Cheese-Making

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Tempering the milk to 80°F

This is now the second time I’ve attempted to make cheese. I think that today could even be considered a success, given that the finished product actually looks like a loaf of mozzarella. There were times, though, when I thought that it was not going to be this successful.

First of all, I used ‘fresh’ milk, ‘pasteurized’ but not ‘ultra-pasteurized’.  The freshness of the milk, though, is in some question given how it behaved during the development of the cheese; and while the pasteurization is not in doubt (since there’d be no cheese at all if it had been ultra-pasteurized), I have to say that it was very touch-and-go, and I probably won’t be using this particular dairy-provider again if I want to make cheese again.

That said, I bought my cheese-making kit from the Haberdashery, which presumably got it from Ricki the cheese queen (at cheesemaking.com.  For a second effort at mozzarella, it looks good (although I’m going to wait a few  days more post-allergy/dairy reaction before trying it — I just had a chance to buy the milk today, and process it this way, and this is a skill I’d like to get good at eventually).

Let’s see… what went wrong this time, as opposed to last time?  The big thing is that apparently I over-stirred the curds. They dissolved into tiny chunks, and a good many of them washed down the drain during the process of pouring off the whey.  I may have had half-again as much cheese as I did, had I properly handled the process of dissolving the rennet into the heated milk.  Stirring the curds after giving the curds a chance to set reduced the whole assembly to a mess — which is more or less when I stopped taking photographs, because if I had kept taking photos I probably would have ruined all of the curds instead of most of them.

But I get ahead of myself.

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Stirring the curds

Why make cheese at all?

Well, surprisingly enough, it has to do with something that Gordon (that guy again) posted more than four years ago, about Do It Yourself festivals, and then again last September, he did his own Roman festival.  I don’t know that I want to go as far as he did, frankly, in preparing a sumptuous if weird meal for his magical delectation, but I figured — I’m going to produce something remarkable. for an upcoming festival or two, just to move away from the all-too-ordinary ways that we celebrate festivals in this day and age. And if I’m going to learn to work a festival that requires particular foods, I’m going to learn how to make some of them from scratch.

Two more times through this recipe with the correct ingredients, and I think I’ll have it down.

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Setting the curds—   not much to look at: very still, and very covered

 

Plus, there’s the teaching aspects to consider. Cheese-making is largely a lost art. It involves working with odd ingredients in complicated and precise ways that can be done by look and feel in a very primitive kitchen or cheese-maker’s shed, or with highly sterile equipment in a thoroughly modern factory.  One way or another, we’ve been curdling cow’s milk and curing it with microbes for a long time.  It’s a way of connecting us back to our ancestors’ stories in remarkable ways.  Plus, it’s an easier way of teaching fermentation, I suspect, than whipping up a batch of mead.  And that means it’s a way of cultivating a healthy respect for the benefits that come from the microbial world, as well as the risks.

Going through this process twice, now, has revealed a lot of singular truths that I hadn’t expected to gain, though.  For one, it’s both easier than I expected, and harder.  Easier, in that it didn’t take very long either time, and in both cases I was very cautious about reading the directions frequently, and double-checking every step as I went along.  Harder, in that I wasn’t expecting to dip my hands into almost boiling water, nor to be stretching cheese curds like taffy, nor to be tasting curdled milk surreptitiously off my fingers.  It felt primitive, even while using my best large cooking pot and my single best knife to turn milk into curds and whey.

Little Miss Mufffet
Sat on a Tuffet
Eating her Curds and Whey.
Along came a spider
that sat down beside her
and frightened Miss Muffet away.

— Published 1805

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melting the curds together in a water bath

Getting the curds together into the water bath was the most difficult part of the operation. The goal was originally to save the whey, but it turns out that was a highly difficult process. I also should have made more of an effort to spoon the curds into the colander rather than just pouring off the whey (and losing a good many curds in the process).

Anyway, the water-bath.  The basic process is rather alchemical, really:

  1. add citric acid in water to a pot that is heating up.
  2. Add a gallon of milk to it and stir vigorously
  3. heat up this gallon of milk to a given temperature;
  4. add rennet
  5. Stir vigorously for no more than 50 seconds in an up-and-down motion
  6. Leave it to sit quietly for a period of time
  7. Remove the lid, cut the curds into sections, and heat up the curds and whey together
  8. Pour off the whey (although with all my double-checking, I may have this bit here incorrect)
  9. Ladle the curds into a colander and immerse in a water bath of not-quite-boiling water
  10. In effect, melt the curds together into a lump
  11. stretch the lump in a variety of ways until it shines
  12. return to the Bain-Marie whenever it doesn’t stretch or become more flexible
  13. Burn your hands and try not to curse too much
  14. Salt the cheese, shape into the desired form, and immerse in two different kinds of cold water

There’s obviously a lot more to it than that, but thank Ricki the Cheese Queen (http://cheesemaking.com, again) and send her a little love and money if you want to learn to make cheese.  DOn’t expect this website to be much help — I’m a beginner, this is my second time, and I’m doing it for reasons, rather than to teach you.

Although sooner or later I’m likely to teach somebody.

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The Finished Cheese

Because let’s be transparent here: I learn a good many things, but often so that I can teach them to students.  And this struck me as a valuable thing to teach, precisely because it is so deep and ancient and modern all at the same time.  It touches on certain kinds of magic, certain kinds of ritual, and certain kinds of ceremony — most of which have nothing to do with the high and mighty forms of magic, and everything to do with one of the most basic kinds of magic there is: putting delicious food which is special to an occasion on the table for all to eat.

There will be nothing of this dish to take home when we make it in school, I’m sure.  It’s far too delicious, and frankly far too empowering — here is all this liquid milk, and we are now going to convert it to a type of philosopher’s stone.

Maybe that’s pushing the metaphor a little too far.  All the same, my friend Matt assures me that this book has a recipe for turning milk into plastic.  So maybe there’s a really interesting eight-week class for my school in here somewhere…

More than that, though, there’s a new-found power that comes from the idea that food is a thing of power.  Over the weekend, I finished reading Eric Purdue’s new translation of Book 1 of Henry Cornelius Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy,  and the following quotation resonated with me as none ever did from Tyson’s translation:

“Thus inferior and superior are connected with each other, as the influence from their head the First Cuase as it were with a certain tensed string, stretched as far as the lowest.  If one end is touched, suddenly the entirety will tremble to the extent that teach end will resound and move.  The inferior and the superior move as one, which correspond, as it were, like a well-tuned string in a cithera.” (p.104)

By art, and by taking direction, and by care, and by the bringing together of certain ingredients, with much prayer (and some prattle,  I must admit), I have brought forth a wonder.  No so much of a wonder that the ancients might marvel at it, it is true.  But it is a marvel, and it is another way that I can enrich the lives of those around me.

What an extraordinary world we live in, that such a thing as cheese-making is possible.

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11 comments

  1. I wonder if a seive – I guess it would have to be a deep one – or a mash bag (I use a mash bag, which is nylon, and does fine in a hot dryer but might not do so well is straight-up boiling water) would work better than a colander for straining the curds without losing them down the drain. Thoughts?
    Glad things are working better on Round Two. How’s the stomach doing?

    • A sieve might work, but I think the best solution is probably to make sure I have the right kind of milk to start with, and that I don’t stir too long. My first batch was genuinely raw milk; my second batch was pasteurized but allegedly not ultra-pasteurized… but it broke up into curds that would easily have slipped through a mesh bag. Maybe my butter- muslin is the best option, though it would be a hassle to wash.

      As far as the stomach goes, I had a little bit of cheese with dinner. It’s been an hour without general detriment, but we’ll see.

      • Not having easy access to raw milk (and not wanting to pay the price for it either), my option would be to go with the muslin. But if raw milk is easy to get ahold of, then go with that if it means the curds will work better.
        I’ve got a triad of friends who make paneer (no rennet required) with raw milk on the regular, and they’ve mentioned that the curds coagulate much better with that than with the pasturized stuff, so… yes?
        Glad your stomach has been okay so far. 🙂

        • I’d have to agree with your triad: even with all the extra hullabaloo required for the raw milk, namely keeping it below a certain temperature to avoid true pasteurization, it was much easier to work with. The curds were the size of nickels-to-quarters in diameter, rather than thumbtack-heads-to-pinhead sized. Much easier to work with in the long run than the pasteurized stuff from a commercial dairy.

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