Sunday, July 13, 2008

The wonderful world of milk

In my book the perfect desert is Middle Eastern specialty Künefe:

it is made out of very thin vermicelli -little worms in Italian- like pastry called kadayif, a specially flavored soft cheese and a light citrus flavored syrup. This soft non-salty cheese is hard to get in most parts of Turkey, and to eat a salty desert may turn this culinary ecstasy into a nightmare. This is what used to happen to me in Turkey when I ordered künefe in restaurants I didn't know. Surprisingly, the quality of künefe I ate in Berlin has been exceptionally good, which made me wonder. I mean how can the Berlin restaurant owners find this special cheese, and the most of them in Turkey can't?

The answer is they can't. But they use fresh mozzarella instead! Being a fresh cheese itself mozzarella fills all the requirements -except mahlab flavor- of a good künefe cheese.

Italian cheese substituting South Anatolian cheese! Well that is just another walk of life that binds people from different corners of the world, no matter how much some try to emphasize the differences in different people. I thought being the only mammal which consumes milk during adulthood, milk and dairy products deserve a post on my blog.

Milk is a emulsion of butterfat oil in water with protein and lactose sugar. In other words it has all the main nutrients in one.

An emulsion is a physical mixture of two insoluble particles in one another, just like mayonnaise. An emulsion needs an emulsifier agent that keeps the emulsion in equilibrium, %80 percent of milk proteins which are called casein serve this purpose. Casein is not water soluble is arranged in small balls of thousands of protein molecules called micelles. These micelles are all negatively charged, and thats why the casein does not clog and hang in water. Thats how you can have solid in a liquid substance.

Then there are whey proteins, which make up the %20 percent of the milk proteins. They are the water soluble type, and are a part of whey -peyniralti suyu in Turkish.

Lactose is composed of two simpler sugars glucose and gluctose. All the mammals can digest lactose during their infancy, but their ability to do so diminishes with age. Human cultures, which domesticated cows and sheep have evolved to be able to digest lactose in their adulthood too. East Asian cultures, which does not have a dairy tradition lack this genetic trait.

As I said there are 4 main components of milk. Butterfat, casein based non-water soluble protein, and whey which is water plus water soluble water proteins and vitamins. The dairy tradition/industry of different cultures have developed in order to separate these from milk. And there is only so much of combination you can do, that's why the same products are discovered over and over again in different cultures.

As it is a physical mixture, physical methods are sufficient to get the butterfat out of milk. Shaking it extensively gave the early dairy farmers all types of cream. Shaking it a little further, so that the butterfat balls loose their shape and solidify you would get butter. Let the cream spoil a bit and you would get sour cream. Add a little acid and heat to get rid of the remnant protein and whey to get mascarpone. If you are lazy, or a nomad like the Turks, you can also heat the milk and skim the butterfat on the top to get kaymak.

In order to get the milk protein, one has to coagulate or merge the casein micelles. The formation of micelles is very sensitive the acidity of the milk. Add a little bit of acid and the casein proteins go looking for other caseins like crazy. You can let the nature do this for you using bacterias who devour on the lactose sugar on a anaerobic -no oxygen- digestion to produce lactic acid, which is the same acid your own muscles produce when you're lungs are working overtime. If you use a special trait of bacteria originated in the steppes of Mongolia, where the Turks are coming from you get yogurt. Now being used for thousands of years and uncountable generations -did you know its only been 200 generations since the iron ages for humans?- these bacteria are professional lactose destroyers.

You may use other bacteria, which are not that good in eating up lactose, but then you need to help nature using nature again. To do this you have to add rennet enzyme ,which is obtained from the stomachs of young cows, to furhter coagulate the casein. What you get is fresh cheese like mozzarella or cottage cheese. If you pickle fresh cheese in salt water you get beyaz peynir or feta cheese. If you want to be able to store the cheese longer, you would have to get a more solid form, where heating and pressing helps, when you get all the other harder cheese you know of. If you let them wait longer, certain helpful bacteria will eat out the remaining lactose inside the cheese to further breakdown the casein, and give you my favorite cheese of all Grana Padano. If you are Swiss and bored, you may play around with the bacteria you use to treat your cheese, and find one that does aerobic digestion, and gives out CO2, to produce those lovely bubbled cheese. If you are French and into weird things you may add mold to your cheese so that your cheese smells ugly, but taste great. If you are Japanese you may shut down yourself from all this and eat sushi.

I forgot the Italians, who have an un-just share of good weather and good ingredients, and love for good food in this world. They could not throw away the whey part which still contained proteins. They heated it up, and added some more acid to get ricotta. Leaving the stereotypes to side, the main reason of trying to separate whey was because the whey disposal would kill the plants where it was disposed. Turkish have also came up with a similar product called lor cheese.

My next food related entry will be about the wonderful world of microorganisms which make delicious food like cheese, ham, sausagges, and fish sauce possible.


Tamar said...

So, where can you get the best Kuenefe in Berlin? Don't leave me like that! I really love it - I thought you had to use goat or sheep cheese? Guess I am wrong. In any case, it is a cake that must be fresh, which makes it difficult just to store, and where did you find a good one? (although I think I like the Arab/Israeli version better than the Turkish one, but the jury is still out - have to have more!).

Ahmet C. Toker said...

my favorite is served in baba-angora on schlütterstr. 29 in charlottenburg:

send my regards -ahmet from TU berlin.

Its not a problem getting the cake in Berlin -there are lots of pastry shops. I read that the Arab/Israeli version uses semolina rather than flour. I'd love to try the Arab/Israeli version. Can you get it in Berlin?

Great blog by the way!