Sunday, February 20, 2011

Say Cheese

Occasionally I play mad scientist in the kitchen. This was one of those moments, and it was such an interesting experience that I wanted to share it.

For those who came looking for a sewing post, they'll be back soon. Promise. My version of spring fever gives me loads of energy and no focus, and I'm all over the place without effecting much change other than to leave rubble strewn in my wake. This is not always good for sewing, and infuriating when I return to a chaotic workroom that I can't convince someone else to clean up.

A few weeks ago, when spring fever started boinging around inside my head like a tennis ball, I got an idea. Normally when I'm antsy, I sew, but spring brings on a different, more concentrated antsiness, and if I can't work it off in the garden, or build something in the house, it generally devolves into some project that trashes my kitchen. Since it's too early to put the veggies in, there was nothing interesting left to try to preserve and I haven't gotten past the planning stage of the next building project, I decided to try to make cheese.

After some exploratory reading, the idea became more insistent. And then we went to the farmer's market last weekend, and I noticed for the first time that one of the farmers sells raw milk. Hmmm. I toted home a half gallon, which sat in the fridge, looking at me accusingly, for the better part of the week. (Trying to keep someone from pouring it over his cereal was also fun; that stuff costs way too much for breakfast).

The other night, Mario went out, and I decided it was time. Making cheese, at least beginner cheese like this, is surprisingly easy, as evidenced by the fact that I never forgot to take pictures of the process. All that was required, besides the milk, was a big pot, a thermometer, a strainer, some cheesecloth and an acid (white vinegar or lemon juice).

I poured the milk into a pot and turned on the heat. The milk needed to be brought to just below the boiling point, or around 185 degrees. I had to pull the thermometer out and check whether the black or red numbers were the ones I was supposed to look at, since the C and F were hidden on the far end.

I'm not a big milk drinker (I drank it by the gallon as a kid, but around age 12, it started to taste sour) but I was curious about raw milk and whether it would taste different. I don't know if it's from lack of processing, or lack of hormones or the better feed the cows eat, but this stuff was really tasty. And when was the last time you opened a bottle of milk and there was cream floating on top?

After a few minutes, when the milk hit about the 160 mark, the milk developed a wrinkly skin on top while starting to bubble around the edges. I'm surprised the skin actually came up in the photo. A few minutes more and it hit 185, but the milk still wasn't boiling. I gave it another minute and 10 degrees before I took the next step, taking the pot off the heat and pouring in 1/4 cup of lemon juice, very slowly, and stirring.

Once the acid hit the milk, all kind of fun chemical reactions took place. Basically I curdled the milk, and the stirring was to separate the curds (solid, soon to be cheese) from the whey (liquid, leftover milk with the proteins knocked out). After I'd stirred and stirred, and no more curds appeared, I took a slotted spoon and removed the curds to a strainer lined with cheesecloth.

I let the curds drain for a while, and then tied them up in the cheesecloth and let them continue to drain overnight.

As I went to clean up, I looked at the big pot of whey on the stove, and realized that almost 3/4 of the bottle was still left, though it was technically no longer milk. I sampled it, and amazingly, couldn't taste the lemon at all. It still tasted milky, but not quite. What to do with it?

When in doubt, ask the Google. I came upstairs, turned on the computer, and typed in, "uses for leftover whey from cheesemaking." Other than to ask me if I meant to say "cheese making" instead of "cheesemaking," it had a ton of suggestions. The best one was to use it in place of water in bread recipes. Making bread is on my list for the weekend, so I poured the whey back into the milk bottle and put it in the fridge.

This morning I got up early to play with my cheese. I unwrapped it, and cut it into cubes and put it in a bowl with olive oil, salt, some red pepper flakes and a few chopped sundried tomatoes. Left to marinate in the fridge all day, it made a yummy post-work snack this evening, and there's plenty left for the rest of the weekend.

The whole process, from start to "forgetting" to do the dishes (remember the part about the rubble strewn in my wake?) took less than an hour, plus a few minutes in the morning to finish it off. And it tastes really good, did I mention that? Creamy and spicy and really fresh.

I'm definitely going to try this again, see what other flavorings I have around the kitchen that would work well with a simple cheese like this.

So, okay, I made cheese. It forced me to focus, it drained off some of the excess energy, and I learned a new skill that will keep us fed (and me occupied) in the future. Not saying I'll never buy cheese again, at least not until I have the space to acquire goats to make my own chevre, but this was a good evening for me - I learned, yet again, that complicated stuff doesn't have to be that complicated, that it's not difficult or expensive to eat good, healthy food, and that there are way less useful ways to spend an evening than to absorb a new skill and expand my mind a little.

So, I made cheese Thursday night. What did you do?


KayY said...

High fat yogurt makes lovely soft spreadable cheese too and you don't have to heat it up or anything. Skip directly to the stage of putting it in the cheesecloth.

Becky said...

Oh, fun! Part of me always wanted to try that--I was a big fan of the Little House on the Prairie books when I was growing up, and all of the descriptions about how they'd make everything from scratch really fascinated me. Doesn't look like it's that hard, actually! Other than maybe finding the raw milk.

melissa said...

oh yeah, I did this a few months ago for the first time and I felt like a GOD to tell people I made cheese.

To other readers - you don't need raw milk - regular ol' whole milk works just fine (and the cheese will last as long as the expiry date). I really want to try it again soon and add in herbs next time. :)

Anonymous said...

I have been wanting make cheese for a while. Actually, thinking about making some ricotta cheese for lasagna. However, this weekend, I played mad scientist and made lip balm. That was easy and fun, and the only thing that stopped from making more was that I ran out of containers.

Brenda said...

I love this post. I don't mind at all that it isn't about sewing. I love cooking. I am working on my bread making skills. I would love to try cheese, too! Knitting lessons are on the horizon.

Rose said...

I was fascinated reading you Cheese Post. I may even try it the next time I get ADD with my sewing. It may help and I may have something good to eat as a result. Thursday night? I was house cleaning with company coming for the weekend. Cheese making sounds like more fun!!

The Slapdash Sewist said...

This is how I make paneer cheese, though much less scientific. When the milk starts to simmer, stir in yogurt until it curdles, then fish out the curds. I never found a use for the leftover whey so I stopped making it as it seemed such a waste. I do make bread, though...

Little Hunting Creek said...

I made bread with my drained yogurt cheese whey and it was delicious. And people are so impressed when you say you made the cheese. And as you showed, it is really easy. And delicious!

Anonymous said...

What you've just made is called paneer. You don't need a specific temperature- when you see the milk starting to boil over, start adding the lemon juice. If you keep some sort of weight on it and drain all liquid from it, it becomes tighter. You can then cut into cubes and use as is, or lightly shallow-fry them to use in pulav recipes or other vegetable dishes (can google for ideas on using paneer in Indian food recipes)

fairmount said...

In answer to your question, "What did you do?" I read blogs that detailed what other people did.

I don't make bread often but my favorite is on the back of the King Arthur whole wheat flour package. Delicious! Mimi