Crafting Crescenza: This soft, buttery, spreadable Italian cheese is simple to make
Originating from the Po Valley region of Italy, Crescenza is a soft, creamy, lactic-curd cow’s milk cheese typically produced in summer.
It’s also called Crescenza Stracchino, or just Stracchino; its name derives from the fact that it was made from the milk of the “stracca” (tired) cows making their way up the mountains to summer pasture. The cheese is always eaten fresh—usually when it’s no more than a week old. Square in shape and 1½ to 2 inches thick, it has a texture similar to a young, mild Taleggio with a rind that’s barely begun to form, a mere thin skin holding the shape of the cheese. Classically shaped in a seven-inch Taleggio-style form, because of its softness the cheese either is kept in one slab or cut into smaller portions, then vacuum-sealed for protection. Two American artisan cheesemakers, Mozzarella Company in Dallas, Texas, and Bellwether Farms in Petaluma, California, make Crescenza by hand; BelGioioso in Wisconsin has larger-scale production of the cheese. Each version is a reflection of the local milk, the influences of Italian tradition, and the nuances of the cheesemaker.
Traditionally this cheese would be made with raw milk and allowed to ripen naturally overnight. My recipe for Crescenza has culture added to compensate for the use
of pasteurized milk; it’s then ripened for a short period of time. A small amount of rennet is also stirred in, resulting in a slightly firmer cheese than classic Crescenza.
Because this recipe calls for one gallon of milk, two four-inch square cheesemaking forms are used. For one seven-inch Taleggio form, you can double the ingredients.
First prepare and chill the brine: dissolve the kosher salt in the nonchlorinated water in a food-grade container. Chill to 55°F.
Over low heat, slowly heat the milk to 90°F in the stockpot. It should take about 20 minutes to bring the milk to temperature.
Sprinkle the starter culture over the milk, and let rehydrate for 5 minutes. Then, using an up-and-down mixing method, whisk the starter into the milk to incorporate. Cover, and while holding the temperature steady at 90°F, allow the milk to ripen for 30 minutes.
Add the diluted calcium chloride and incorporate using a whisk in the same up-and-down motion. Add the diluted rennet, and incorporate likewise. Cover and let set, off the heat, at room temperature (68–72°F) for 1 hour or until the curds are a solid mass and there is a clean break.
Using a knife or offset spatula, cut the curds into 1-inch cubes, and let rest for 10 minutes. The curds will be soft and fragile at this point. Stir very gently with a rubber spatula for 5 minutes to firm up the curds slightly. Cover, and allow the curds to settle for 15 minutes.
Place the cheese mat on the draining rack, with the forms on top. Gently ladle the soft curds into the forms; they should each end up about three-quarters full. Let the curds drain slightly, then lightly salt each with 1/8 teaspoon sea salt sprinkled on top.
Loosely cover the entire draining box with a clean, dry kitchen towel to keep the curds warm, and let drain for one hour at room temperature. The curds will compress by about one-third. Note: You will need to empty the draining box a few times as the drained whey reaches the bottom of the molds.
After one hour turn the cheeses over while in the forms and place back on the mat to further drain. Lightly salt each with 1/8 teaspoon sea salt sprinkled on top. Cover with the towel, and drain for one hour more. The curds will be about one-third the height of the form at this point and firm on the surface.
Remove the forms, and place the cheese in the chilled brine solution. Cover and let soak for 1½ hours, turning over after 45 minutes. Keep the brine cool, between 50 and 55°F; refrigerate as needed.
Remove the cheese from the brine, pat dry with cheesecloth, and place on a dry draining rack; cover with the cheesecloth and let air-dry at room temperature (68–72°F) for one hour, turning over once. Wrap thoroughly in plastic wrap or vacuum-seal, and refrigerate until ready to use. Best if used within one week. Bring to room temperature before serving
Written and photographed by Mary Karlin