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26 Mar

Calzones at last – This past Saturday, a long-cherished dream of mine finally came true: I made calzones. Those of you who were around for Operation: Stromboli may recall that the plan then was originally to make calzones, but I was thwarted by the inability to procure the all-important ricotta. You may also remember that the only Namdaemun cheese seller my wife could find who actually knew what ricotta was said, “Why would you want to buy that when it is so easy to make?” And that I scoffed at his ignorance, haughtily claiming that making real ricotta was no simple feat. I stand by that claim, of course, but I am now ready to admit that you can get really close with very little effort.

“Who cares what it looks like as long as it tastes good, right?”

The wheels started turning as I was making my way through the Big Hominid’s Hairy Chasms (not quite as terrifying an activity as it sounds—but close) one day. He had linked to a blog post by Jelly, who had made “mock ricotta” following a recipe she had found on ZenKimchi, a recipe that in turn had been inspired by (this is what I love about the internet—those trails of links that lead you to awesomeness). Had I not seen the photos with my own eyes I would not have believed it, but there it was: a creamy white cheese that bore a strong resemblance to ricotta. I decided that I had to try this for myself, and I already knew exactly what the ricotta was going to be making: my culinary holy grail.

The process really is as simple as it is described on ZenKimchi. I started with two liters of whole milk and 500 ml of fresh cream. These went into a stainless steel pot (which ZenKimchi says is not the best but better than aluminum... I wonder what the best material for cheese-making pots is) and onto low heat. Just before the milk started boiling I added the acid and turned off the heat. The ZenKimchi recipe calls for the juice of one lemon, but I went with three tablespoons of brown rice vinegar instead. I was a little concerned about the cheese being too sour, but that turned out not to be a problem at all.

It was pretty amazing watching the milk begin to curdle as soon as I stirred the vinegar in to make sure it was evenly distributed. Being the impatient sort, I dipped a spoon in to see how it was coming along. There were definitely curds, but it was still rather liquid on the whole. I decided to let it sit for a while. I left the pot there and went downstairs to start the dough. Once the dough was in the machine I commenced grating about 500 grams of mozzarella. By the time I was done with that it was time to go up and check on my curds and whey.

Bet you were starting to think there weren’t going to be any photos, huh? Now that would be a tragedy. It’s just that nothing exciting had happened yet, that’s all. I do have a number of photos I took of the milk after the vinegar went in, but watching milk curdle is up there next to watching paint dry in terms of excitement (although, in retrospect, I think the curdling probably happened very quickly, and what happened during the resting period was simply the separation of curds and whey). This photo here is the mixture right before I began straining it. It may not look like much, but that is all curd on the top there, and it is quite thick. At about one o’clock (the position, not the time) you can see a disturbance in the mixture—that’s where I dipped a spoon in to see how thick it had gotten and was surprised to see that the whey beneath the curd was completely transparent, if a bit yellow-tinged.

ZenKimchi says that the straining is the hardest part, and I would have to agree, considering how insanely easy the first part is. But fortunately I had a cheese cloth, so it was just a matter of putting a strainer in a bowl, lining it with the cheese cloth, and dumping the mixture in. That’s what we have in this next photo.

One thing I should mention, just in case you’ve never done this before (like me): don’t try to squeeze the whey out. The curd will just start running out of the cloth (yeah, I tried it). But if you let it sit for an hour or two, you will end up with something like this next photo.

That still may look somewhat liquid, but it’s actually quite solid and creamy at this point. I let it sit for a little longer while I went downstairs to take the dough out of the machine and shape it into eight circles.

This is where I made my first (and only, really) major mistake. I floured the dough circles, but I guess I didn’t flour them enough, and they ended up sticking to the wax paper. But I was pretty pleased with my efforts at the time.

This is the ham, which was the third major ingredient to go into the calzones (in addition to the faux ricotta and the mozzarella). What you see here is one kilogram of ham—a little less than half of this ended up going into the calzone filling mix.

I remember a time, back when I first came to Korea, when I would pine for some good old American ham. That was before I discovered what you see above, Nambu Ham. It is tender, juicy, and flavorful. In my opinion it is among the best (if not the best) ham you can get in Korea, imported or domestic. Only the finest ingredients for my cuisine.

Here are the ingredients that went into the calzone filling. You can see here just how solid the faux ricotta is—very smooth and creamy. Even before I added any salt, it tasted amazing. There was no sour taste at all from the vinegar—apparently the vinegar ends up as part of the whey, not the curd. It would be difficult to compare the taste to real ricotta, since it’s been so long since I’ve had the latter, but suffice it to say that it was very good. So good that I will be looking for any and every excuse to make it again very soon. Heck, I could make a batch and eat it plain. That’s how good it is.

The ricotta ended up being so solid, in fact, that by the time I added all of the mozzarella (which was probably similar in weight to the ricotta, even though it looks like significantly more here) I couldn’t stir the mixture with a spoon anymore. I had to don disposable plastic gloves and stir the whole mess by hand.

That’s how I ended up with what you see here (the green flecks are parsley). We’re looking at approximately a half kilo each of faux ricotta and mozzarella and probably close to 400 grams of cubed ham. That’s a lot of filling. I looked at the size of my dough circles and wondered if I was going to fit it all in. Not that having some leftover would have been a tragedy—just smear some on a slab of bread and throw it in the oven and you’re all set.

Of course, as I mentioned before, the dough circles ended up sticking to the wax paper. My nice, even dough circles were now quite uneven. With Hyunjin’s help I reshaped them as best as I could and began piling the stuffing on. I folded the dough over into half-moon shapes and then carefully sealed the edges. I must say that I did a very good job of sealing the edges. Of course, this turned out not to matter too much, as you’ll see shortly.

This is actually the second batch of calzones; I was in such a hurry to get the first batch into the oven to start baking that I didn’t have time to snap a photograph. But I had some breathing room after the second batch was done, and took this “before” photograph.

And this is the aftermath. As you can see, none of the seams burst—but just about everywhere else did. There are a number of reasons for this. For one, the shells ended up being a bit too thin in some places because of the whole sticking-to-the-wax-paper debacle. Secondly, the cubed ham appears to have punctured the shell in places with its pointy corners. Thirdly, and most importantly, I just jammed way too much filling into the shells. Most of the calzones I have eaten have had air pockets between the filling and the top of the shell. There were no such air pockets in my version, just calzones busting their guts and oozing their cheesy innards out all over the place.

Fortunately, after a cooling period of a couple of minutes the cheesy innards solidified enough that it was a rather simple matter to scoop them up along with the calzones. I plated them and arranged the innards on top as elegantly as I could, as if that was the way it was supposed to be.

Apparently my ploy worked. This is Hyunjin’s calzone from the first batch, and the only calzone that didn’t burst. I decided to take a picture of this one because I thought it looked the nicest (you know, not having any holes or anything), but my father-in-law said, “How come Hyunjin’s doesn’t have any cheese on top?” I confessed that this was how they were supposed to come out, and my mother-in-law said, “I think they look better with the cheese on top.” So it all worked out in the end. And besides, who cares what it looks like as long as it tastes good, right? I very rarely manage to get both good looks and good taste out of my cooking, so I’m happy to just get the latter.

The sauce on the side, by the way, is the same marinara sauce I made for Operation: Stromboli, which is why there was no mention of it until now. Just not exciting enough to warrant photographing twice (and arguably not even exciting enough to photograph once, but I’m all for thoroughness).

This is my calzone about a third of the way through the carnage. My calzone had the worst hemorrhaging, which is why a good deal of the filling is on top of the shell rather than inside it. Still tasted great, though. As it turns out, one calzone per person (along with a salad) turned out to be plenty, and the remaining calzones (minus one I had for lunch today) are waiting for me in my freezer. Yum.

Now, I’m not one to rant about my own cooking. I enjoy talking about cooking, and I will give a fair evaluation of my own cooking when I think I’ve succeeded, but I usually don’t go on and on about it. This time, though, is different. Words just cannot describe how good the calzones were. I literally felt something leap in my soul when I put that first forkful into my mouth. It was the best calzone I’ve had in years. OK, fine—it was the only calzone I’ve had in years, but it was still awe-inspiring.

The reason I don’t feel too self-conscious about raving like that is because the secret of the calzones’ awesomeness was pretty much out of my hands: it was all about the faux ricotta. Rather than waste any more words trying (and failing) to describe how awesome it was, I refer you to the following graph, which succinctly displays the awesomeness-to-user friendliness ratio of various items.

I think that should explain things.

So, to sum up, despite taking massive casualties (seven out of eight of my calzones suffered from massive hemorrhaging), this latest culinary operation was a success. Most importantly, I have at long last fulfilled my dream of making calzones, and I can now rest easy at night.

I love to cook. I love to share my cooking with others even more. In that regard, today’s entry is about feeling good. So I want to leave you with a photograph that has nothing to do with calzones or cooking but everything to do with feeling good. It was taken the Saturday before last (the 17th) in Myeong-dong, Seoul. I don’t know if Hyunjin understood why I thought this was so awesome and why I had to get this photo, but she obliged.

It takes a certain amount of guts to stand out on the street and offer hugs to strangers, especially in Korea, where you’re far more likely to get stared at and photographed than hugged. But the willingness to open up and share yourself with strangers, well, that may be the only thing more awesome—and more user friendly—than faux ricotta. Unfortunately, you cannot stuff free hugs into calzones.

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