A creamy, delicate white cheese that’s incredibly easy and inexpensive to make. I’m excited to share my recipe with you, and hope you’ll try it, because it’s so versatile and delicious. I’ve used a beloved Southern African staple ingredient – amasi, or maas, a soured/fermented milk – to create this drained cheese, and combined it here with some spiky contrasting flavours.
|Radishes, capers, lemon zest, olive oil and salt contrast with the
delicate milky flavours of the maas cheese. I’ve used rocket and parsley
seedling leaves from my garden to strew over the cheese.
If you’re fed up with paying through the nose for cream and cottage cheeses, you’ll love this method of making your own soft white cheese at home. A two-litre bottle of amasi retails for around R25, so the cheese shown in the picture above, made from a one-litre bottle of maas, will set you back about ten rand.
I can’t understand why amasi doesn’t feature more prominently in restaurant dishes or, for that matter, in workaday South African recipes. Full-fat maas is a superb local ingredient: it has a light, tangy taste, it’s pleasingly creamy, and it has many well-documented health benefits.
|The shiny slick visible at the top of this beautiful plate is not
olive oil, but a brush-mark of fired-on, glassy glaze, placed there for a
specific reason by my uncle, master ceramicist David Walters. More about
this towards the end of this blogpost!
Amasi also has multiple uses in the kitchen. You can use it in place of natural yoghurt (my obsession this year!) in many dishes: it’s a good tenderising agent in marinades for chicken and red meat, it’s lovely in raitas, salad dressings and creamy dips, and it’s useful for dolloping at the last minute into curries and similar spicy stews. I always add maas to fruit smoothies, and often whizz it up with frozen cubes of fruit to make instant ice cream.
It’s also an excellent alternative to buttermilk and/or yoghurt in scones and quick breads: the best scones I’ve ever tasted are made with maas: you can find the recipe for Irene Ngcobo’s legendary feather-light scones here, on my Scrumptious Facebook page.
If you’re wary of maas because it sometimes has a slightly lumpy texture, don’t worry! The long draining process produces a beautifully creamy, smooth-textured cheese, all on its own, without any need for stirring.
You can lightly knead this cheese (once it has finished draining) with salt, pepper, garlic, herbs and any other zippy flavours you fancy, but I think it’s best just as it is, with all the bells and whistles served on the side of the plate. I love the contrast of the delicate milky-bland flavours and a few crunchy/sour accompaniments, mashed together under a fork with plenty of fruity olive oil and flaky sea salt.
Try it, also, with ribbons of honey and a scattering of toasted flaked almonds or pistachios, or with stewed grapes or baked figs. Or roll the cheese into balls, coat them with pepper and marinate them in olive oil, rosemary, garlic and similar sunny Mediterranean flavours (see picture below).
|Maas-cheese balls rolled in pepper and smoked
paprika, and marinated in olive oil, garlic and rosemary.
Plate by David Walters.
There’s nothing mysterious about this recipe: it’s a basic drained cheese, similar to a Middle-Eastern labneh. If you’re not in Southern Africa, you can make this using Greek yoghurt (here’s my recipe for a garlicky, herby yoghurt cheese).
Finally, a note about the beautiful black plates in the pictures above. My uncle David Walters, master potter of Franschhoek, works closely with some of South Africa’s top chefs to produce bespoke dinnerware for their restaurants. He’s designed these matte black plates with great care and attention, brushing a slick of shiny glaze right across its middle Why? Because he doesn’t want your fork to make a nasty scraping fingernails-on-blackboard noise as you clear the plate.
Which brings me to a little grumble. As I may have mentioned on this blog before, I can’t bear good food served on rough slate roof tiles, a gimmick that has spread like a black fungus all over the restaurant world. (I was annoyed to see this fad eagerly reproduced by contestants on the latest series of South African Masterchef, along with the ubiquitous spoon-dragged ‘swoosh’ of sauce, or what I like to call a Plate Skidmark.) There are many studio potters in South Africa producing the most beautiful hand-made dinnerware, and I wish restaurateurs would support them, instead of buying their ‘crockery’ at builders’ yards.
My feeling is this: if you’re going to spend a lot of time and effort making exquisite, flavoursome food, please dish it up on a spotlessly clean, unchipped, smooth piece of porcelain, preferably a shining white or black plate with a lip – or crafty concave surface – to prevent your jus from sliding off the edge.
a litre of full-cream maas (I use Inkomazi brand)
baby herb leaves, to garnish
finely grated zest of half a lemon
Maldon flaky sea salt
freshly milled black pepper
1 cup (250 ml) small radishes, halved
4 Tbsp (60 ml) baby capers
4 Tbsp (60 ml) fruity extra-virgin olive oil
a squeeze of lemon juice, to taste
Line a large sieve with a closely woven cloth. I use a fine, clean cotton dinner napkin, but a brand-new J-Cloth (one of these) or a laundered dish cloth/tea towel will do just as well. Avoid waffle-textured cloths, however.
Place the cloth-lined sieve over a big bowl and pour in the maas. Let it sit, undisturbed, for about 10 hours, or overnight.
The clear whey will drip into the bowl below, and it will also soak right to the edges of the cloth. Don’t stir or scrape at the cheese: let it drain at its leisure.
Gather up the edges of the cloth, twist them tightly together and secure with an elastic band.
Hang the bundle over a bowl, or suspend it from a tap over the sink, for another 12-16 hours, or longer, if you’d like a firmer cheese. The longer you leave it, the dryer and denser it will become. If you don’t have a tap like the one shown in the picture below, hang your cheese from a broomstick placed across the backs of two facing chairs, or a similar rig.
|Hang the cheese up until you’re
satisfied with its texture.
If you’re going to hang it for longer than two days, or the weather is very hot, it’s best to finish the draining process in the fridge. If your fridge has wire racks, clip the knot of the cloth to the rack with clothes pegs, and place a bowl underneath. If your fridge has glass shelves, you will have to hang the cheese in the coolest place in your house.
Tip the cheese out of its cloth onto a plate. Alternatively, you can press it firmly into a mould of some sort – a little bowl, or perhaps two small ramekins – a few hours before you serve it, and then unmould it onto a plate.
Scatter over the baby herb leaves and lemon zest, and season generously with salt and pepper. Arrange the radishes, capers and any other accompaniments around the cheese. Generously douse the cheese with olive oil, and finish off with a good spritz of lemon juice.
Serve with melba toast or crackers, or with celery and carrot sticks if you’re on a low-carb eating plan.
Serves 4-6 as a snack.