When you think of head cheese, do you think of a slice of meat, like a cold cut, that resembles a mosaic – assorted bits and pieces of cooked meat held in place by a lovely clear aspic.
That’s what we always thought of, too. So when we set out to make head cheese for the first time, that was the goal – something we could slice and serve on crackers or in hearty sandwiches on crusty bread.
Well, things didn’t turn out exactly as planned. But that’s the thing about learning something new – sometimes you get more out of the experience than you ever anticipated.
*** The following post eventually contains pictures that may be off-putting to some of you. If you are squeamish, you may want to have a less squeamish person read this post aloud to you. Although, in my opinion, if you eat it, you should know what it looked like before it was processed, prettified, and plastic-wrapped. But that’s just me. ***
To make head cheese, you basically simmer the pig’s head and tongue in a vat of water (or pot, if the head is smaller), until the meat falls off the bone. You don’t want to boil the head – the meat will tighten up and become tough.
Actually, since Boris was a rather old – for eating standards – pig, the meat is somewhat tough anyway, we are discovering. But that’s a story for a later post. Suffice to say – simmer, don’t boil.
Now, I wasn’t home when our portion of Boris was delivered. I didn’t see the head until the next day, but I did see a huge bag in the fridge – much larger than I’d anticipated.
Turns out, we had the whole head – skull entirely intact. The tongue had been removed, and we had that too. But the cranium had not been cut open (to remove the brain) because Boris’s owners had requested that we return the skull so they could bury it.
I’d looked up “how to make head cheese” online (we have a book for reference, too, but I wanted pictures as well) and the pig heads I saw in various videos and posts were…well…they were the face, basically. The front part of the head. Not the back. So our head was about twice as large as anything I'd read about or seen online.
Okay – all the more meat for head cheese AND scrapple!
Our first step was to brine the head and tongue.
Well, no, that was the second step. First step was Bill removing the cheeks so we can make guanciale. I’ll tell you about that when the whole process is done. Second step was the brine.
We used about 3 gallons of water, 3 cups of salt, and about a cup and a half of sugar.
Remember that thing I said about learning more than you expected to learn? Well, turns out when Boris was butchered, it wasn’t necessarily done…in a traditional butchering manner.
The whole animal was skinned, including the head. And a lot of the precious fat was removed, too, never to be seen again, at least by us. This will make a big difference in our guanciale, too, because we’re missing a very thick layer of fat that covers the cheek.
But I digress.
I’m going to post a picture of how the head looked when we first removed the plastic. It might be a bit disturbing, but I already warned you about that, so please don’t express horror or outrage.
A tad…pinker…than we’d anticipated, but then, we’d anticipated skin covering all the fat and muscle….
Just about this time, the kids arrived home from school. I wanted to write that they’d fled in horror, but only because “fled in horror” is a fun phrase to use. But no, being kids, and, more specifically, our kids, they were not all that bothered.
Alex – typical nine-year-old boy – expresses his glee. Julia’s face is a mix of “ew, gross” and fascination. It’s got teeth!
Anyway, after removing the liver (which was in the same bag) and wrapping that up to cook separately (unbrined), and after Bill sliced off the cheeks, we placed the head and the tongue in one of Bill’s store of 5-gallon food-grade buckets.
It mostly fit.
Bill hefted the bucket into the fridge, and we left it there until the following day.
Tuesday began (after all the normal morning routines) with a bit of preparation in the form of gathering herbs and setting up a brew pot over a propane flame. Yes – this was not a job for any of our indoor pots or the stove top.
Here are my aromatics: bay leaves, scallions, garlic, peppercorns, whole cloves, and dry white wine.
And here is my cooking set-up:
I put some water in the pot – maybe filling it to just below halfway, and once I’d got everything set up, I took the brine bucket (it was incredibly heavy, but I didn’t spill a drop) out of the fridge.
The brine had cleaned off all the dried surface blood in addition to changing the texture of the meat.
I utilized my super-human strength again and lifted the head out of the bucket and placed it in the sink to rinse.
See how the texture has changed? The meat has firmed up, and what was once red has turned a duller, almost grayish shade. Except the snout.
I rinsed all the brine off the surface and lifted the head into a different pot so I could tote it outside.
Then I carefully placed the head in the water, added more water so that the head was fully submerged, and then poured in the wine, herbs, and spices.
It took a long time to get all this water up to a simmer. some of that could be because I’m not used to using the propane burner, and I didn’t have it operating at full strength until Bill came home and uttered something about this being why women shouldn’t be allowed to use propane burners. He was mostly kidding.
Eventually the water came to a boil, I reduced it to a simmer, and we waited.
Roughly four hours later (counting from the start of the simmer), I brought the head back inside. By that point it was pitch dark out, so Bill carried the flashlight and I started by ladling out as much of the broth as I could. I saved some of that – we’d need it for the aspic.
And then I tried to lift the head out.
Keep in mind that it was scalding hot. I was attempting to lift it with tongs and I don’t remember what else, but the meat was slipping and it was awkward, and I was eventually forced to swallow my female pride and let Bill lift the head out. Otherwise we’d still be out there.
I took a few pictures before I started picking meat…
That’s a view from the back of the head – you can probably figure out the jaw bones.
The view from the other side. That near-circular gap to the right is where one of the tusks was. We found it in the bottom of the pot, and I sent it back to the owner with the rest of the skull.
That’s the tongue. I will peel the skin off before it goes into the head cheese, in case you were wondering. Papillae are not in the head cheese recipe.
The meat came off the mandible very easily. I also got a lot of it off the upper jaw, but the sections surrounding the main part of the head were less inclined to let go of their sinewy tethers.
Now…remember the warning at the top of this post? I am just reminding you of it at this point because I’m about to share what may be the most horrifying image in this entire post, or the entire pig-processing series.
I hope you have a strong stomach.
I asked Bill to take some pictures OF MY HANDS while I was picking the meat. He did…but he also took this one of me.
I decided to stop being such a ghost around here and put up a picture of myself.
I can’t tell you how hard this is for me. Well, I can. It’s really really really really really hard for me to post that picture. But I am trying to get over myself. So. There you go. Me at work.
And here’s what I was doing.
You may be squeamish about seeing meat on a pig skull…I am horrified by my doughy arms. I guess it takes all kinds!
After a lot of picking, I decided that the head needed more simmering. But not that night – it was getting late and I had to work in the morning. So the following afternoon, I put the head – thick side down – in a pot on the stove with the reserved broth and simmered it another couple of hours.
Exciting stuff, isn’t it?
Now, I don’t know what this next shot was all about, but clearly I wanted to emphasize the cleanliness of whatever this thing is.
I really should write notes to myself…
Anyway, once all the meat was finally removed from the head, I placed the skull and mandible (and stray tusks) in a bag for Boris’s former owner.
Then I trimmed off the back of the tongue (it doesn’t have a great texture and it’s kind of icky) and peeled it.
Then I diced the tongue meat and – ta-da! – meat for head cheese!
Oh – forgot to tell you – since the head offered up so much meat, I set some aside for use in the scrapple. So this is about half of the meat from the head. There’s a lot of it – keep in mind, the cheeks are gone, too.
I chopped up the shredded meat, then mixed all that with the tongue pieces. I was kind of concerned because it just didn’t look the way I thought head cheese meat was supposed to look. But what do I know? I’ve never made it before. And it’s not like I could change anything at this point.
So I kept going.
I poured the remaining broth through a fine mesh strainer and set that aside. Then I lined two loaf pans (since I don’t own a terrine) with plastic, filled them with the head cheese mixture, poured in the broth, wrapped the plastic over the top, and put them in the fridge to chill for 24 hours.
One of the things to keep in mind is that the broth, when cold, needs to firm up. Otherwise, it won’t hold the meat together; you’ll just end up with mush. I’d tested some of the broth (I also thought I had pictures, but apparently not) to make sure it gelled by pouring a bit onto a cold plate and placing that in the fridge for a few minutes. It’s a lot like testing jam or jelly for proper consistency before you can it. The chilled liquid should hold its shape, but not be so firm that you can’t run your finger through the middle of it (on the plate). The broth had gelled properly, so I was good to go.
The next day – the grand unveiling! This was a few hours before Bill and I went Out to dinner, just to set the time frame for you. It matters. You’ll see.
I took one pan out of the fridge, unwrapped the plastic, inverted it on a cutting board, and here’s how it looked…
Pretty shiny, right? That’s the gelled broth, or aspic.
I take great joy in my inverting.
Why, it’s almost like Christmas morning!
Well…it’s not falling apart….
I tried slicing it.
It’s not a slice. It looks like a cold, jellied meat loaf. (Cue sad music.)
Hm. Well, I figured I’d done something – or somethings – wrong, starting with not chopping the meat into much smaller pieces. I’d basically shredded it, as if we were going to toss it with barbecue sauce, rather than chopping it as directed by the book. Doh!
We’d planned to bring some of this to John that night, but I decided I wanted a do-over.
Sigh. It’s already been a lot of work at this point, not to mention the scrapple I was making at the same time…and my excitement about headcheese had waned…a lot…but I was determined to make this work. So I put the whole thing back in the fridge, and we went Out to dinner.
Oh – yes, of course! We tasted it. And it was, despite the aromatics in the broth, bland. I’d have to work on that a bit, too.
Now, if you’ve read my post about our night Out (and if you have, you’ll understand why I keep capitalizing the word “out”), you’ll remember the wonderful conversation we had with John Junior about head cheese. (And if you don’t remember, now’s your chance to click on over and skim through until you find that part. I’ll make it easy – it’s about a third of the way through, and the paragraph in question starts with “We sampled thinly sliced rounds…”) I didn’t fail!
The next day, my enthusiasm buoyed by our conversation the night before, I chopped the meat into smaller bits, seasoned it with thyme, sage, salt and pepper, and maybe a smidge of bacon fat for flavor, and then I packed it right back in the pans. I let it sit overnight, and the next day Bill and I tried it with some really good mustard.
One conclusion I’d come to, besides the joyful notion that just because it doesn’t slice like mortadella doesn’t mean it’s not headcheese, was that it also doesn’t need to have a robust flavor to be right. The headcheese we had at Chez Pascal wasn’t wildly flavored – it had a great soft texture and was drizzled with a sort of house tarter sauce. I think the pickle in the sauce works well with the meat. I figured mustard would do the same.
YAY! Success! Delicious, perfectly balanced with the mustard, and pretty nice (and mild) on its own. As I thought about it, I realized the texture combined with the temperature (cold) reminded me of tartare. I love tartare!
It’s nice when a lot of work pays off.