so until we take care of our ricotta. The thermal mass of the cheese should keep itself warm for awhile gradually cooling 104F>>>95F as it rests and consolidates. Meanwhile we will tend to the Ricotta.


keeping the cheese warm and adding a bit of weight for consolidation


Back to the Ricotta:

By now the whey for ricotta should be running about 170F, if not turn the heat up and stir until the correct temperature is reached. At about 170F the whey proteins are just getting ready to come into play but we need the acidity to be increased by using a little citric acid.

Fresh Sweet Whey + Heat + Acidity = Great Ricotta

The acidity can now be increased with the addition of Citric Acid. Adding about 1/4-3/4 teaspoon of Citric acid dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water. The more acid you add, the greater yield your Ricotta will bring you but the richness will be a bit leaner. If you add too much acid, the proteins will clump and sink to the bottom or even just not form at all.

Once you add the acid you will see the small flecks of proteins beginning to form together. Minimal stirring at this point now as you heat to 185F.
If you stir too much the air will be driven from the protein clumps and this will sink to the bottom and cook into hard little bits.

Once the whey reaches 185F, turn off the heat and allow the proteins to rise to the surface (the air trapped within should bring it up). Let it rest for 10-15 minutes until you see a nice cap of Ricotta floating. The ricotta molds should be sanitized and ready for the ricotta.
Using a slotted spoon or ladle, gently transfer the ricotta to the molds on a draining surface and set them aside to cool.
As soon as they drain they should be refrigerated and be used within a week.


the ricoota and saffron cheese in their baskets.


Finishing the Cheese
the Second Cook:

Oh but we are not done yet. The cheese still needs some attention. It still has some work for the culture to do. Traditionally, the hot whey was used for this after removing the Ricotta. By the time all of the Ricotta had risen to the top and been transferred to the baskets, the whey temperature has dropped to 165-170F, perfect for heating our cheese.

Return to the cheese resting in its form and turn it one more time into the basket, then take the cheese in the basket and drop it into that hot whey.

Leave it sitting in the whey for another 3 hours. During this time the cheese will slowly heat through and rise to about 108-112F before cooling slightly while the whey cools to about 112-120F at the end of the 3 hours. This leaves the cheese in a condition where the Thermophilic bacteria are happiest so they can finish their chores (converting lactose to lactic acid).
Its an ancient method practiced in southern Italy and Sicily for probably several hundred years and part of the reason the cheese has the textural character it does.


recooking the cheese in hot whey for 3hours ... a very traditional process! ... it saved on firewood.

At the end of this time the cheese is removed from the whey and turned in the basket and allowed to reshape itself on the draining table for another 15 hours, turning once in the basket after about 2-3 hours.
During this time, the culture is still working.


Salting:

The morning after making this cheese it should be ready for Salting.
Traditionally this would have been a dry salting process but I prefer to simply brine it here using a saturated brine at about 2 hours per pound of cheese.

The cheese will float above the brine surface so sprinkle another teaspoon or 2 of salt on the top surface of the cheese.
Flip the cheese and re-salt the surface about half way through the brine period.

At the end of the brine bath, wipe the surface and allow the cheese to surface dry for a day or two before moving it to the aging room. The surface will darken somewhat during this time.


the cheese just out of the brine and then after a day of air drying.
note the darkening of the rind as it dries as well as the brightening of the yellow.

NOTE: If you would rather dry salt the cheese, begin with about 3% salt (by cheese weight) and apply the salt to top and sides over the next 2-3 days until it as formed its brine and been absorbed by the cheese.


Aging:

This cheese traditionally develops a natural rind. For a cheese as firm as this one, the task is as simple as providing the proper temperature, moisture, and airflow. The cheese should be placed into your aging space at 52-56F and 80-85% moisture.

The cheese can now be aged for about 3 months but will develop more character as it ages up to about 4-5 months.

As mold begins to appear use a medium bristled dry brush or cloth to remove the mold as it forms. Initially this should be checked every day or so. As the rind dries down, mold is less of a problem and the frequency of maintaining it becomes less. A light surface application of olive or mineral oil will keep the surface easier to maintain


The cheese finished aging in my cave space here for the next 3-4 months.


April 9 Beyond the Basics -- Sold Out
June 11 Beyond the Basics

Jim Wallace has been our technical resource for a number of years now, teaching and answering our technical questions. He is also the person who researches, develops, and writes our recipe pages every month. He is an expert photographer, a great teacher and a wealth of knowledge.

For a more hands on and personalized experience in cheese making, Jim Wallace our Technical Guru offers several workshops at various levels to answer your questions. Each workshop is designed to work through the process of making 3 very different cheeses to explore as many phases of cheese making process as possible in the 2 day sessions. You will gain the knowledge & experience to apply not only to the cheeses made during the session but to many other cheeses in the future. This is because the study approach is the Why and How of the many individual concepts in each process and not just a set of instructions or written recipes.

His years of experience in working with cheese makers both here and in Europe plus his many years at the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese (VIAC) program at University of Vermont will prove to be a helpful resource for you to move your cheese making to the next level

The workshops are kept small to provide time for every ones questions.

Imagine spending the weekend with a group of other cheese makers from all over having wonderful lunches together w/ plenty of cheese to taste. At the same time immersing yourself in the cheese process while getting all of your questions answered.

Anyone that has been here before will agree that it is possible to have 'Uber' Fun while learning a lot.




More Recipes

Jim Wallace
May 2016


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