I'm not afraid of mold. And you shouldn't be either. Because sometimes, it can be a really, really good thing. And I have the proof to show it, thanks to a little experiment that just took place in the back of my cheese drawer, after I forgot about a wedge for a few too many weeks.
About a month ago, a more pristine version of this ricotta salata sat on a shelf in my refrigerator. It wasn't entirely unscathed by mold, but it wasn't nearly as enrobed as the above photo shows. And so, at that moment, rather than throw it away, I swiftly sliced the offending green speckles off the cheese and took a taste.
The cheese tasted like an entirely different version of itself. Ricotta salata is mild. Milky. Totally unobtrusive, in an often boring, or at least non-conversational kind of way. There's not much to say about it. I like it for salads, I suppose, or crumbled atop roasted vegetables, but that's pretty much it. And in fact, that's probably why it can last long enough in my house to even develop mold. I'm just not that into it.
But this forgotten piece tasted different. It tasted of something. Of cheese. Because sometimes ricotta salata just tastes of salt, or milk. But I find that it lacks a cheesy complexity.
And so I decided to age it. Just let it sit. See what might develop. I've been tempted to cheat and take a taste, but I really wanted a hefty amount of time to pass.
Fast forward one month later and then, just yesterday, I delved into it.
And man is this old cheese good. It smells of a cave. It's intense. It's earthy. It nearly smells of dirt, in a really pleasant way.
Readers: Do this to ricotta salata. It's reminiscent of becoming a home brewer or a keeper of sourdough starters. It's as if this hefty coat of mold enclosed the sad, bland cheese inside and forced it to mature into something even greater. It tastes of milk and fungus and saltwater. I ventured into the moldy rind and even liked it, though it had an intense finish, a bit too acrid. The texture is dry like ricotta salata, but not overly so. In fact, I'm not quite sure how it didn't dry out completely.
In truth I'm not sure how many cheeses could handle this kind of home-aging. You'd have to start with a low-moisture cheese, that is, one with a bit of age to it from the get-go. Young bries and fresh goat cheeses wouldn't work, because they'd develop bad mold. But ricotta salata is aged for about 2 months before it goes to market, and sometimes more. So it works well. Clothbound cheddars might be interesting to play around with, or mountain cheeses. I plan to do some experimenting. But first I have to forget about some cheese in the back of my cheese drawer.
Nora Singley used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop. Until recently she was a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show. She is currently a freelance food stylist and recipe developer in New York.
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(Image: Nora Singley)