November is Innovation month for Fredericksburg’s 175th Anniversary and Fischer & Wieser is the sponsor, so in honor of that, I thought it would be fun this month to review some of the typical foods of the early Fredericksburg settlers or even just the old-timers like me. I am starting out with one you have heard of before – I covered it early on in my writings here – Kochkase. This special food item is worth revisiting because it is so unique, and I have revised and added some information which I think you will find interesting.
I have always been a milk lover – I still love milk, even better than wine. I particularly remember those little milk bottles we got in the cafeteria as children. Each had a bluish tint. Obviously, water had been added. Perhaps it was low fat or less than 2%. Having grown up drinking milk from our own Jerseys I knew how real whole milk was supposed to look and taste. I couldn’t drink what they gave us and quit eating in the lunchroom in the 1st grade. Milk wasn’t really a part of the human diet for a long time – prior to the 20th century it was felt that food born illnesses were caused by cows’ milk, but along came pasteurization and the whole world began to enjoy what I drank as a boy on a regular basis – well, sort of.
Meanwhile, cheese production predates recorded history, but there is no concrete evidence indicating where cheese-making first originated. Some say the earliest evidence was supposedly found in Poland and Croatia where dried remains suggest it had once been a cheese. These were apparently much like rustic cottage cheese or present-day feta. Salt was discovered to help preserve these mixtures in hot climates. Thus, it likely also existed 4,000 years BC in the grasslands of the Sahara. In areas with less salt those necessary microbes and molds presented new and interesting flavors. By Roman times, cheese-making was a done deal. But for Europe, that was just the beginning. The types and shapes of cheeses became regionalized and aged to perfection just as were wines. But also discovered, were ways to make some cheeses more quickly.
So, in fact-checking Friedrich A. Schubert’s first wagon train arriving here via the Pinta Trail on May 8, 1846, we can safely suppose that there were no cows accompanying our first pioneers. In fact, any milk cows found in Texas at that time produced only small quantities, and milking a Longhorn found meandering through the Pedernales Valley wasn’t even an option. It wasn’t until after the 1880s that the first purebred Jersey was imported into Texas. All this raises questions about the heritage of some popular local recipes—particularly that of making Kochkäse (cook cheese). It might also explain why no recipe was found in any Fredericksburg Home Cook Book until around its 9th edition when a section on Traditional German Recipes was incorporated.
Kochkase has largely fallen out of favor among many families and seems now to be an item stocked only at the Opa’s and Dutchman’s, probably due to the old-fashioned way of making it. Kochkäse was once one of my most favorite foods. And I am, of course, referencing the kind my mom made. She was still milking two cows every morning and evening until around the mid-50s. We had fresh, whole milk to drink every day. There were always large bowls of milk sitting on our kitchen counters. By evening there was enough cream to skim, bottle, and chill in our ice box. Not all the milk could be cooled. I really do not know how it was all disposed of, but we churned our own butter and used lots of cream on everything. We also drank lots of milk.
Because our house was not air-conditioned, those large bowls of milk left unrefrigerated would clabber, which meant it curdled and was undrinkable as such. Yet, that was a good thing because it was the first step in making cooked cheese. Hot Texas summers and warmed kitchens in winter were perfect for that. The new 175th Anniversary Fredericksburg Heritage Cookbook devotes two full pages to this old favorite which speaks to its bygone popularity. I don’t exactly remember it being made quite like it suggests, but the last edition of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book contained a recipe by Mrs. Edgar Kordzik which described it similarly.
Getting whole milk to clabber typically took 1 to 1 ½ days—maybe 2 and was done by setting out milk in large, dish pans and in an un-airconditioned room, generally covered with a kitchen towel. The time it takes for the milk to clabber from the lactic acid naturally being produced can take from 1-5 days, depending on the temperature and the bacteria within the milk. The cooler your kitchen—the longer it will take. When done, the milk will have congealed, or separated into curds and whey. (Remember the story of Little Miss Muffet eating her curds and whey?) This mixture was then heated over a low heat until barely warmed. My mother then poured hers into a Robin Hood flour cloth sack and then hung it out on our windmill—a clothesline will work too. There it was left to drip dry. This might take up to 1 or 2 days!
Brought back inside, the sack was turned inside out, and its contents emptied into a large bowl. Broken into smaller pieces, salt and baking soda were stirred in. The bowl was then covered with a cloth or loose-fitting lid and set it into a dark, warm, space for another 3 days where it “matured.” During this time turning (stirring) the curd daily helped. When the curd had become yellowish and glassy, smelled like cheese, and had acquired a bland taste, it was ready to make into Kochkase. Please note, the curd must be completely dry and crumbly at this point. This was now called Krimmelkäse. (crumbly cheese)
It was now ready for its final step. This generally involved a large, heavy-bottomed (cast-iron) frying pan in which this mixture was melted over a low heat with the addition of butter, soda, and salt. When it turned a creamy, bright yellow it was done. It was then poured into a Pyrex dish to cool and solidify. However, slicing thin pie-shaped pieces directly from the pan always tasted the best to me. Eating cooked cheese sprinkled with a little salt on a fresh slice of homemade bread was even better. Leftover cook cheese can be refrigerated.
Today, much of this is only a fond memory. However, one can go on-line and find many ways to implement shortcuts using additions such as rennet which is a complex set of enzymes produced in stomachs of ruminant mammals—those having specialized stomachs prior to digestion. On-line how-to sites can show one how to hasten the process. There were many steps once involved that would be prohibitive today or frowned upon by those in authority. Then again, few of us have a cow or even access to fresh whole milk, which is the milk that comes directly from a cow and contains, at most, 3.25% fat. All store-bought milk is pasteurized and cannot be used for making cooked cheese.
When our last cow died of natural causes, our cow-milking age came to an end. I think my mother put her milk bucket down and in so many words said, “no more!” She had reared 5 kids, milked from 2 to 3 cows twice daily, had baked bread every morning and had a hot meal ready for my father’s lunch daily for decades. Fortunately, for us, fresh whole milk was available for home delivery in the ‘50s. My dad relented and twice a week we had Ever’s Dairy deliver a gallon of whole milk to our doorsteps.
For many years, as I recall, perhaps all through the ‘70s, a lady, who obviously was still milking her own cow, wrapped her small packages of Krimmelkäse in Saran wrap and was selling them at Knopp and Metzger’s. This was great but imagine that being allowed these days! My mother bought a package or two every so often and, once again, made Kochkäse. It was so nice, but those days, too, are now gone. And just imagine the “cow” our health agents would have if that were even done today! There are many reasons we refer to these times as the good old days.
If one does not have time to do the whole, old-fashioned process or one’s cow has run away, here is a simple way to shorten it, and only one of many recipes for making Kochkase that are available and come within a mile of the old-fashioned method.
2 cups cottage cheese (no diet or fat free of any kind)
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking soda
½ teaspoons salt
½ cup whipping cream}
¼ cup real butter
½ tsp Caraway seeds – optional
Combine cottage cheese, flour, baking soda, and salt in a large mixing bowl. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 2 hours (preferably in a warm area) or until bubbly. Now combine this mixture, whipping cream, and butter in a 9-inch cast-iron skillet. Cook over very low heat, stirring frequently for about 25 minutes or until thickened. Remove from heat, and cool slightly. Serve with fresh homemade bread.
By Mark Wieser