Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Say...CHEESE! we are at the end of April, and I'm almost caught up with my blogging! Ok, I'm still a week behind, but given that I was almost a MONTH behind at one point, I'd say that's fine progress!)

So...masochist that I am, despite the fact that it's the ugliest time of the semester, I signed up to teach another cooking class for Continuing Education last Saturday. Thus far, I have done three canning classes, a pie-baking workshop, and continuing my theme of "lost culinary arts," this time I chose to teach beginning cheesemaking. I certainly could not have taught advanced cheesemaking, because I have not yet myself graduated to the hard cheeses, as I have neither a cheese press nor the refrigerator space to devote to aging the cheese. Moreover, I simply don't have patience to wait weeks or months to eat my cheese! So I stick to soft, fresh cheeses that are really quite easy to make, and that I thought would translate well to a workshop structure. But it sounded a lot easier in my head than it turned out to be in real life. The main thing one must accept in cheesemaking is that, often enough, cheese refuses to be made on a schedule, and it's going to be ready when it's ready, and not when it's convenient for the likes of YOU!

My two cheesemaking mentors are Ricki Carroll, author of Home Cheesemaking (the cheesemaker's bible!) and the website,, and David B. Fankhauser (yes, that is his real name!), Professor of Chemistry and Biology at University of Cincinatti's Clermont College. Dr. Fankhauser has a marvelous cheesemaking website that is all the beginner really needs to consult, as he offers simple recipes, with clear, step-by-step instuctions and pictures of how to make cheese using everyday ingredients and equipment. As a professor is wont to do, he also offers a beginning cheesemaking syllabus, starting with yogurt and ending with blue cheese. I didn't want to make yogurt--I wanted to make cheese! So I started with his basic neufchatel recipe (that's cream cheese made with whole milk instead of cream). Though I started with what I believed to be plenty of lead time, the resulting cheese was still not completely ready by class time on Saturday! Fankhauser and Carroll agree that it could take as long as 20 hours for the curd to set up, and though my first batch went that long (and the swap-out that I made for class went up to 28!), it still wasn't really firm enough when I had to give up and move onto straining it. And then that was the next disaster--it is supposed to drain overnight, but mine really wasn't dry enough for my tastes until 2-3 days later! But I managed to scrape about a cup off the sides of the cheesecloth (well, flour sack towel, as I prefer to use), which I mixed with lemon zest, garlic, black pepper and fresh herbs from my Aerogarden for the students to sample in class. So it all worked out in the end.

You should try to make some of your own. Other than it taking roughly forever, it's all passive time, and it's really easy. And the cheese turns out lovely and swoopy and silky. You can flavor it however you like, or it makes a heavenly, tender cheesecake. Fankhauser likes to fold his into scrambled eggs. Or you can mold it into shapes, and then coat the little logs or rounds with fresh herbs or paprika and/or red or black pepper, etc. Wouldn't that make a delightful appetizer or hostess gift to take to your next dinner party? Ooh, or take that a bit further and try what this Italian fellow did with his...make tomini elettrici sott’olio (or cheese with herbs and pepper preserved in olive oil). How good does THAT sound, as Ina would ask?

Fankhauser's Neufchatel
(Source: Fankhauser's Cheese Page)
Makes 1 to 1 1/2 pounds of cheese

5 quart stainless steel pot with lid (sterilized by boiling water in it for 5 minutes prior to use)
thermometer reading in the 50-100°F range
sterile clean handkerchief, cheesecloth or flour sack towel
large strainer or colander 1 gallon fresh whole milk (store-bought may be used, use skimmed milk for low fat but less flavorful cheese)
1/4 cup cultured buttermilk (or 2 ice cubes of frozen buttermilk)
1/4 Junket tablet (or 5 drops of liquid rennet)

1. Assemble ingredients and sterilize the pot by covering and boiling a small amount of water for five minutes.
2. Add buttermilk to milk in the pre-sterilized 5 quart stainless steel pot. If using ice cubed starter, stir until completely melted. Warm with stirring to a final temperature of 65°F.
3. Meanwhile, dissolve 1/4 tablet rennet in 1/4 cup cool water. (If you use liquid rennet, use five drops/gallon of milk, also dissolved in water. Be sure it is not outdated.)
4. Add the dissolved rennet into the 65°F inoculated milk while stirring.
5. Cover and let sit undisturbed overnight at room temperature (65-70°F,
6. The next morning, a soft curd should have formed. If not, let it continue to sit and firm up (could be 20 hours or more!). When curd is adequately formed, cut it into 1/2-inch cubes.
7. Ladle cut curds into a clean sterile handkerchief suspended in large strainer or stainless steel colander. Pour the remaining whey through the cloth. If the cloth becomes clogged, lift the cloth back and forth or scrape the forming cheese away from the cloth.
8. Hang the curd in a cool place to allow the whey to drip out: pick up the four corners of the cloth, wrap a heavy rubberband around, and loop one end through the other end. Insert a chopstick through the open end, and suspend the cheese bag over a receiving vessel to catch the whey (I just tie mine with kitchen twine to the shelf above). Let hang overnight (or for a day or two!) until it reaches the desired texture.
9. The next day, open the cloth to reveal the cheese.
10. Sprinkle on 1- 2 teaspoons of salt, according to taste. Inadequately salted cheese will be more bland, and will not keep as well. Work to mix the salt in thoroughly. Store covered in the refrigerator until use. Recycled cottage cheese containers work well for this.
11. If you like, you may pack the cheese into a mold of your choice (a squat tin can with the ends removed works well).

The next cheese on Fankhauser's syllabus is labneh, a Middle Eastern cheese made from yogurt. But we weren't making yogurt, so I moved onto ricotta, which has a very similar method. In fact, I was speaking to my colleague, Mohan, who regularly makes paneer, the Indian cheese, at home. And interestingly, his paneer and the ricotta that I make are pretty much exactly the same, except that he goes on to press his in a mold of some kind, just like the sliceable form of ricotta known as ricotta salata. Of course, the real kind of ricotta (meaning "recooked" in Italian) comes from reheating the whey after making some other kind of cheese until the remaining solids float to the top to be collected and strained. Making ricotta that way as I often do, well, as Forrest Gump's mama would say, you never know what you're gonna get (or more to the point, how much)! If you want a richer product and a larger, more reliable yield, you can make ricotta starting with whole milk, or make it even better with the addition of some heavy cream, as my beloved friends, John and Keith, do when they make theirs. In fact, this is their simple but simply fabulous recipe:

John and Keith’s Whole Milk Ricotta
Makes 2-3 cups

1/2 gallon whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
3 tablespoons white vinegar (regular, white wine, or white balsamic)
1/2 teaspoon salt

Stir milk and cream together in a large, pre-sterilized pot and bring to 185 degrees, then remove from the heat. Gently stir in the vinegar (John and Keith prefer Trader Joe’s White Balsamic) for about 30 seconds, then the salt for another 30 seconds. Let sit at room temperature (ideally, around 70 degrees) for two hours, then strain through cheese cloth/hang until it is the desired consistency.

John says of this cheese: “It is delicious. And it makes a wonderfully generous amount of ricotta…probably a little richer than that made with whey.”

I let the class sample the yummy ricotta on foccacia crackers with either my roasted red pepper spread on top or with my friends, Mike and Kurt's inspired combination of cheese, blackberry Earl Grey jam, and sriracha. (Ok, no one in class was brave enough to try it with the sriracha, I am sad to say! Oh well..their loss.) Lastly, I had to share the magic of the 30-minute mozzarella with my class, which was first introduced to me in Barbara Kingsolver's amazing book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (by way of Ricki Carroll). I made a couple of batches ahead of time, and then we made one in real-time in class. And it was so interesting, because I used three different kinds of milk, and got three different kinds of cheese. The first batch (Byrne Dairy) was so soft and tender, almost like Brie or Camembert. The second batch (Upstate Farms) turned out more like American-style mozzarella, kind of rubbery, but in a good way. And the last batch that we made in class was probably the most perfect, right in the middle texture-wise (Sunoco's brand of milk, called Wilson Farms)--neither too soft, nor too firm--the Goldilocks of cheese, if you will. So we sampled the very soft one with crackers and pepperoni and some of my dilly beans. The firmer one, we shredded to make a pizza alla bismarck at the end of class, which incorporated both the mozzarella and the ricotta that we had made. And the third one I gave to my dear friend, Lee Ann, along with some ricotta and Neufchatel, for loaning me another big stainless steel pot for all of my cheesy prep work. (Thanks, Lee Ann!)

All in all, I think it was a very successful first attempt at teaching basic cheesemaking. I managed to give a mini-lecture on equipment, ingredients and basic methods, complete all three cheeses, AND have time to make the bonus pizza at the end of class, with 10 or 15 minutes to spare! The experience will be very helpful when I teach the class again the weekend after next. Apparently, the idea of making cheese was extremely popular, so they asked me to add another section! Yeah! Blessed are the cheesemakers (and any manufacturers of dairy products)! And here are some would-be cheesemakers from last Saturday, filling out their course evaluations and probably saying, "What does this woman know? Her Neufchatel is still runny!"

1 comment:

jsgrant said...

But I think you should move someplace that has a CAVE so you can age your cheese!!!!!
How fun, a cheese making class. I tried making fresh cheese last year from a Bittman recipe and it made the whole house smell like milk! (And of course Beso countersurfed the cheese I had put out for guests, but I had only used half because cheese recipes make a lot of cheese)