Jen's World: Happiness, thy name is cheese
The Winklers, our friends from Green Bay, visited during the weekend. We entertained ourselves with hiking at Quarry Hill, laser tag at Bowlocity, and ukelele in the living room — often two or three of us playing at a time. (But rarely the same song. It was something to behold.)
Despite these adventures, the weekend's highlight might've been — as usual — the Opening Night Cheese Feast.
Because the Winklers hail from Wisconsin — the undisputed land of cheese — they always arrive bearing an armload of the stuff. After we've gotten through our greetings and hugs, they dump the various wax- and plastic-wrapped portions on the kitchen counter. 12-year cheddar. Blueberry-marbled stilton. White curds that snap when you bite into them.
Oh, happiness, thy name is cheese. I adore it so much that I once learned to make it.
It was about five years ago, when I first learned that my friend (and local farmer) Dawn Sanborn knew a thing or two about making cheese. It was a skill, she said, brought on by necessity. Adding goats to her farm meant a surplus of goat's milk. And a surplus of goat's milk meant learning to make butter, sour cream, ice cream, yogurt, and — yes — cheese. Lucky for me, she wasn't opposed to sharing her skills.
We arranged a lesson in my kitchen for a sunny spring afternoon. Dawn arrived with a crate of accoutrements (pots, thermometers, cheesecloth), and several jugs of whole milk — including a few half-gallons produced by her own goats.
"What's the difference between goat milk and cow milk?" I asked.
"Here," she replied, grabbing two glasses from my cupboard. "See for yourself."
I tried to explain that I don't actually drink whole milk — even if it's from a cow. That I prefer my milk thin and ice cold — "blue milk" my dairy farmer grandpa would call it. So, really, no thanks. But Dawn was too busy pouring to listen properly. She set the half-full glasses in front of me and said, "See what you think."
I mentally balanced the retching that would come from taking a drink against the embarrassment of refusing. And then I sipped. First, the goat's milk. Then the cow's.
"Well?" Dawn asked.
"Not as bad as I expected," I answered. And it was true. "The cow's milk seems sweeter."
"That's what I think, too," she said.
During the next two and a half hours, Dawn taught me to make three different kinds of cheese: chevre, mozzarella, and ricotta. Which, if you're me, is about the most excitement you can stand in a single day.
Here's what I learned: Different cheeses are made from different cultures — or combinations of cultures. For the chevre, which was our first cheese, we sprinkled the culture into the goat's milk, stirred it, then added a rennet solution. Rennet helps milk form the curds and whey necessary for making cheese. (Whey, by the way, is the liquid left over after milk curdles — and not simply a mysterious nursery rhyme reference.)
Dawn told me to let the chevre sit for 12 hours before straining it through cheesecloth, and then let it hang for 12 more hours. "In the morning," she said, "you'll have fresh chevre ready to rock."
Then we moved on to mozzarella. This was a little more complicated since it required keeping a close eye on the temperature. First, we heated the milk to 55 degrees, then mixed in the culture (citric acid). At 88 degrees, we added the rennet. And, man alive, it was like magic — instant curds.
We spooned out the curds, then microwaved them for one minute. We kneaded the curds — now one big blob — with a spoon to remove the remaining whey. Microwaved. Kneaded. Microwaved. Kneaded. Until the mozzarella started looking (and tasting) like … mozzarella. Shiny, white and ripe for pizza.
I was so impressed with the mozzarella that the ricotta is a blur. I remember stirring the whey and waiting for it to reach 200 degrees. The next thing I knew, it was in my refrigerator in Tupperware.
The following morning, I brought my creations to the Rochester Magazine office to share. "I brought cheese!" I announced as I walked in, as if I was bearing gold or bonus PTO hours. And, sure, it wasn't a Winkler-level cheese frenzy, but there was considerable oohing and ahhing. Mostly coming from me.