Saturday 24 August 2013

Easy Maas (Amasi) Drained Cheese with Capers, Radishes & Herbs

A creamy, delicate white cheese that's incredibly easy and inexpensive to make. I'm excited to share my recipe with you, and hope you'll try it, because it's so versatile and delicious. I've used a beloved Southern African staple ingredient - amasi, or maas, a soured/fermented milk - to create this drained cheese, and combined it here with some spiky contrasting flavours.

Easy Maas (Amasi) Drained Cheese with Capers, Radishes & Herbs
Radishes, capers, lemon zest, olive oil and salt contrast with the
delicate milky flavours of the maas cheese.  I've used rocket and parsley
 seedling leaves from my garden to strew over the cheese. 

If you're fed up with paying through the nose for cream and cottage cheeses, you'll love this method of making your own soft white cheese at home. A two-litre bottle of amasi retails for around R25, so the cheese shown in the picture above, made from a one-litre bottle of maas, will set you back about ten rand.

I can't understand why amasi doesn't feature more prominently in restaurant dishes or, for that matter, in workaday South African recipes. Full-fat maas is a superb local ingredient: it has a light, tangy taste, it's pleasingly creamy, and it has many well-documented health benefits

Easy Maas (Amasi) Drained Cheese with Capers, Radishes & Herbs
The shiny slick visible at the top of this beautiful plate is not
 olive oil, but a brush-mark of fired-on, glassy glaze, placed there for a
 specific reason by my uncle, master ceramicist David Walters. More about
 this towards the end of this blogpost!  

Amasi also has multiple uses in the kitchen. You can use it in place of natural yoghurt (my obsession this year!) in many dishes: it's a good tenderising agent in marinades for chicken and red meat, it's lovely in raitas, salad dressings and creamy dips, and it's useful for dolloping at the last minute into curries and similar spicy stews. I always add maas to fruit smoothies, and often whizz it up with frozen cubes of fruit to make instant ice cream.

It's also an excellent alternative to buttermilk and/or yoghurt in scones and quick breads: the best scones I've ever tasted are made with maas: you can find the recipe for Irene Ngcobo's legendary feather-light scones here, on my Scrumptious Facebook page.

If you're wary of maas because it sometimes has a slightly lumpy texture, don't worry! The long draining process produces a beautifully creamy, smooth-textured cheese, all on its own, without any need for stirring.

You can lightly knead this cheese (once it has finished draining) with salt, pepper, garlic, herbs and any other zippy flavours you fancy, but I think it's best just as it is, with all the bells and whistles served on the side of the plate. I love the contrast of the delicate milky-bland flavours and a few crunchy/sour accompaniments, mashed together under a fork with plenty of fruity olive oil and flaky sea salt.

Try it, also, with ribbons of honey and a scattering of toasted flaked almonds or pistachios, or with stewed grapes or baked figs.  Or roll the cheese into balls, coat them with pepper and marinate them in olive oil, rosemary, garlic and similar sunny Mediterranean flavours (see picture below).

Easy Maas (Amasi) Drained Cheese with Capers, Radishes & Herbs
Maas-cheese balls rolled in pepper and smoked
paprika, and marinated in olive oil, garlic and rosemary.
  Plate by David Walters

There's nothing mysterious about this recipe: it's a basic drained cheese, similar to a Middle-Eastern labneh. If you're not in Southern Africa, you can make this using Greek yoghurt (here's my recipe for a garlicky, herby yoghurt cheese).

Finally, a note about the beautiful black plates in the pictures above. My uncle David Walters, master potter of Franschhoek, works closely with some of South Africa's top chefs to produce bespoke dinnerware for their restaurants. He's designed these matte black plates with great care and attention, brushing a slick of shiny glaze right across its middle  Why? Because he doesn't want your fork to make a nasty scraping fingernails-on-blackboard noise as you clear the plate.

Which brings me to a little grumble. As I may have mentioned on this blog before, I can't bear good food served on rough slate roof tiles, a gimmick that has spread like a black fungus all over the restaurant world. (I was annoyed to see this fad eagerly reproduced by contestants on the latest series of South African Masterchef, along with the ubiquitous spoon-dragged 'swoosh' of sauce, or what I like to call a Plate Skidmark.) There are many studio potters in South Africa producing the most beautiful hand-made dinnerware, and I wish restaurateurs would support them, instead of buying their 'crockery' at builders' yards.

My feeling is this: if you're going to spend a lot of time and effort making exquisite, flavoursome food, please dish it up on a spotlessly clean, unchipped, smooth piece of porcelain, preferably a shining white or black plate with a lip  - or crafty concave surface - to prevent your jus from sliding off the edge.

Easy Amasi Drained Cheese with Capers, Radishes & Herbs

a litre of full-cream maas (I use Inkomazi brand)
baby herb leaves, to garnish
finely grated zest of half a lemon
Maldon flaky sea salt
freshly milled black pepper
1 cup (250 ml) small radishes, halved
4 Tbsp (60 ml) baby capers
4 Tbsp (60 ml) fruity extra-virgin olive oil
a squeeze of lemon juice, to taste

Line a large sieve with a closely woven cloth. I use a fine, clean cotton dinner napkin, but a brand-new J-Cloth (one of these) or a laundered dish cloth/tea towel will do just as well. Avoid waffle-textured cloths, however.

Place the cloth-lined sieve over a big bowl and pour in the maas.  Let it sit, undisturbed, for about 10 hours, or overnight.

The clear whey will drip into the bowl below, and it will also soak right to the edges of the cloth. Don't stir or scrape at the cheese: let it drain at its leisure.

Gather up the edges of the cloth, twist them tightly together and secure with an elastic band.

Hang the bundle over a bowl, or suspend it from a tap over the sink, for another 12-16 hours, or longer, if you'd like a firmer cheese. The longer you leave it, the dryer and denser it will become. If you don't have a tap like the one shown in the picture below, hang your cheese from a broomstick placed across the backs of two facing chairs, or a similar rig.

Easy Maas (Amasi) Drained Cheese with Capers, Radishes & Herbs
Hang the cheese up until you're
 satisfied with its texture.  
If you're going to hang it for longer than two days, or the weather is very hot, it's best to finish the draining process in the fridge. If your fridge has wire racks, clip the knot of the cloth to the rack with clothes pegs, and place a bowl underneath. If your fridge has glass shelves, you will have to hang the cheese in the coolest place in your house.

Tip the cheese out of its cloth onto a plate. Alternatively, you can press it firmly into a mould of some sort - a little bowl, or perhaps two small ramekins - a few hours before you serve it, and then unmould it onto a plate.

Scatter over the baby herb leaves and lemon zest, and season generously with salt and pepper. Arrange the radishes, capers and any other accompaniments around the cheese. Generously douse the cheese with olive oil, and finish off with a good spritz of lemon juice.

Serve with melba toast or crackers, or with celery and carrot sticks if you're on a low-carb eating plan.

Serves 4-6 as a snack.

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Kit said...

Thanks, Jane-Anne, now I know what to do with Amasi! I once bought it by mistake and hadn't a clue what to do with it.
I'll have to give this a go and see if the kids will eat it for a healthy school snack - i expect it would be nice with slightly acidic fruits as well

Anonymous said...

This cheese was delicious! And absolutely no trouble to make. Thank you. I will make it again and again. I did feel the olive oil was a bit too strong, so did not use it, but the salt and capers were lovely - I mixed the capers into the cheese. Mmmmm.

I've also used a bit of amasi, added it to goat's milk, until I had goat's milk amasi I suppose, and my goat's milk cheese is almost finished...

Jane-Anne said...

@Kit: Thank you for your comment

@Anonymous Thanks for the feedback! I am just besotted with olive oil poured over everything, but I can quite understand why you left it out. I think I will try adding some goat's milk to my next batch, to give it that... erm... goaty flavour.

Gaby866 said...

oh shucks i have just found the method... so sorry.. please ignore my other comment and I am right now on my way to the Spar to get Maas :)
thanks for this wonderful recipe

Artvark said...

Any tips what to do with the left over whey drained from the maas cheese?

Helen Brain said...

great recipe J-A. And you can use the leftover whey for bread making - full of protein.

Michele said...

I am going to try this one on holiday next week! Thanks, it looks awesome. By the way, I completely agree with you on the crockery point. The plate that the food is served can really change the flavour of the food. Like champagne drunk from crystal tastes different to that drunk from glass. I am working on recipes for a cookbook, and want to start my own restaurant in two years time, and will definitely be looking at local hand made furniture, crockery and decor.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the drained cheese technique! Love drinking amasi, much to my wife's disgust - going to make this cheese to win her over once and for all.