No one expects to become an expert cheesemaker in three days, but Kate and I got a good feel for the basics during our stay in Ohio. We started at the source, taking our turns milking the genial Miss Ola, who only slightly balked at the hands of neophyte cityslickers before being handed back to her more efficient keeper, Kate’s nephew John. The lovely Jersey turns out milk with a high butterfat content, so there’s not only plenty of cream, but one of our first cheeses, a mascarpone, was so yellow that we kept mistaking it for butter.
Cheese making is part science experiment, part wanton flaunting of the food rules. It is chem-lab fun to watch the milk evolve from liquid to a solid, gelatinous curd that can be cut into squares. It feels slightly naughty to leave gallons of milk in the oven, overnight, to encourage it to spoil. (In the best possible of ways, of course.)
We started out slow and easy, with yogurt cheese (lebneh), draining off the yogurt made the night before, mixing in some fresh chives to make a spread for fresh market bread. No special skills or equipment needed for this one, just yogurt and some cheesecloth. The buttery-looking mascarpone (made for use in tiramisu and a special-request batch of lobster mac and cheese) inspired us to also try it for a variation of the Mexican roasted corn-on-the-cob recipe elote, tossing the ears with some of the cheese, chipotle powder, a hit of salt and squeeze of fresh lime.
Onward into more complex territory with Cotswold, a cheddar-like cheese with chives and onion. The process offers a feel for cutting the solidifying cheese into curds after the culture is added, and cooking it down to separate the curds from the whey. (Oh, so that’s what Little Miss Muffett was talking about. . . ) And who knew that the leftover whey makes a refreshing lemonade-like drink, with the addition of some fresh mint or lemon balm?
“Time to flip the cheese,” became the battle cry as we patiently pressed curds into cheese molds and flipped the Cotswold, and the Gorgonzola that followed it, every few hours to remove the liquids and form the cheeses for aging. (Confession here: We paid John $20 to flip the gorgonzola its first night, as the process went well after midnight and into the wee hours. Failure to read the recipe completely before starting.) Cheesemaking requires a high level of patience, indeed. And anything other than a fresh cheese, like lebneh or mascarpone, offers no immediate reward. We still don’t know the results of our Cotswold, as the cheese needs to mature. Although it looked good when Kate and I split up the wheel to take home to our separate cheese caves (read: kitchens) as an additional experiment in the effect of climate between D.C. and New York, a kind of nature vs. nurture test. The baby Gorgonzola had to be left behind, as it was still too delicate to be pried from its mold. We hope it rests well and look forward to enjoying its fully matured company in early fall. Although, like any offspring, there’s really no predicting how it will turn out.
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The cheese at the market doesn’t seem so expensive anymore (and they get to store it until it is ready). Not that I don’t want to play with curds and whey.