Fresh burrata
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"I have enough stuff,” said my aunt-in-law Cheryl when I asked her what she wanted for Christmas this year. “I prefer gifts I can eat or things to do.” I thought of cheese.

Cait Gunderson, cheesemonger at Venissimo (venissimo.com, three locations around San Diego, including downtown, 619-358-9081), told me that “truffle cheeses are really big during the holidays, and also aged goudas. We have a recipe for cheese fondue served in a pumpkin. We use a memoire cheese — that’s a younger truffle gouda — melted with wine and garlic. You can dip bread or veggies into it. Rolled cheeses and cheese balls are also good for the holidays. Our cheese is priced by the half-pound — typically around $17, but up to $40 for the specialty cheeses. Of course, you can get as much or as little as you want.”

Gunderson also referred me to Rob Graff, who runs Venissimo’s Academy of Cheese. “We do several cheesemaking classes,” said Graff, “though our primary focus is on cheese education: pairing and history.” The basic intro: “Cheese is a dairy product. It’s made from the curd, which starts out as milk. The three basic milks used are cow, sheep, and goat, though we do see buffalo milk once in a while. The milks vary in flavor, and there is more variance within the different breeds of each animal. Rennet, a natural enzyme from the animal’s stomach lining, causes the milk to coagulate into curds.”

From there, different classes descend into different details. “In our ‘Holiday Entertaining’ course [$50 for a 90-minute class, November 25], we do some Cheese 101–style education and then a lot of tasting. We show how to make festive cheese trays, and we’ll do things like take a log of chevre and roll it in different spices, or even in something sweet, like candy. Or we’ll take a wheel of Camembert and cut it horizontally, then spread truffle-mushroom spread in the middle, close it back up, and bake it. That’s amazing. We’ll show what accoutrements go with what cheeses — jams, honey, dried fruits, oils, vinegars. Balsamics, for example, go well with the Italian hard cheeses; parmesan and pecorino are two well-known examples. Another class coming up is our ‘Cheeses of Italy’ [$50, December 5]. We do a lot of history with that one as we go through the cheeses of each region. It’s a fun holiday outing — or gift.

“Our most regular cheese-making class” continued Graff, “is for fresh cheese [$50 for a two-hour class, check online schedule]. We make mozzarella, ricotta, and sometimes burrata, which gets called mozzarella’s sexy cousin. Burrata is a mozzarella shell filled with the stringy leftover bits of mozzarella mixed with whole cream. The class is taught with chef Jack Fisher of Sea 180, because mozzarella can be tricky. It has a lot to do with timing and heat. Once coagulation happens, you heat it up to get the proteins and everything really sticking together, and then you stretch it out and knead it to get a really smooth texture.” At the end, “everybody gets to bring their fresh cheese home.”

Gisela Claussen, owner at Curds & Wine, a winemaking and cheesemaking supply store in Clairemont (858-384-6566; curdsandwine.com) has taught classes at Venissimo. She also offers cheesemaking demonstrations at her store. “We do a cheesemaking-fundamentals class here [$65 for two to three hours]. People don’t make their own cheese, but they do leave with a starter pack to help them get started at home. We cover the culture-set cheeses like chevre, fromage blanc, and cream cheese, and also all the pressed cheeses. They all involve the same basic steps, but little changes in things such as culture used, curd cut size, whether or not you wash the curd, temperature, cooking time, and how much you stir will all give you totally different cheeses.” To aid the understanding, “We also have cheeses from Venissimo there for sampling.”

The starter kit includes a recipe book, starter culture, rennet, and butter muslin. “The rennet coagulates, the culture acidifies and sets the cheese, and the butter muslin is for draining it.” Curds & Wine offers gift certificates for the classes, along with wine starter kits and onsite winemaking.

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