That’s what my siblings and I would screech as our grandparents’ car pulled up the driveway of our Delaware home. Our watch began long before their scheduled arrival, the thrilling stakeout on the other side of “Are we there yet?”
We were excited to see them, but also the packages filling their arms as they unloaded the car — bags of New York deli foods driven the 135 miles between their house and ours. Our semirural neighborhood — and probably the entire First State — had no place to buy great bagels and cream cheese and lox, pastrami or rye or sour pickles. Even if there had been a good deli, unwritten laws said New York’s was best.
Today, most cities have plenty of options for great Jewish (or Jewish-style) deli food. Even more remarkable, people have plenty of options for making these foods in their own kitchens. Author Cathy Barrow found her local bagel map as holey as mine when growing up in Toledo, Ohio, but she completely decoded the keys to homemade foods in her recent cookbook, “Bagels, Schmears, and a Nice Piece of Fish” (Chronicle Books, $24.95). Developing recipes for all those brunchy delicacies let her carry on her own family traditions and go beyond, channeling the legacy of the “Balaboosta” — Yiddish for a skilled homemaker.
I already was familiar with the concept of a fine homemade bagel, a breakthrough that Barrow attributes to the wide availability of high-gluten flour, among some other tips. But I was completely charmed at the concept of homemade cream cheese. Most packaged cream cheese contains gums and stabilizers, and I’d never thought it was a candidate for amateur cooks. Turns out it’s like an extended crème fraîche recipe, with a creamy feel and tangy taste. Really, all it requires is a thermometer and some planning, as it takes two to four days to culture the mix of milk, cream and buttermilk.
Just knowing it’s possible provides some Balaboosta-level confidence, especially in this era of occasional Philly cream cheese shortages. Former Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson and I had brunch together before talking with Barrow on her Seattle book tour earlier this year — Nancy made the bagels; I provided the schmear. My grandparents would have been astounded at the homemade feast, but they absolutely would understand investing time and effort on the best deli food around.
BALABOOSTA CREAM CHEESE
Use the very best dairy you can find: organic, certainly, and from a local farm would be ideal. Cream-top milk makes beautiful cream cheese. You’ll need a threadbare cotton or linen towel or a double layer of fine cheesecloth and some twine, as well as a place to hang the cheese as it drains. Allow 4 days for culturing and draining.
2 cups whole milk
2 cups heavy cream (not ultra-pasteurized)
½ cup full-fat buttermilk
¼ teaspoon kosher or fine sea salt
1. In a 3-quart or larger saucepan over low heat, bring the milk and cream to 75°F. Remove from the heat, and gently stir in the buttermilk.
2. Cover and wrap the pan in a clean tea towel, and place it in a warm, draft-free spot to culture the mixture. (If your kitchen counter is made of stone marble, or some other cool-to-the touch material, place the pan somewhere else.) In about 24 hours, a small amount of whey should separate from the curd, which will become thick like Greek yogurt. If there seems to be mostly liquid under thick cream, the culturing has not finished. This step can take as long as 36 hours. The firmer the curd, the easier the next steps will be.
3. Once the culturing has finished and you have a thick curd, line a colander with the tea towel or a double-layer of cheesecloth, and place the colander over a large bowl. Transfer with a spider strainer, or slowly pour the cultured cheese into the colander, and let it drain for 30 minutes. There should be about 1 cup of whey. Reserve for another use, or discard.
4. Gather the towel or cheesecloth by all four corners, turning one corner around to knot into a pouch. Bind a length of kitchen twine around the knot. With the twine, tie the pouch securely to a cabinet handle, faucet handle or any place it can be suspended over a bowl. This setup uses gravity to drain the rest of the whey from the cheese. Place a bowl under the pouch, and let it drain for 8 hours. The ideal temperature for the space is 78°F — if it’s cooler, it might take longer for the cheese to form. If it’s warmer than 85°F, the cheese will spoil.
5. After 8 hours, place a large piece of plastic wrap or wax paper on a cutting board. Untie the pouch, and scrape the cheese onto the covered board. The cheese should be smooth and thick and hold together; it will firm up further in the refrigerator. If it is still liquidy in the center, return it to the towel, retie the pouch and hang it for another 2 to 6 hours.
6. Add the salt to the cheese, and use a flexible bench scraper to incorporate it. Salt helps extend the cream cheese’s life. It will dissolve through the cream cheese, so only a couple of folds will do. (Note: Make sure it’s incorporated, though — I thought it could use a few extra folds.) Use the plastic wrap or wax paper to form the cheese into a log or a block. Chill for at least 8 hours. The cream cheese will keep for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator.