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When chefs turn cheesemakers

Cheesemakers are no longer limited to fromageries; they are now in restaurant and cloud kitchens too

Making cheese in-house comes with its own challenges. (Istockphoto)
Making cheese in-house comes with its own challenges. (Istockphoto)

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In 15 years as a professional chef, Radhika Khandelwal says she has only recently made peace with the virtue of patience. And patient she certainly is, and needs to be.

Once a week, she hovers over a pot of gently simmering cow’s milk cream, constantly testing its surface temperature with her kitchen thermometer. She waits for it to reach the desired 190 degrees Fahrenheit and then acidulates it by adding a few drops of lemon juice. All this, to create the fresh, cloud-like, soft mascarpone cheese she has been making in-house for the last couple of years.

This batch of mascarpone will be used to top pancakes and waffles. A similarly produced ricotta is used for her eggplant moju. Dishes that feature on the menu of her restaurant Fig & Maple, which has outlets in Delhi and Goa.

Khandelwal is part of India’s new posse of de facto cheesemakers, who are emerging not from the many burgeoning artisanal fromageries but from restaurant and cloud kitchens.

Like the many culinary world epiphanies these days—be it the whole fermentation or sourdough waves—Khandelwal’s cheese-making foray, too, is a pandemic-necessitated one. Having picked up the nuances of cheese-making during her stint as a chef in Australia in 2008, she felt compelled to enter the fray. “It was from a commercial and sustainability standpoint that we took a decision to start making some of our own cheese. Making our own unaged cheeses versus buying on a commercial scale has cut costs to a fraction and gotten my team closer to understanding where our food comes from,” she says.

Focusing on unaged, fresh iterations like mascarpone, ricotta and cream cheeses like Gournay is a calculated move, chefs like Sagar Thite of Praia, Mumbai’s new rooftop lounge bar, tell us. “Whilst making your own ripened cheese is an acquired skill, with expensive infrastructure like mould-friendly dark, ageing rooms and other specialised equipment needed, making the creamy, unripened ones is a much easier process.”

For his part, Thite makes sure the herb-y, French Gournay cream cheese his team and he churn out—and use in appetisers like the jalapeño poppers and water chestnut dumplings—is top notch. They use fresh cow’s milk, supplied daily by a trusted dairy farm on the outskirts of Mumbai. “While important, for me, it is not always about saving money but knowing that I am feeding my diners with something that is made in-house and is preservative-free. Making one’s own cheese also does away with the reliance on oftentimes weak supply chains,” says Thite.

The unavailability of good cheese in Bengaluru was what propelled chef Manu Chandra of LUPA, launched recently in the city, to make his own ripened cheese varieties, like brie, havarti, bel paese and fontina, under the aegis of Begum Victoria. This artisanal cheese brand, also based in Bengaluru, was co-founded in early 2019 by Chandra, along with Shruti Golchha and Pooja Reddy.

In an earlier interview with Lounge, Chandra had spoken of the importance of raw materials, milk in this instance, for cheese-making. “The cheese is only as good as the milk. If you get milk from cows that are pumped full of antibiotics, that’s going to go into your cheese and interfere with the bacterial process,” said Chandra, referring to the 200 litres of fresh A2 milk (from grass-fed, free-range cows) that arrives daily from a farm near Hosur, on the Karnataka-Tamil Nadu border.

Today, his in-house cheese features on the menus of several restaurants across the country. He currently has the brie and bel paese of Begum Victoria on the menu at LUPA in the form of a three- or five-variety cheeseboard.

Getting Down to Basics
So, how exactly does one learn the art of cheese-making on a commercial level? For some, like Chandra, it is relying on the expertise of professional cheese-making consultants like Aditya Raghavan to help set up units. For others, it is making seminal guides like David Asher’s The Art Of Natural Cheesemaking and Gianaclis Caldwell’s Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking veritable “cheese bibles”, so to speak.

Add to the equation a plant-based cloud kitchen chef-cum-cheesemaker like Pune-based Anuradha Sawhney of Bombay Cheese Company and things veer towards an entirely uncharted direction. “Learning to make palatable plant-based cheese is an activity fraught with challenges and one that I picked up by trial and error of experimenting,” says Sawhney, a former chief functionary and head of Indian operations at the animal rights organisation PETA. “My biggest challenge has been getting the taste and texture of my plant-based cheese to be as close to dairy cheese as possible. It’s important to ensure that the cheese melts, grates, slices and also tastes good. So that it can replace dairy cheese in the many plant-based dishes on my cloud kitchen menu, like lasagnes, cheese pakodas and burgers,” she says of her dairy-, soy- and nut-free cheddar and mozzarella that uses rice flour and rice bran oil.

For the traditional dairy cheese-making chefs, the challenges range from “dealing with adulterated cream and trouble with curds not setting or splitting after being set," as Thite rues, to keeping things all-vegetarian. Khandelwal says this becomes an issue when sourcing the hard-to-procure vegetarian rennet, as opposed to the traditional one derived from the stomach lining of goats or chicken gizzards. “In fact, the traditional cow’s milk topli nu paneer—that’s a cross between a mascarpone and a burrata—used to be made only with animal rennet. But now vegetarian rennet is the way to go,” says Khandelwal of the hyper-regional Parsi cottage cheese (available mostly in Mumbai and Surat) that she will soon add to her in-house cheese repertoire.

In-house cheese at Fig & Maple
In-house cheese at Fig & Maple

Make mascarpone at home
Recipe courtesy chef Radhika Khandelwal

1 litre heavy cream
One-fourth tsp tartaric acid or 2 tbsp lemon juice

In a double boiler, gently heat cream to 190°F. Use a thermometer to avoid overheating. While the cream is heating, dissolve tartaric acid in two tablespoons of water or add lemon juice directly in the cream. Once the cream has reached 190°F, remove from heat and add the tartaric acid solution/lemon juice. Whisk for 30 seconds. Allow the cream mixture to sit for five minutes, stirring occasionally. The cream should coat the back of a spoon.

Place a colander in a bowl and line the colander with the cheesecloth. Pour the coagulated cream into the cloth and let the whey drain for one-two hours or until the desired consistency is achieved. Spoon the mascarpone into a storage container and place in the refrigerator to chill. As it chills, it will continue to thicken a bit. The mascarpone can be stored in the fridge for up to one week.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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