The obvious choice cheese-wise for lunch is a piece of shrink-wrapped string cheese. Pretty mundane. In the spirit of keeping with our week's theme of great contenders for lunch boxes, we're profiling something far more compelling, but along the same vein: Armenian string cheese, speckled with black caraway seeds, infused with one of the most obscure spices around, and with strings so long they put those stubby cheese sticks to shame. Read on for more info and a critical tip on how to best string this unusual snack.
This string cheese is a pasta filata, meaning "pulled curd," cheese, and is made just like mozzarella, like any American-style string cheese. Curds become elastic when heated, and then they are then stretched, pulled, and twisted into a rope, and doubled over itself.
This special version is made from pasteurized cow milk, and along with a speckle of black caraway seeds throughout, there is one other unique addition: mahlab, the ground seed of an Iranian variety of sour cherry. Mahlab is a spice used in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, particularly in breads and baked goods.
You'll taste the caraway seeds more than anything, but don't expect a straight-up caraway flavor; these black seeds taste surprisingly like cumin. Very savory and unique. Tasting very much like mozzarella, with a bit higher acidity and a pleasantly squeaky chew, in a lunchbox it would be most welcome. But perhaps this twisted cheese may feel most comfortable on a meze platter, among olives, pita bread, and other Mediterranean snacks.
There is one trick to stringing the cheese into the longest threads possible. Don't start stringing while the cheese is still twisted! Untwist the entire rope first, which is more easily done without breaking if the cheese is at room temperature. Twist each end in opposite directions and wiggle the ends around and through the center to unknot. Then just channel your inner grade-schooler and start pulling the cheese apart into strings. If serving for a group, you can leave the cheese in various widths, so that people can partake in the stringing.
This cheese originates in the the Armenian town of Aleppo (or "Halaby" in Arabic), but most that I've seen are made state-side by Armenian producers. It's sold in pieces that weigh about three-quarters of a pound, and when strung, make quite a hefty pile.
Armenian string cheese can be found at Middle Eastern markets and at Parthenon Foods for $7.99 each.
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a Cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City, where she continues to teach cheese classes for the public. She is currently an assistant chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
(Images: Nora Singley)