Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Cheese making in the city

As a gardener and cook, I get restless for winter projects. The winter section of any "garden through the year" book usually focuses on forcing bulbs, caring for house plants, and planning for the spring. Sometimes, the author describes (in great envy-inducing detail) their enclosed winter garden, or their warm greenhouse redolent with tropical blooms. Sadly, a personal greenhouse is not available to me. Maybe I will force bulbs this year: I need to remind myself that I am not obligated to stick to big gaudy amaryllis. But cheese making is my real winter craft. I have the time, and it mimics the patient waiting of gardening....weeks and months go by before you can taste the product of your effort.

Now, this is admittedly not a true "seasonal" project. From my (quite) limited experience and occasional bedside reading, pasture-raised cows and other mammalian livestock are not pouring forth gallons of creamy milk in the winter. I assume this has to do with the amount of pasture food available and seasonal patterns of calving. For better or for worse, the industrial dairy complex has made milk available year-round, at a stable price. The politics of contemporary dairy and egg production are discussed at great length by more qualified writers than me (see Pollan, as a start), so I will leave it to them to enumerate the horrors of this practice. Like it or not, this is the milk I have access to at the moment. So, I am using it here, all though I do shell out for the freshest, least processed milk I can find. I have, though, made great cheese with -gulp of guilt- Walgreen's milk. My ideal would be to make cheese from my own organically-raised pasture fed animals. Since my livestock for now consists of red wriggler worms, I don't have many options.

The Chicago Reader just featured a discouraging article about cheese making. I rolled my eyes while reading, since the author seemed to have not used a reliable recipe and chose mozzarella as her project. Homemade mozzarella is often the starting point for new cheese makers, and I think this is a mistake. Visions of creamy pillows of buffalo milk mozzarella dance in your head, and what you get is dense rubbery balls. This has to do with the quality of the milk (farm-fresh unpasteurized is best), and a lot to do with technique. Good mozzarella (or I should say passable mozzarella) only comes with careful measurement of pH and temperature and sacrificing your hands to uncomfortably high water temperatures. A new cheese maker is probably not going to take the time to find pH testing strips, so whatever accessible low-tech recipe they use is probably going to yield an inferior product.

A much better plan is feta cheese. It is salty and sharp, and its texture is more forgiving for the home producer. Now, you will still need to invest in some cheese making products, but it's like worm composting! With a few clicks on the Internet and the price of a round of drinks, you will have the needed components for months of DIY fun. I always use Ricki Carroll's -- I haven't found a local source, although I'm sure its out there. The best feta recipe I have tried is a recent one, from Fine Cooking:
I've made it twice, and it is really good, far better than supermarket feta cheese. I served it to co-workers on crackers with my Concord grape preserves and it disappeared rapidly.

Once you feel comfortable with basic cheese making techniques, fun projects abound: check out Ricki Carroll's book Home Cheese Making. Gardeners can wrap their cheeses in their own fresh herbs or age them in brined grape leaves from their vines. Not all of the cheeses will taste great on the first attempt, but that's part of the fun. When you do make a great cheese, like the feta above, success is all the more sweet. And with every attempt, you gain skills and experience. I will be ready when I finally get my own goats!

No comments:

Post a Comment