Jāņu Siers: Midsummer means making cheese at home

Jāņu Siers still wrapped in cheesecloth as it cools. Brown eggs give the caraway-speckled fresh cheese a yellow hue.

The sweet smell of dairy in the house that comes from making cheese at home is one of my favourite things. Holding milk at 90 to 95C for 15 minutes so curd separates from whey is a sure way to create that warm and wonderful aroma.

The summer solstice has me preparing to make a caraway-speckled fresh cheese Latvians call Jāņu Siers.

Here are the ingredients: 3 litres of whole milk, 1 kilo dry pressed cottage cheese, 150 grams butter, 4 eggs, 2 tablespoons caraway seeds, and 1 tablespoon salt. After I make the cheese, I’ll add a few photos at the bottom of the post about the process.

In Latvia, my native land, the cheese is a core element in celebrations marking the summer solstice, a festival called Jāņi. I like the cheese too much to eat it only once a year, so often I’ll make it also at midwinter and giving small wheels as gifts to family and friends at Christmas.

Here’s what I posted about the cheese a few years back:

Jāņu siers, what kind of cheese is that?” you ask. It’s a caraway-speckled fresh cheese that I make at home.

Jāņu siers in Latvian, my native language, is, literally, John’s cheese in English. In Latvia, for more than a thousand years, it has been made at the summer solstice to mark the midsummer festival of Jāņi. That festival is celebrated on June 23 by Latvians all over the world on the eve of St. John’s Day. For many, it’s the most important holiday of the year.

In Latvia, farms are bedecked with garlands of oak and birch branches and meadow flowers. Nearly everyone leaves the city for the open air so that the shortest night of the year can be spent in the merry company of friends in the country. Bonfires are lit, special songs are sung, dancing is a universal element during the festival. The traditional caraway-seed cheese and lots of beer are on the menu.

This TV commercial for Aldaris beer will give you a taste of the festivities on Jāņi:

Tradition has it that this is the one night of the year that you must never sleep. Girls pick meadow flowers to make wreaths for their hair, while men named Jānis get a bushy crown of oak leaves around their heads. (Jānis is the most popular male name in Latvia and comparable to John.)

Eating, singing, drinking and dancing ensue the whole night long. Although the sun sets briefly, it doesn’t get dark in the higher latitude of Latvia and everyone must be awake to greet the rising sun in the morning. A naked romp into the nearest lake or river is a must for men—and the women who cheer them on. Young couples like to go into the forest and search for the legendary fern blossom. Or so they say. And when you greet the morning sun, you have to wash your face in the grass’s morning dew, which on Jāņi morning is said to have particularly beneficial properties.

The reality for me this year was that I tried to make more Jāņu siers than before and used a large lobster pot to heat the milk to 90-95C rather than my usual heavy saucepan. Very hard to keep milk near the boiling point for 15 minutes in a thin pot, I discovered to my dismay, without scorching the milk, thus, three small wheels I made won’t be shared with friends as behind the taste of cream and caraway there is a hint of burnt.

On the bright side, Jāņu siers is always eaten with butter (and never on bread), and I love butter almost as much as cheese. Lay on enough butter and the slight scorched taste dissipates. Consume with enough lager and the cheese tastes as good as it should.

Incidentally, I have not repeated the error of trying to keep milk at 90-95C in a thin lobster pot!

Here are photos of the process I used this year:

Here are the ingredients: 3 litres of whole milk at least 3.25%, 1 kilo dry pressed cottage cheese, 150 grams butter, 4 eggs, 2 tablespoons caraway seeds and 1 tablespoon salt. Look closely at the label of the cottage cheese and ensure it says “dry pressed” and not merely “pressed.” We neglected to do so.
Mix eggs with cottage cheese. Brown eggs are generally more yellow, which is preferred. We only had white eggs available.
Gently heat the milk to 90-95C and add the cottage cheese mixture. Hold at 90-95C for 15 minutes or so until curd separates from whey. If you use dry pressed cottage cheese, the whey will be more greenish than ours.
Wet the cheesecloth before lining a sieve and emptying the curd and whey. Twist the resulting bag of curd and squeeze to drain most of whey.
Warm the pot again, add butter and caraway seeds, then add the curd and salt, and begin mixing in circular fashion until curd forms a ball and no longer sticks to sides of pot. It will take 10 minutes or more.
Wet another cheesecloth before lining a sieve and emptying the ball of cheese. Divide into two or three portions if you prefer smaller wheels. Place on a plate, with the knot in the cheesecloth underneath the cheese. Add second plate and weigh down in fridge overnight.
The next day, remove cheesecloth and wrap cheese in plastic. Store in fridge until it’s time to enjoy. Some people say a week is the right time for the cheese to age to perfection, but we can never wait that long.

—Georgs Kolesnikovs

Georgs Kolesnikovs, Cheese-Head-in-Chief at CheeseLover.ca, was born in Latvia but has lived in Canada most of his life, in Ontario, Quebec and the Northwest Territories. He did spend most of the 1980s living, working and sailing in California.

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