Growing up in Croatia and Bosnia, I ate a heck of a lot of kajmak (say it fast: kai-muck). Gallons and gallons of this rich, fatty, savory, goes-with-anything cream at the intersection of milk and cheese. It’s the region’s cream cheese, mayo, and ketchup all in one. I can’t think of a widely available US product that would serve as a workable substitute, so here’s a recipe for making your own.
Ethnic authenticity note: from town to town, from street to street, from family to family in Croatia, folks will prefer creamier versions to thicker, cheesier ones - and vice versa. This is the easiest version to make at home, and luckily, it’s my favorite.
You will need:
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 tsp salt
That’s all, seriously. I would strongly recommend using the highest-quality milk and cream you can find: if it’s from a neighbor or a nearby farm, 5 points; if it comes in a glass bottle, 3 points; if it’s at the very least local and fresh, have a point. This will affect the tastiness of the final product, but it’s also not a bad idea for the purposes of food safety. Speaking of which, keep your pots very clean in the next step. Cool?
This recipe is best started in the evening. It’ll be edible in 36 hours or so. We’ll be heating the dairy in a double boiler; bain-marie in French, if you wish to impress your friends. Start with a large, wide pot filled about 1/4 to 1/3 of the way with water, then in the middle of it place a smaller pot - also wide, if possible. The idea is to heat the inner pot with the indirect heat of the water, which will prevent our milk from scorching. Make sure the inner pot is stable. If it has handles, hang them off the sides of the larger pot; if not, you could put a metal cookie cutter under the inner pot, thus lifting it off the bottom. (Obviously, don’t use anything metal to support a pot inside an enameled pot, as shown here.)
Add enough water to the outer pot to run up half way up the sides of the inner pot. With the smaller pot thus surrounded with water, pour the milk into it and set your heat to high until the water is at a light boil. Don’t let it roll violently or boil over. Stir the milk until it’s at something like a simmer, adjusting the heat as needed. The milk should be steamy and ever-so-slightly bubbly; anything harsher than that is too hot.
Pour in the cream and the salt and stir. Bring the milk up to a steamy simmer again, then turn the heat down to medium-low and keep it there for 90 minutes. Don’t stir past this point, no matter how tempted you are; we want to let the cream form on top.
After the 90 minutes, turn off the heat and leave everything as is overnight. No fridge, no moving, no stirring. You can cover the smaller pot after a few hours, but you’ll want to let the milk slowly evaporate for a while.
In the morning, set the stove to medium heat and warm everything up for 15 minutes or so, then turn it down to medium-low and keep it there for 30 minutes. You can now move the smaller pot to a cooling rack and bring it to room temperature, then cover it and move it to the fridge. Still no stirring!
The following morning, check how much kajmak has formed in the pot. If you’re lucky, almost all of it is now a dense substance the consistency of cream cheese. There could also be milk half an inch below the surface - if that’s the case, carefully skim the cheese from the surface, cutting around the edge of the pot with a knife to make sure you get all the cheesy goodness. Strain any pieces that break off and combine all the solid, curdy, or thick-and-creamy parts. Leave behind any milk or cream at the bottom of the pot.
With all the kajmak now in a fresh container, stir it with a fork to even it out. It may still be a bit chunky or curdy; this doesn’t bother me a bit. Taste and add salt if needed. It will thicken and smooth out if you leave it in the fridge a bit longer.
What to do with it? Oh boy, oh boy… Dollop it on savory pies, dip freshly fried fry-bread in it, spread it on bagels, pair it with raw onion if you’re tough enough to handle it. The cooling richness of kajmak pairs great with grilled meats; you should really be using it instead of sour cream in our Slavonian Burger recipe.
Here it is, topping a messy slice of Americanized burek. Could’ve fooled you into thinking it was ice cream, huh?