Making Syrian Cheese

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The time commitment demanded by a 2-month old baby drives the hobbyist cheese maker to cut some serious corners. Gone (for now) are the 8 hour days molding and flipping Camembert rounds. As are the 24-hour pressing times required of the Swiss-style alpine cheeses. My cheese making appetite would need to be satiated in other ways...

Enter Syrian cheese, also known as Jiben, a fresh, friable cheese--one of the easiest cheeses to make. Syrian cheese actually comes in many different varieties, one of which is sort of like a braided mozzarella, but the one I made is more like a salty Paneer, or Queso Fresco. It's got a very fresh, milky taste, with a firm but elastic texture. It's traditionally used in pilafs and pasta dishes, as well as omelets (edgehs), but it's probably also good with sweet dried fruit like dates, raisins or figs.

It couldn't be easier to make*. Bring 1 gallon of good-quality milk to 88° F. Gently stir in 1 tsp. of double strength liquid rennet, and let sit for about an hour, or until the curd firms up into a yogurt-like mass. Stir the curd with a whisk to break it up into pea-sized chunks. Let sit for another half hour, and then drain through a colander or basket lined with fine cheesecloth (butter muslin works well). Mix in 1 tbsp. kosher salt. Drain at room temperature for 12-24 hours, flipping the curd several times throughout to ensure even draining. After draining, sprinkle with another 1 tbsp. salt, cover and refrigerate for 1 hour. The finished cheese should keep for about a week in the fridge. 1 gallon of milk will make about a pound of cheese (your results may vary).

*Recipe adapted from Gil Marks' wonderful cookbook, Olive Trees and Honey: A Treasure of Vegetarian Recipes from Jewish Communities Around the World.