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A stretching experience

Stretch, twist, stretch again, fold, turn, relax. While this could sound like a yoga routine or a post-exercise cool down, it can also be a description of the way I form and finish up my homemade mozzarella. 

Or at least, it’s supposed to be. It is every time I make it at home, when no one is watching and counting on beautiful fresh cheese. But last week, with a dozen people paying rapt attention, of course things had to go very differently. 

I used to teach lots of cooking classes as part of my job, so when I was asked by the local recreation committee to teach a cheese-making class, I was all for it. I love teaching, and my goodness I love cheese and any excuse to make and share it. 

Growing up, I was used to my mom making lots of things at home, like bread, yogurt, granola, etc. But the idea of making cheese never crossed my mind — that is, until I married a dairy farmer and moved close to the family farm. My dad always worked for non-profits, so there was a “milk quota” in our house, especially during the teenage years with two brothers; it was such a shock to my system to have a 2,000 gallon tank of milk at my disposal that my dairy creativity lost its cap. (Although “at my disposal” is not exactly how Brian would describe its availability, that’s how it felt to me.) 

Suddenly I realized there are lots of things I could make, with a little investment of time, trial and error, and “free” milk. Let’s just say it’s even easier now that we live in the farmhouse and I can walk right across the lane with my kettle of milk, instead of requiring Brian to drive countless gallons of milk home. It’s a good thing his pickup is trash anyway, because those couple milk spillages did not make things better. 

So I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being able to experiment with and expand on my dairy repertoire. But mozzarella remains one of my favorite cheeses to make, partially because it’s so familiar and so delicious, but also because it’s just plain fun. Making cheese always has its tangible “wow” moments — cutting the curd, realizing you just made cheese, eating your masterpiece — but mozzarella also offers a uniquely tactile experience. It’s one of the types of cheese you have to actually stretch and pull, and that process is strangely spellbinding. I’ve had to train myself to stop long before I feel done, so that the mozz stays creamy and soft, instead of letting myself go to town and stretch it until it releases too much whey, losing that distinctive texture. 

All that to say, the stretching is the best part of homemade mozzarella (except for the eating). I feel like I have perfected the process over years of making it, so I was shocked and mortified in class when I reached into the pot of whey to pull out the stretch-ready mass of cheese...and came up with handfuls of crumbly little curds. No matter what I tried in order to fix it, that cheese was not about to stretch and string and form. The only thing I can figure out is that I pasteurized the milk for class in case anyone was squeamish about raw cheese.

But if I’ve learned anything from teaching cooking classes, it’s that people are generally so kind and forgiving. I hate to give them opportunity to prove it, but all I can do is own up to my mistake, rename the dish, and feed them something else delicious.

And if I’ve learned anything from making cheese, it’s that you can still eat flops. In fact, out of the slew of cheeses I brought to try, the class voted the failed cheese (dubbed “mozzacotta”) the best-tasting of the bunch.

Marinated Mozzarella Bites

I can’t give you a recipe for homemade mozzarella due to its length, but I can give you a way to use store-bought fresh mozz. Though of course I’m very partial to homemade, any cheese will shine when given a treatment like this! These flavor-packed cubes can be a fancy appetizer, or a make-ahead easy after-school snack. Serve alone, with crackers, and/or on skewers with cherry tomatoes and fresh basil. 

Prep tips: you can use whatever herbs and spices you want, but you do need to use fresh mozzarella, instead of “regular,” so that it can soak up the flavored oil. 

1 pound fresh mozzarella, cut into 1-inch cubes

1 t salt 

½ T lemon juice

2 garlic cloves, sliced

any combination of fresh or dried herbs

peppercorns and red pepper flakes to taste

olive and vegetable oil

Dump the seasonings and herbs into the bottom of a wide-mouth glass pint jar, fill the jar halfway with cubed cheese, shake it to distribute the seasonings (lid on!) and add the remaining cheese. Slowly pour some of both oils into the jar until it covers the mozzarella. 

Lid tightly, shake, and chill. Allow to marinate for at least one day, rotating/shaking every so often to integrate the flavors. Bring to room temperature before serving.

Amanda Miller lives with her husband, almost-two-years-old son, and whoever else God brings them through foster care on the family dairy farm in Hutchinson. She enjoys doing some catering, teaching cooking classes, and freelancing, but mostly chasing after her kid(s). Reach her at