For some, those back-to-school commercials instill an insatiable hunger for ballpoint pens and protractors. For us, that instinctual need to buy supplies this time of year usually means we wind up trying out a new kitchen experiment or two. And so we're already stocking up on powdered thermophilic starter (used to make Italian and farmstead cheeses) so we can try that Romano cheese recipe (p.110) in Mary Karlin's fantastic new cookbook, Artisan Cheese Making at Home.

The beauty of this book, to be released later this month, is in the thoughtful organization and plain-speak recipes. So many of those old school cheese books are the sort of Lactobacillus-covered academic manuals that you imagine chemistry geeks toting around in their backpacks. But here, Karlin eases propionic bacteria (a culture used to add a nutty, buttery flavor to many Swiss-style cheeses) novices into cheese making with an initial chapter on the basics, from ingredient definitions to visual demonstrations of cooking the curds to separate the whey. And then she gets into the really good, oozy stuff.

The second chapter, “Beginning Cheese Making,” begins with simple recipes for fresh, unripened cheeses (mascarpone, panir, and both an easy whole milk ricotta and traditional whey ricotta using the whey leftover from making other cheeses) and cultured dairy products (butter, crème fraîche, yogurt). They're followed by easy culture-ripened cheeses (cottage cheese, chèvre, fromage blanc) and “simple salt-rubbed or brined cheeses” (feta, halloumi, ricotta salata). And that's just the beginning cheesemaker's chapter.

Soon, you'll be moving on to stretched-curd cheeses (mozzarella, provolone and other cheeses that require a taffy-like stretching stage) and semisoft, firm and hard cheeses (Edam, Gouda, Gruyère). The final “More Advanced” cheese making chapter takes you into the world of bloomy-rind and surface-ripened cheeses (Brie, Camembert and the like), as well as “washed and smeared” rind cheeses (ale-washed Trappist cheddar, Époisses and Morbier).

The book ends with a chapter dedicated to recipes featuring that homemade smoked mozzarella (eggplant fritters with roasted tomato-herb sauce) and crème fraîche cottage cheese (serve on grilled cumin flatbreads with tomato-ginger chutney). We're envisioning publishing and literary agent sorts proclaiming that surely recipes will make this a more accessible cheese primer for the home cook. In other words, that final chapter is a perfectly lovely, if somewhat expected and superfluous, glossy cookbook ending.

No matter. We'll be busy spending the next 6 weeks focused on aging our precious little pyramids of ash-covered Valençay.

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