A friend gifted me half a pig’s head so, naturally, I decided to make head cheese. It was already out of the freezer a couple of days when I picked it up so I had to move fast. I started with this recipe but tweaked considerably as I went along. The result is really satisfying—slightly sour (that’s the German influence) with a flavor profile built around savory herbs rather than the usual clove/nutmeg/mace. Makes enough to fill 2 4×8 loaf pans—that’s a lot of head cheese.
Half a pig’s head, minus tongue and cheek*
1 1/2 T Kosher salt
1 ½ t white pepper
1 ½ t hot red pepper plates
1 T herbs de Provence or Italian mixed herbs (I didn’t have any h de p on hand for the rub so used a packaged oregano/fennel/marjoram blend)
1 onion, sliced
1 carrot, sliced
1 leek, sliced
3 garlic cloves, crushed
2 cups white wine
4 bay leaves
2 T herbs de Provence
½ c roasted red pepper, cut into ½ inch dice
½ c cornichons or gherkins, cut into ½ inch dice
2 T white vinegar, or to taste
1 ½ t Kosher salt, or to taste
½ t ground black pepper, or to taste
¼ t crushed red pepper
2 envelopes unflavored gelatin (70 g each)
Method: remove eye, brains and any visible yellow lymph nodes (my head didn’t have any, but apparently these can really foul the prep so look carefully). Rinse the head, dry thoroughly, then rub in the first four spices. Place in a plastic bag and cure in the refrigerator for 48 hours, turning occasionally. Transfer the head to a very large pot (you may have to hacksaw it in half to get it to fit) and add wine, onion, carrot, leek, garlic, bay leaves and 2 T herbs de Provence. Add water to cover the head and bring to the boil. Lower heat to simmer and cook until meat is falling off the bone, about 4 hours. Remove from heat.
When the head is cool enough to handle, dissect it with your hands and examine the meat. The best part is the cartilaginous snout and jowl meat and the endearing, feathery ear. There will also be a lot of scraps of muscle meat and some fat. Discard the fat and cut the rest into ½ inch cubes, trimming off any spots of rough skin or bony bits as you go. My pig yielded about 2 lbs of meat, and that was without the tongue or cheek.
Meanwhile, strain the stock and return 48 oz of it to the stove, saving the rest for another use. Reduce by a third, to 32 oz. Add the vinegar, salt, black and red peppers and taste. Adjust the seasoning as necessary; the broth should taste slightly tangy with a meaty flavor, like something your German grandmother might have made for you when you were sick. Remove a cup of the broth and chill in refrigerator then sprinkle on gelatin and stir to dissolve. Return this to the cooking pot and add meat, roasted red pepper and pickles and heat until it is steaming but not to the boiling point, which would reduce the gelling properties of the gelatin.
Pour into molds (I used the two mini-loaf pans I bought for Josey Baker’s Adventure Bread) then chill overnight until firmly set. In the morning, run a knife around the inner edges of the pans to loosen the finished head cheese then turn it out onto a plate. (If you’re the cautious type, set the pans in hot water for a few minutes first.) Admire your beautiful head cheese, then cut it into smaller loaves as you like and freeze what you’re not going to use right away. Serve a slice of head cheese on your deli sandwich, or present it with a dollop of mustard (preferably a grainy German one) as an appetizer.
*My pig was missing his tongue, and I had removed the cheek to make guanciale.