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Kajmak, the Clotted Cream of the Balkans

by Florian
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Kajmak, the Clotted Cream of the Balkans

With my series of posts on Montenegro now well under way, there’s one essential ingredient I need to talk about in more detail: kajmak. Also known as skorup in some areas, kajmak is to former Yugoslavia what butter is to France: you spread it on your lepinja for breakfast, melt a dollop on top of your pljeskavica or Njeguški stek, and mix it into cornmeal to make cicvara (recipe coming soon). You can even make baklava with it! There’s only one problem: you generally can’t buy it anywhere else in the world.

According to Serbia’s regulations 26/2002 on the “quality and other requirements for milk, dairy products, composite dairy products and starter cultures,” kajmak is obtained as a fat layer separated from milk that has been boiled then chilled. The milk can be cow’s, sheep’s, or both (if it’s not just cow’s, the type of milk must be indicated). Kajmak then comes in two types: young (ready to consume immediately, with at least 60% dry matter, at least 65% fat in dry matter, and at most 2% salt) and mature (left to drain and age for a longer time, with at least 65% dry matter, at least 75% fat in dry matter, and at most 3.5% salt).

Podgorica Market - Kajmak
Mature Kajmak at the Podgorica Green Market

If you’re familiar with English food at all, you might say kajmak is essentially a variation on clotted cream, wherein the starting ingredient is milk rather than cream. As Harold McGee explains in On Food and Cooking, heating the cream (or milk in our case) in a shallow pan “accelerates the rise of the fat globules, evaporates some of the water, melts some of the aggregated globules into pockets of butterfat, and creates a cooked flavor.” In the process, some of the milk proteins also coagulate, and the fat globules cling to the film that they form. After letting the pan rest for 12 to 24 hours, you can collect from the surface an almost solidified layer of protein and fat. Mix it with salt, let it drain, and you get kajmak! The final product is a rich, firm spread, halfway between cheese and butter, that will melt easily on your favorite hot foods. Want to learn even more about kajmak (if you speak Serbian)? Read this! Or check out this video to see young kajmak in the making:

Go to Podgorica‘s Green Market, and you’ll see row after row of farmers selling their cheese and their kajmak. The young kind is now often sold from plastic tubs that replace the traditional karlice, a long shallow wooden bowl that doubles up as a cooling vessel for the heated milk during the fabrication process. But the mature kind is still kept in a wooden vat called čabrica, so that during production, layers upon layers of salted kajmak are stacked until the vat is full. Mature kajmak can ripen for several months, and the bottom of the vat generally allow for the drainage of any additional liquid.

Podgorica Market - Kajmak
Kajmak and cheese at the Podgorica Green Market

Unfortunately, real kajmak seems impossible to find commercially in the US. Maybe if you have Serbian friends – I recently asked the staff at Kafana in New York where they got theirs, and they implied to me that Serbian connections in the area prepared it for them. Otherwise, based on what I explained above, a decent substitute would be clotted cream mixed with salt. The Devon Cream Company‘s products are now pretty widely distributed in the USA, even if some folks complain that they’re not as good as the homemade stuff. Many cooks also choose to create a kajmak-like mixture by combining various dairy products such as feta, cream cheese, and cream (I have previously done this; see my recipe here).

But today I’m putting on my Manhattan dairy farmer hat and making my own! There are very few kajmak recipes in cookbooks or online, perhaps because once you know what to do, this is pretty trivial: like churning butter. Literature in English is even scarcer, as hardly anybody even knows what kajmak is outside of former Yugoslavia. If you’re not Serbian, you’ll probably find that this post is the most exhaustive article on the subject! Let’s go through a few preliminary notes before the recipe:

  • As noted above, fat is a key component of kajmak, so it’s important to use milk with a high fat content. Any whole milk will do, but if you have access to milk from a non-industrial dairy farm and can find out the species of cows they use, all the better. For example, both Jersey and Guernsey cows produce milk with a fat content of 5% or more and a protein content around 3.8%, two figures that are substantially higher than in the average mass-produced milk. If you use the beta-carotene-rich milk of Guernsey cows, you’ll obtain kajmak with a butter-like yellow hue.
Kajmak, the Clotted Cream of the Balkans
Kajmak made with milk from Guernsey cows
  • I tried several approaches to heating the milk, and found that the stovetop can be too brutal. In some instances, due to excessive caramelization, I ended up with a brown film at the bottom of the pan. I think my oven method achieves much better results.
  • Many of the articles I’ve read don’t mention this, but you can obtain substantially more kajmak by repeating the whole process with the remaining milk a few times (I’d say at least once; it makes no real difference in the quality of the final product). Ultimately, you just combine all the kajmak batches in a bowl with 1.5% salt by weight.
  • You might wonder what to do with the leftover “depleted” milk. In many regards, you can treat it like whey. Some people recommend using it for baking, though to me it sounds like a surefire way to never get your bread recipe exactly right. Others use it to make cheese (think ricotta), which sounds like a much better idea. The bravest even manage to churn it into butter (there’s still some fat left in the whey).
Kajmak, the Clotted Cream of the Balkans

Kajmak
Yields 250-300 g

4 kg (about 3.8 l / 1 gal) whole milk
about 4.5 g salt (see below)

  • Pour the milk into a very large oven-proof dish – I’m using a 34 cm x 42 cm turkey roasting pan. Heat in a 90 C / 200 F oven for 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours, until it reaches 80 C / 180 F.
  • Turn off the heat, and let rest in the oven for about10 hours (you can take it out after a couple of hours if you need to use the oven for something else).
  • Cover with tin foil, let rest for another 10 hours at room temperature, and finally refrigerate for about 2 hours, until it reaches the 10-15 C / 50-60 F range.
  • Using a skimmer, collect the thick layer that formed on top. Transfer to a chinois positioned over a container, cover with plastic wrap, and let drain in the refrigerator. This will become your kajmak. Any liquid that passed through the chinois can be returned to the milk pan.
Kajmak, the Clotted Cream of the Balkans
  • Repeat the above steps one to three more times: heat, let rest, skim clotted layer, add to chinois, and let drain. You’re essentially working on 24-hour cycles. The amount of kajmak that you collect will decrease (approximately by half) every day, and eventually, it won’t be worth continuing.
  • Weigh the accumulated kajmak, and measure 1.5% of that weight in salt. Transfer the kajmak to a bowl, let rest at room temperature for about 10 minutes, add the salt, and mix with a fork.
  • Transfer to a container and refrigerate. The kajmak can be kept for about a week.
Kajmak, the Clotted Cream of the Balkans

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