A happy childhood memory: dancing in our living room by the piano to tunes played by Paul Garabedian, dear friend of my parents during those years. He was an incredible improvisor (and silent film accompanist) who would tinkle out tunes that suggested “nations of the world”– Chinese and Japanese and Italian and Rockabilly, and I’d dance my little interpretative dances in a frenzy of 5 year old glee. These sessions went on for hours– or so I remember, or wish to believe.
Early on I had a sense that Armenia was a place in the world that people came from. And String Cheese. String Cheese came from Armenia, and was a favourite snack you could buy in small grocery shops in Philadelphia. It came in twisted, rubbery ropes with slight bitter and pungent whispers of Nigella seeds, and you’d pull off a hunk, and then a strip, and the strip you’d pull in half, and that half you’d pull in half, until your bits to eat got thinner and thinner and then when you tired of playing with it, you ate it. But it could always be shred further. Like one of Zeno’s Paradoxes, or something.
This is a wonderful food, delicious and pleasurable to play with and eat, and if you asked me what I miss most about living in the US, one thing might actually be Armenian String Cheese. (I’ve never seen it in the UK– maybe it’s available in a specialist deli in London?)
Well lo-and-behold I was searching for something in Ana Sortun’s Spice: Flavors of the Eastern Mediterranean and out from a page popped a recipe!
This is a wonderful book of contemporary Middle Eastern style recipes with really clever twists, and I refer to it often. I learned about the book from visiting the author’s cafe on the border of Cambridge, MA, just on the bus line from my dearest friend’s apartment in Belmont. Sofra Bakery has an incredible array of snacks and pastries and is located in a fabulous old Art Deco garage. Really worth a visit.
Sortun’s method for making string cheese is remarkable in that she starts from “curds” rather than milk. I was happy to be able to use the inexpensive mozzarellas from Lidl which are the best bet possible in my area (though I’d love to be able to find a local and organic source).
Following her method, I chopped up just over a pound of cheese (5 packets = rougly £2.40) in small pieces, added a tablespoon of nigella seeds (Kalonji) and two teaspoons of salt.
I then began to melt these over low heat in a pan.
I was amazed how, as the cheese melted, so much liquid came out! When all the cheese was a mass, I strained it of the fluid (to be reserved for….not sure yet…).
This is the stage at which the shaping takes place. Sortun instructs to form a ball then make a hole inside, like a donut, and working quickly, stretch its mass int0 a large l00p. ( I couldn’t take photos at each of these stages. ) As you work, keep stretching. Twist each side of the loop in opposite directions, like a rope. I’m not sure I quite did it correctly, but it d0esn’t seem t0 matter. Keep stretching and winding. “The m0re you stretch, the stringier the cheese will be.”
“Twist the ends of the cheese in opposite directions and intertwine the rope into a braid. Place one end through the loop of the other t0 lock it.” I d0n’t kn0w if this is what I did to get what the picture below shows, but it was close enough for a first try.
I was very pleased. I let it sit in a cool place for an hour, then sampled it. First, take a hunk. Then, split the hunk. Then, shred the split of the hunk. Then tear further the shred of the split of the hunk. Then divide the tear of the shred of the split of the hunk. You get the idea.
Via Ana Sortun, I have learned a DIY version of the Armenian cheese I so loved in my Philadelphia childhood here in my middle-age in Mid-Wales. And feel a bit thrilled about this!
Just as a side note, this is what my kids have come to think of as “String Cheese,” or rather, Cheese Strings, and I very occasionally will buy these for them when they beg, so they are in for a happy surprise (I hope).