Saturday, October 16, 2010

Cheese Conquest

When I finally got around to reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle about a year ago, I was taken by the small section on cheese making. I love cheese. And it smacked of self-sufficiency. I love that stuff, too. I had visited cheese farms in the Netherlands, and in Switzerland. They were small farms, but I still left with the feeling that making cheese was some archaic art that took lost of equipment and experience. Here Kingsolver was suggesting that it didn't, at least for some cheese. No special equipment and thirty minutes of their day. Craziness.

Some months later, I did a bit more Internet research, ordered a book from Amazon and convinced myself that soft-cheeses weren't that hard. And, how cool would that be, making cheese. Who makes cheese? It's that kind of thing. The book I had showed a number of easy cheeses - well, it claimed there were 200, but reviewing those, I decided there was a difference in our definition of easy. Still, I sought out the Kingsolver recommended New England Cheesemaking Company for supplies. One of their products is a 30-minute mozzarella and ricotta kit. Roaming the site, I also discovered yogurt and the yogatherm, and I now make righteous whole milk yogurt every week, but that's a different story.

About six months ago, my cheese kit and other supplies arrived. The Cheese Queen, Ricki, said that you could often use store bought milk, just normal store milk. The key is that it can't be ultra-pasteurized, because the high temperatures of UP kill everything, good and bad, and make cheese formulation impossible. Of course, she recommended too that you use the most local milk possible for the best cheese. Lacking a readily available local milk supply and confidence in my cheese making ability, I went with the store label. it was packaged in Landover, MD. It was pasteurized and homogenized. And $2.60 /gallon; cheap enough to fail.

But, I didn't fail. It also didn't take me thirty minutes. The first attempt was a good hour and, over time, I got it closer to 45 minutes, maybe less. But sure enough, our gallon of milk converted into a tasty pound of mozzarella. My son loved helping. It's a weird enough process to be fun for kids. Over the last six months, I've made the mozzarella probably 5 times, and several other cheeses like ricotta and fromage blanc, too. All with success.

So last week, I decided, I needed to overcome my irrational dislike of eggplant (it's purple), and at least supplant that with something rational (it doesn't taste good). I've never cooked eggplant, I don't recall eating  it more than once, but the farmer's market is chock-a-block now with eggplant in different shapes, sizes, and colors. I was going to give it a whirl. I decided the long lavender coloured ones were the coolest, and that I would transform them into eggplant parmesan. What's more perfect than that when you can make your own mozzarella ??!  I figured, I just had to love eggplant then.  So, on Columbus Day afernoon, I set about making cheese. I was also mucking with the eggplant, so I was slightly distracted. To my dismay, the cheese didn't take. Instead of stretchy curds, I had thick papermache goo. Ugh. You are kidding me. I must have done something wrong. Rummaging around the fridge, I was able to scrounge up another gallon, exactly, of milk, and gave it another whirl. It seemed better. Curds formed, and then,... everything fell apart. I had thicker goo. An hour-and-a-half in, no cheese, complete failure. No eggplant parmesan.

I went on the website and started researching. It turns out that a lot of manufacturers are increasing the temperature of their pasteurization to the point of being nearly ultra-pasteurized. They don't have to label it that way because it hasn't hit the magic mark, but you simply can't make cheese with it. Ricki showed pictures of various stages of overheated milk in the mozzarella process, and sure enough, I'd seen them: looks like curds, then bam! it all falls apart. But, I still wasn't 100% convinced and I was ending on a failure note. Not good. Her answer: use local milk.  So, Wednesday, I made my way to the MOMs Organic Market in Jessup for the first time, seeking non-UP local milk. I found Trickling Springs there. A gallon of organic milk is $5.99, but it is from Maryland and promised not to be high temperature pasteurized.

My son and I set about conquering the cheese. I was determined we were going out on a high note. What we discovered was that all of our previous successes were borderline. When you made the cheese from local milk, your process actually looked like the pictures in the manual from the cheese kit! The curds were, as you'll see below, like real curds. In the past, they'd always been a bit suspect. In the end, we had fabulous cheese. Textbook. Still forty-five minutes. We ate a good chunk right then and there, and had ourselves a European supper of cold cuts, cheese, and fruit.
The curds look like curds!

The bowl of finished curds

Kenai stretches the hot cheese - it is HOT!

I also collected the whey from the cheese. Since milk is mostly water, you get nearly 4 quarts of whey from making the cheese. In the past, I was just focused on getting the cheese done and the whey didn't seem clear enough. Why whey? It's high in protein (think energy bars) and other nutrients. It can be used  in a wide range of recipes (Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, for example, is full of them) or beverages. You can make bread with it, as the New England Cheesemaking Company suggests. And when you've done all that work, tossing it feels like you're tossing something valuable. You are. It's not water, it's whey.  I kept about 3-1/2 quarts of our whey this time.

Lemonade?! No, Whey!
(the caption above can be attributed to my 8-year old)

The final product - cheese balls! 
The cheese can be used right away or can be wrapped in saran wrap and stored in the fridge for a few weeks. The other cheese in the "supper" picture is a soft white cheese called Fromagina. It's kind of like Fromage Blanc, and is much easier to make.

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