Did I mention my friend Jim is a dedicated man? The cheese report is in, and he’s been a very busy boy the past couple of weeks. Here’s the fromage report from Troy, NY:
I have learned much about cheese in the last couple of weeks, partly from books and partly from actually making cheese. One result of my recently acquired cheese knowledge is that I no longer feel quite so intimidated standing before the cheese people at the Honest Weight food coop in Albany (home of the widest cheese selection in the area, probably until you get to Boston, Montreal or NYC), who are all off-the-charts extroverts bent on finding out what you *really* want in the way of cheese today, even if you *really* just want to poke around. That, as it turns out, is the worst thing you can do, for it gives them the opportunity to point out and talk about ten different cheeses as you stand there, trapped and nodding. Now, when they’re going on and on about blackberry notes I can, if I so choose, shoot back “Mesophilic or thermophilic?”
The thing that continues to strike me is how similar the cheese recipes are, both in terms of ingredients and procedure. Yet subtle differences can apparently make a big difference in the final products. Here’s the basic outline of how it goes:
o curdle the milk
o separate the curds from the whey
o drain the curd
o optionally age
The curdling phase can be done through a variety of methods. You can just use an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar or you can use rennet. As it turns out, rennet works best in a slightly acidic environment and the way that has traditionally been achieved is through the action of a starter culture (usually particular to a locale). Optimal curdling and whey separation usually take place at quite specific temperatures. The draining off the whey can be as simple as fishing out the curd masses and hanging it all up bundled in cheesecloth. This is the method for fresh cheeses. Firm cheeses usually require the use of a cheese press. Both fresh and firm cheeses can be brined but only the firm cheeses get aged to any degree. Milk is composed of roughly 7/8 water. So if you start with 8lbs milk (1 gallon) you have about 1lb of solids in there. Therefore, firm cheese recipes typically yield about 1lb per gallon of milk, whereas fresh cheeses vary from 1.5 to 2lb per gallon, depending on how much you drain them.
I have to date only tackled fresh cheeses: lemon cheese, mozzarella, ricotta, fromage blanc and chevre.
This was my first culture/rennet cheese and I managed to screw it up. There are two general types of cultures: low temperature (mesophilic) and high temperature (thermophilic). Most Italian cheeses, including mozzarella, call for the thermophilic culture. The recipe I was following had two temperature ranges at which ingredients needed to be added. Well, in my disorganization, I managed to overheat the milk past the second temperature. Panicked, I pulled the milk (2 gallons!) out of the double boiler and weighed my options. I considered trying to cool the milk down but figured that I might have already changed it in some way so I resorted to just dumping everything — the culture, rennet and lipase powder (used to add some funkiness, mostly in Italian cheeses) — in at once. Mozzarella, along with provolone, is a cheese that gets kneaded toward the end of the process. But you have to knead it hot, like 145F, which is tough on the hands. I was never able to get a nice stringy consistency and finally just decided to roll it up into balls and throw it into some brine. The cheese was still good but way too dense. I’m pretty sure my initial screw up had a lot to do with that but his recipe, titled “30-minute Mozzarella” also called for microwaving the curd in order to heat it up and this gave me pause. I will try a more traditional method next time and keep a closer eye on the temperature.
Ricotta is usually made with left over whey so it is a natural accompaniment to mozzarella. This cheese is made the same way as lemon cheese; you heat up the whey (I added a quart of milk to boost the yield) and then dump in a 1/4 cup of vinegar. The curdling is immediate and you then scoop out the cheese. It was good, though much dryer than store bought. As a result, the kids wouldn’t go near it but I slipped some into the pancake batter the next morning and Xavie, our most finicky eater, actually liked them.
Sure sounds nicer than “white cheese,” eh? It’s very similar to chevre, but made with cow’s milk. This batch I almost screwed up. Due to a reading comprehension issue and an oddly worded recipe, I ended up using many times the prescribed rennet. The ingredient list said to use 3 drops of liquid rennet diluted in 5 tbsp of water. So I prepared that solution and when the time came, I dumped it into the milk. Only later did I reread the text of the recipe and realized that I skipped over the part about how you should only use 1 tbsp of the diluted rennet. But the cheese was very good. This is why I say “almost” screwed up. I added a bit of salt and chopped chives after it was finished draining.
The chevre came off without a hitch. I found a 1/2 gallon of goat’s milk at the above mentioned food coop. It cost $9. I was so shocked by the price that I went back to the cheese area and looked at the prices of the chevre. My rough calculations told me that I may be losing money making this myself. But I was determined to do it. For this recipe I had on hand a chevre culture, though I’m not sure how it differed from the standard low temperature culture I had used for the fromage blanc. After about 24 hours the goat’s milk was transformed into a delicious chevre. Although I can’t say it is superior to store bought, it’s certainly fresher.
So that’s my update. I’ve pretty much finished building and calibrating my cheese press and will probably attempt a firm cheese tonight. Did I mention that I bought a mini fridge for $40? Rita rolled her eyes at the news. But a “cheese cave” is essential for aging. Or maybe she’s prefer that I build a cave in the back yard.
I’m pretty anxious to taste that chevre. Also plotting about how to show up at Jim’s house with a couple of quarts of buffalo milk in hand. Until that time, I’ll have to content myself with dropping the words mesophilic and thermophilic around our local cheese extroverts.