Saffron Infused Cheese Info
Sicilian Sheep Milk Cheese
A cheese that is every bit as exciting for your eyes as it is to your mouth!
In this recipe we focus on a variation of a Sicilian sheep milk cheese using the aromatics and intense color of saffron, along with the spiciness of some whole black peppercorns, EXCEPT that we will make it using a cows milk instead of sheep milk.
This cheese will be similar to the traditional basket style cheese made in Sicily, except it has some spicy additions and a shorter aging for a moister and more mellow cheese.
If you make this one now it could be ready for that midsummer Italian Festa or the 'al fresco' Supper you will be planning for July or August (if you weren't, you just might be when you see this one).
Inspired by Piacentinu Ennese
The inspiration for this recipe is from a cheese called Piacentinu Ennese, a hard pressed ewes milk cheese from the mountains of central Sicily. Since ewes milk is so hard to find here, I have adapted it for making with cows milk.
This cheese is quite similar to many of the basket cheeses made throughout the south of Italy, and the name takes its origin from the dialect word “piacenti” that means ”cheese that is liked”... 'piacentinu' from Sicilian 'piacen+ti', i.e. they like. Ennese refers to the province of Enna and thus Ennese is Italian meaning from Enna.
So what's not to like about a cheese that says "everyone likes me!"?
What makes this cheese so special and unique is the color and flavoring from the addition of both local saffron and black peppercorns to the cheese body during molding.
Both the saffron and whole black peppercorns (pepe nero) move the cheese onto the 'Rock Star' pedestal since they both blend so well with the milk and curds.
In my research for this one I have noted that it is a cheese that holds a higher price than other similar cheeses from the area. The price for the regular ewes milk cheese seems to run about 7Euro per Kilo whereas this one fetches double at 14Euro per Kilo (but still cheap by our standards of specialty cheese here in America).
A Bit of History
This cheese is by no means a new cheese. Legend has it that the cheese goes back to about 1100 AD, when the Norman king of Sicily asked local cheese-makers to start producing this cheese because he believed that saffron caused an uplifting, anti-depressing effect. He intended to serve the cheese to his wife. Pepper, a rare and precious spice, was also added to the cheese because it was popular ingredient in the Sicilian Court.
Traditionally, it was made with raw milk and produced on small farms with their sheep milk. The Saffron is also a product local to this area as well. These small farm productions also used natural bacteria from the ripened milk (no culture addition just the milk) as well as their own natural rennet produced on the farm.
Today, the production can be quite large and the cheese can be made from pasteurized milk, but the process is still quite similar except that lab produced bacteria is added and a commercial rennet is often used.
The cheese is traditionally made in reed baskets, but commercially they are using plastic forms to replicate the basket patterns. The ewes milk cheese has a rather nutty flavor, a beautiful lemon yellow color studded with the black pepper, and a very characteristic sheep milk texture. It normally shows the distinctive design of the basket and the light/dark patterns from brushing in the cave.
The typical cheese is about 14 to 16 inches in diameter and weighs between 13 to 26 lbs. The cheese has a soft rind, a fragrant, compact and yellow paste, and a delicate, savory flavor.
One of the most unique parts of the process, other than the spices, is the finishing of the cheese post molding. After a brief molding of the curds in the cheese form, it is dropped into a vat of hot whey (170F) to finish the cooking (the Second Cooking), very unique to southern Italy. This tends to tighten up the body of the cheese into a nice compact cheese. More information on this can be found in step 8 of the cheese making recipe.
Saffron is most often considered to be the spice of India, best known for it's saffron rice, but Sicily and Spain (Paella) are both known for the spice and its use in cooking. It is one of the most expensive spices in the world due to the intense amount of work for the small bit that grows. It is harvested from the saffron crocus and is only the tiny stigma that grows in the center of the flower (that little spiky bit in the center of the flower). It is then dried to preserve itself. Saffron is best known for its color, an intense red in its native form, that turns to an amazing gold yellow color when added to other foods such as rice, or in this case, milk. It also gives off a somewhat subtle but fabulous aromatic I tend to associate with fresh dried hay but with more piercing floral aroma. I was initially a bit skeptical as to how notable this flavor would be in the cheese but was truly amazed on first taste in the young cheese. The character of the saffron seems to travel well in the cheeses base and a very happy combo.
The Black Peppercorn addition is one that I have always loved in a cheese. I use this often in my Vacha Toscana cheese as well. The milk/curd seems to transform that spicy pepper to a much milder aromatic flavor in the direction of citrus. You will also find this common in the Romano style cheese as well. The cheese seems to mellow this flavor to go perfectly with the saffron.