Buffalo mozzarella + Caciocavallo = my new favorite cheese; plus a recipe for cheesy pasta al forno
Would you drive an hour and a half to taste a piece of cheese? I would. I did. Last Tuesday, I got in my Cinquecento and chugged out to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to meet (and eat) Cheesella, a seriously good cheese with a silly name.
I have Emily Chandler to thank for the introduction. Emily owns and runs Piazza Italian Market, in Easton, MD, a picturesque town on the Chesapeake Bay that draws a lot of weekend and summer visitors. Since it opened in 2008, Piazza has become a popular stop for locals and for vacationers looking to stock up on provisions. It’s also, as far as I can tell, the best alimentari (Italian deli) in the mid-Atlantic, far better than anything we have in the DC area and on par with DiBruno Bros., my favorite Philly deli.
A few weeks ago, Emily posted a photo of Cheesella on the store’s Instagram feed, with a caption that read, in part:
If necessity is the mother of invention then Cheesella is a new daughter. When pizzerias and restaurants closed abruptly in March 2020 cheesemakers in Campania were faced with an enormous amount of perishable mozzarella di bufala.
One cheesemaker looked to the past for a solution (after all, the original purpose of cheesemaking was to preserve milk). A recipe for a caciocavallo-covered mozzarella was found and it extended the life of the mozzarella to 90 days…and they named the newly discovered creation Cheesella.
The two cheeses bring out the best in each other—the high moisture of the mozzarella is partly absorbed by the caciocavallo, softening its edges. In addition, the mozzarella’s flavor becomes more concentrated, always a good thing!
That’s right: Cheesella is a ball of fresh buffalo mozzarella wrapped inside caciocavallo, a process that apparently extends the life of the highly perishable mozzarella by three months and, ultimately, turns both cheeses into something wholly new.
I wrote about buffalo mozzarella back in May. But for those who may not be familiar with caciocavallo, like mozzarella it is a “stretched-curd” cheese. It’s made from cow’s milk and has a bulbous form, often with a top knot. The cheese is aged for at least a couple of months and during this time develops a thin, edible rind and a creamy, sliceable paste. The name “caciocavallo” means “horse’s cheese,” but horses are not involved. The name refers to the way the cheeses are tied together with ribbons or rope and then straddled “a cavallo” (horseback-style) over a wooden board to drain and age.
Emily, who is always on the lookout for new products with which to tempt her customers (she is good at this) told me she first tasted Cheesella at the Fancy Food Show this past summer and was immediately drawn to it. “To me, it’s a perfect example of what cheese is—ingenuity plus necessity; that nexus between pragmatic needs and creativity,” she said.
It is, in fact, a marvel of a cheese. When you bite into a slice you taste, first, the firm, edible rind and then the smooth, mild and slightly nutty paste of the caciocavallo, followed by milky mozzarella, which has a delicate, lemony acidity. And, as Emily noted in her caption, there’s a sort of give and take between the two cheeses as they nestle together: the caciocavallo absorbs a bit of the moisture from the mozzarella, taking on a slight tang, and the mozzarella becomes creamier and more mellow.
Italians have a history of putting things inside cheese. When I was young, we used to stop at a small caseificio (cheese dairy) outside of L’Aquila (Abruzzo), where my mom and aunts would buy mozzarella and a cheese called “burrino,” essentially a ball of fresh butter enclosed in a caciocavallo-like cheese (it may even have been caciocavallo). This butter-cheese, also found in Molise and other parts of southern Italy, originated as a way to preserve butter in the days before refrigeration. My Abruzzese friends tell tales of cheesemaking relatives “smuggling” salami into the U.S. by encasing the cured sausages in long cylinders of cheese.
The concept for Cheesella belongs to one Roberto Rubino, a professor from Potenza (Basilicata) who studies the quality of food made with “materie prime” (raw, unadulterated ingredients), in particular milk and cheese. He is also the founder and president of the Associazione Nazionale Formaggio Sotto il Cielo, in Potenza, an organization that was started in 1995 to study and promote cheeses made from the rich milk of pastured animals (the association has since expanded its focus beyond milk and cheese).
According to Rubino’s account here, in a moment of panic during the early weeks of the pandemic, he overbought a supply of buffalo mozzarella and was looking for a way to prevent it from going bad. He remembered a 19th century book in which the author described conserving mozzarella inside caciocavallo, and the idea for Cheesella was born. He enlisted a dairy in Campania to put his notion to the test, and when it worked, found a distributor in Luigi Guffanti, a five-generation family of cheesemakers and affineurs in Piedmont who also distribute cheeses from all over Italy. They named it “Cheesella” a portmanteau of “cheese” and “mozzarella” to appeal to the foreign market, though the new cheese is growing in popularity in Italy.
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I can hear you, right about now, asking: Why is she telling me about a cheese I can’t get my hands on, dammit? Well, for one thing, if there’s a well-stocked cheese shop in your area, it’s possible your local cheesemonger is already carrying Cheesella—or might be interested in knowing about it. Also, the Eastern Shore and the Chesapeake Bay are worth a visit, if you happen to be touring around D.C. one of these times, and if you do go, now you know where to shop for cheese and other Italian delicacies.
Beyond all that, it’s just nice to know that this wonderful cheese mashup called Cheesella exists in the world, don’t you think?
I asked Emily what she was doing with Cheesella besides eating it out of hand. She said she had melted the cheese into pasta with fried zucchini and basil, and at the deli was putting it in sandwiches and other prepared dishes. She said she was also dreaming about baking slices of Cheesella wrapped in roasted peppers, “topped with garlicky breadcrumbs.”
Yesterday morning, I grated a mound of it and stirred it into scrambled eggs. Wow. The cooked eggs had a soft and tender curdlike texture, and although I used olive oil, it tasted like they had been slowly cooked in cultured butter, thanks to the tangy cheese.
To welcome October, I made my favorite version of pasta al forno, with eggplant and zucchini, substituting Cheesella for the scamorza and smoked mozzarella that I usually use. I’m sharing the recipe here. It’s an adaptation from the one in The Glorious Pasta of Italy. Any good melty cheese will work, like those mentioned above. Just make sure the mozzarella isn’t the fresh milky version sold in brine, as that tends to clump rather than melt.
RECIPE: Rigatoni al Forno with Cheesella
Pasta al forno (baked pasta) is one of the all-time great Southern Italian comfort foods. This version stars cubes of fried eggplant and zucchini, but you could substitute sautéed mushrooms, crumbled sausage, or both.
This recipe involves several steps: making the sauce, frying the vegetables, cooking the pasta, and then assembling and baking the dish. All of the steps are easy, and the sauce can be made at least a day in advance, if you want to get a head start. (Recipe adapted from The Glorious Pasta of Italy.)
Makes 8 servings (but the recipe is easily halved)
Sunflower or other vegetable oil for frying
1 pound (454 g) eggplant (1 large or 2 medium)
1 pound (454 g) zucchini
1 batch (4-5 cups/1 L) Simple Tomato Sauce, heated to a simmer
1 pound (454 g) dried rigatoni, penne, cavatappi or other short, sturdy pasta
1/4 cup (7 g) torn basil leaves
1 pound (454 g) Cheesella, shredded or cut into cubes; or 1 pound (454 g) shredded or cubed scamorza, low-moisture mozzarella, or smoked mozzarella (or a combination)
Extra-virgin olive oil, for the baking dish
1/2 cup (50 g) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Trim the eggplant and cut it into bite-size cubes. Put them in a colander set in a bowl andsprinkle with salt. Set a plate on top and weight it down with a heavy object (I use a marble mortar). Let rest for 30 to 60 minutes. Do the same with the zucchini if they are large/end of season, as those tend to be spongier. When the vegetables have released some of their liquid, pat them dry. (See Cook’s Note)
2. Pour sunflower oil to a depth of 1/4 inch (6 mm) in a large frying pan and heat over medium-high. Set a platter lined with a double layer of paper towels or a large plain brown paper bag near the stove. Fry the eggplant and zucchini in batches, turning them a couple of times, for about 5 minutes total, until golden-brown. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to the plate or paper bag to drain.
3. Heat the oven to 375° F (190° C). Bring a pot of water to a boil and salt it generously. Add the rigatoni, stir to separate, and cook until slightly underdone—very al dente. Drain the pasta and transfer it to a large bowl. Spoon about 2/3 of the sauce over it. Add the fried eggplant and zucchini, about 1/3 of the Cheesella, and all the basil and toss gently to combine.
4. Coat a 9-by-13-inch (23-by-33 cm) oven-proof baking dish with olive oil. Spoon in half the pasta, and top with half the remaining Cheesella and a couple of spoonfuls of the remaining sauce. Spoon the rest of the pasta on top and level it out. Top with another couple of spoonfuls of sauce (you may not use all the sauce) and the rest of the Cheesella. Sprinkle on the Parmigiano.
5. Bake, uncovered, for 30 to 40 minutes, until you can hear the sauce and cheese bubbling throughout, and the top is nicely browned and crisp around the edges. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Cook’s Note: Salting the vegetables is optional. Late season eggplant and zucchini tend to be more “pithy,” and salting helps remove excess liquid and compress the flesh. I also find that salted vegetables tend to absorb less oil during frying.
NEWS & NOTES
Podcast interview: I had the pleasure of speaking with Katy Clarke, host of the Untold Italy podcast, where I shared my insights about the food of Abruzzo, including seven favorite Abruzzese dishes. And while you’re there, check out the other episodes—lots of good stuff here, like this dive into Matera, and this look at the palaces and castles of Piemonte.
Online Cooking Classes: I’ve been away from cooking classes longer than I intended. Getting this newsletter off the ground has taken up most of my time these last months, along with a couple of other projects that I’ve been working on. But next week, I’ll be posting new classes to be held later this fall…And yes, there will be a third annual Italian Christmas Cookies class! Premium subscribers will receive a 40% discount on classes.
Premium subscribers: Look for a new fall recipe in your inbox on Monday!
PICTURE ITALY: Sulmoma, 2019
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