07 Aug Historic Westphalia Cheese with Caraway from the Genesee Country Village & Museum
Mrs. Jones has made a fresh Westphalia cheese from some of her leftover buttermilk. Unlike a hard farmhouse cheese meant to age and last for months, fresh cheeses like cream cheese, slip-coat cheese, and this Westphalia cheese were meant to be eaten within a few days of making it.
Text & Recipes by Deanna Berkemeier + Photography by Goor Studio
Located in Mumford, NY, just 20 minutes outside the city of Rochester, Genesee Country Village & Museum is the largest living history museum in New York State. Spanning the entire 19th century, and then some, means that there is a never-ending array of things to see and do during a visit, and among them are our three working historical kitchens.
Each day the historical cooks demonstrate the preparation or preservation of foods that may have been eaten in that particular family’s home at that particular time in the seasonal cycle. Each season provides new foods to work with while others may be lacking. As spring changes to summer, we lose the asparagus, and wild foraged strawberries, morels, onions, and ramps (leeks) of the woods, but we gain the full bounty of fresh milk, cream and butter, along with crisp and juicy young carrots, tender lettuces, sweet green peas, succulent cymlings (summer squashes) and slender green string beans.
Since we strive for historical accuracy here at GCV&M, when planning what the historical cook will be preparing each day, in addition to the seasons, much attention is also paid to the date of the home and flavors of that specific period, the tools and techniques a housewife had access to, as well as the family’s cultural background and station in life. In our Hetchler family pioneer log house, we demonstrate the subsistence lifestyle and cooking of the early German settlers in the wilderness of western New York before the Erie Canal opened up the Genesee Country to more goods from far away. Our rural Jones family demonstrates life on a fairly self-sufficient farm just a few years after the canal has come through, and shows how the farmwife also contributed to the household economy with her excess production of butter and cheese. The wealthy and well-connected Backus family lived in a city mansion with a hired cook at a time of great change and upheaval in the country with the issues of temperance, abolition, and women’s’ rights at the fore, and changes in the times and ways people sat down to eat.
As enough land was cleared and decent barns and fences were built, a farmer was able to make the leap from mere subsistence farming to a more settled, prosperous, and self-sufficient farm. He now had the means to purchase and properly maintain a dairy cow or two, keep a few cattle for beef, grow and store more crops than they needed just to survive, and perhaps hire a farmhand for himself who would bring along a spouse to provide a little cooking and laundry help for his wife.
The task of caring for and milking the dairy cows fell to the already busy farm wife and daughters. It was believed that cows gave “better and more milk when milked by the gentle hands of a dairy maid” rather than the big, rough hands of a man. On average, a single cow could produce around 3 gallons of milk a day from about May through October, which made for a lot of nutritious butter, sour cream, buttermilk, and cheese to expand the family’s diet. Many a farm wife helped supplement the family economy in a small way by selling their excess butter and cheese to proprietors of local stores or trading them for other necessities. With the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825, the market for a farm wife’s excess production exploded and her skill at making good quality butter and cheese became all the more important.
“Westphalia cheese is a skimmed milk cheese, and is a remarkable instance of how much the quality of cheese depends upon the manufacture. It is described by some as being preferable to the Dutch, Swiss, and even Parmesan cheese. The cream is allowed to remain till the milk beneath is subacid; it is then removed, and the milk placed near a fire to coagulate. The whey is next expressed from the curd, which is dried and crumbled between the hands. It remains for several days until the putrid fermentation commences; but this is stopped by kneading it into balls with carroways, salt, butter, pounded pepper, and cloves. Sometimes these balls, or little cheeses, are hung up in the smoke of a wood fire.”
A modern version of the recipe is below!
Variations: Although this is a modern adaptation of a historical cheese, you don’t have to stick with the historical flavors. The salt is necessary but feel free to skip the butter, pepper, caraway, and cloves, and zest it up with some grated orange or lemon peel, Mediterranean herbs, or just keep it simple by amping up the pepper. Experiment with different flavors. This cheese is quite versatile.
2 quarts cultured nonfat buttermilk (see step 1 below)
1 to 2 tablespoons butter, softened
1/2 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper, or to taste
1 tablespoon caraway seed, or to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves, or to taste
1 flour-sack towel or 3 to 4 layers of fine cheesecloth
- If you can’t find nonfat buttermilk, you may substitute low-fat buttermilk. Choose cartons that have a date the closest to expiration that you can find so there will be plenty of active culture in it. The cultures in the buttermilk approximate the cultures found in non-homogenized raw milk, left to slightly sour, and then skimmed.
- Begin in the evening: Pour the buttermilk into a medium-size oven-safe bowl. Place in the center of the oven, and set the temperature for 200°. Leave the milk uncovered in the 200° oven for 8 to 10 hours or overnight.
- The next morning: Line a large sieve with a dampened flour-sack towel or 3 to 4 layers of fine cheesecloth. Set the lined sieve over a large bowl. Gently pour or scoop the now mostly solidified mass into the cloth-lined sieve, and let the whey drain through the cloth into the bowl below for about 30 minutes.
- Next, gather up the cloth at each of the four corners with your curd inside. Holding the excess cloth in one hand just above the curd, twist and squeeze the curd firmly into a ball to squeeze even more of the whey out of the curd. Open the cloth and break up the ball of curd. Reserve the whey to replace the water or milk in your next bread-baking or add it to soup. It still contains lots of protein and other nutrients. Transfer the curd to a small bowl. You should have approximately 2 cups of curd.
- At this point you may either proceed with the recipe or cover the curd lightly in the bowl with your whey dampened cheesecloth and refrigerate for 2 to 3 days in the uppermost shelf of your refrigerator to age a bit and develop more flavor.
- When ready to proceed: Uncover the curd and mix in the salt, 1 tablespoon of the softened butter, the black pepper, caraway and cloves. Mix and knead everything together well, adding the last tablespoon of butter if needed to make a good paste; mix until it will hold together in a ball. Divide and roll into bite-size or larger balls. Roll in additional caraway seed if desired.
- Serve immediately or store in the refrigerator until ready to serve. Will keep a few days in the fridge or can be smoked to keep longer, if desired.
Photography by Goor Studio