September 7, 2012 by drandmrso
Friends, I’ve been in mourning the last two weeks. Mourning the loss of a great personal endeavor, five weeks in the making. An artistic culinary project that took time, skill, patience, and more than a little milk. I’ve been mourning the loss of a cheese.
Two years ago my parents, after much chiding in the vein of “Wow, you really did go native in Wisconsin!”, gave me a cheesemaking starter kit; which, by the way, I definitely recommend as a gift for the person that is pro-dairy, pro-permaculture, pro-cooking, or really any combination thereof. I dove right in, making mozzarella with relatively few mishaps within a few short weeks. Admittedly I did forget to add the salt on the first batch and reaffirmed that low-sodium cheese blows. But in actuality, the whole process is pretty simple (for specific instructions, check out Cheesemaking.com or buy a book).
- Get yourself some high-quality, non-homogenized, organic (if you’re into that; I am), fresh-from-the-utter, full-fat milk. Usually this means you’re buying it in glass bottles. Bonus: you get your deposit back when you return the bottles so it feels like you’re making money on the whole process!
- Heat it up, add some citric acid, heat it up some more, and add rennet. Rennet is to cheesemaking as yeast is to beermaking: it makes all the magic happen.
- Let the milk settle for a while and it will separate into curds and whey (yes–that ol’ nursery rhyme about whatsherface on the tufftet thing is somewhat accurate!).
- Cut the curds, drain off the whey.
- Heat up the curds again and stretch it all taffy-style and for the love of God add salt, and you’ve got yourself a delicious, fresh mozzarella! Check out those mozzaballs:
Soon I was itching for a new, deliciously cheesy challenge. After perusing “Home Cheesemaking” by Ricki Carroll (the bible of all things cheese), I attempted chevre. Holy goaty goodness! The soft texture combined with that distinct goat cheese flavor meant weeks of chevre-based meals and snacks: grilled chevre sandwhiches, bagels with chevre and honey, spaghetti with chevreballs, chevre on a stick, etc. So far, so good, on this cheesemaking adventure.
I built up my confidence with soft cheeses, but the true challenge of any chester* worth her cheese salt is a hard cheese. You know, the kind that you buy in block form that has aged for months or years before you get to enjoy it on a cracker with a little salami and some wine. (Are you drooling yet? Because I’ve already taken two snack breaks writing this post.) The key to making a hard cheese, however, is a piece of equipment called a cheese press. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like…it presses cheese. But it’s crucial to have one that can control the exact poundage of pressure (engineering friends: yes, that is the correct term). So my darling husband bought me one for Christmas last year! Oh happy day! Birds sang! Trumpets sounded! I was off to the races! Oh–wait, what’s that? My terrible, terrible apartment was super drafty and was a totally inhospitable cheese aging environment?! Le sigh.
Fast forward six months to our new, shiny house with air conditioning (!) and I was finally ready to take on the challenge: Farmhouse Cheddar. This particular cheese is great initiation into hard cheeses because it only takes five weeks to age (compared to literally years on others). So, on a hot day in July (because ALL of them were around here), I cooked up a cheddar cheese and threw the curds in the press:
After pressing overnight, I followed the instructions and let it air dry for four days to develop a rind. When the four days were up, I painted on the cheese wax:
And then I waited. And waited, and waited, and waited, and waited, and waited. About every four days Dr O would ask, “Is the cheese ready yet?!” To which I would inevitably reply, “No, and if you ask one more time I’ll turn this car around!”
Finally, five weeks from the outset, the day of tasting arrived. I carefully cut into the mini-wheel, and it looked wonderful:
We had invited a couple of our new resident friends and their significant others over to join in the fanfare. Little did we know it was actually a great thing that they couldn’t come. Because, friends, this was the first and last bite I took of that cheddar:
It was, in a word, terrible. Just. So. Awful. Probably the worst cheese I’ve ever tasted. It was like I had been aging it in a high school hockey locker room and had then spritzed it with week-old flower vase water. Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. But Dr O agreed that, sadly, the cheese was indeed entirely inedible. After a moment of silence–who am I kidding, after a moment of exclaiming loudly over my embarrassingly awful culinary failure, we chucked the cheddar into the garbage.
The hard part is going to be figuring out what went wrong. But you know what? I’ll accept that challenge. Because even though my first mozzarella was a salt-less monstrosity, the next one was better. And the next one after that was even better. And now I’d say my mozzarella is pretty great. So I’ll try another cheddar again soon. But don’t expect an invitation to the tasting party just yet.
*Definitely just made up that term, but I like it.