The Miracle of Cheese
April 12, 2011
A few weekends ago on a whim, I signed up for a cheese making class. I don’t know why it’s taken me over 35+ years to do so, because one thing is true. I revere cheese. Or should I say, cheese is my Kryptonite. It weakens me. Yes, chocolate is tempting, champagne and wine are equally desirable (and quite frankly necessities), but the reason I will never be a Size 2 can be summed up in one word. Cheese.
There are several things in life that go hand in hand. Hot dogs and baseball. Peas and carrots. Bert and Ernie. Bo and Luke. Around these parts, the two delectables that go hand in hand are wine and cheese. It’s just how I was raised.
I showed up a few minutes late at this ‘advanced’ artisan cheese making class, and they were doing that ‘icebreaker’ thing where they ask everyone to introduce themselves. Quickly, it became evident I was out of my league.
To my left was a distinguished Frenchman who’d been making cheese for a decade. To my right, a Dairy Queen who knew everything there was to know about butter, eggs, and dairy products. Then it was my turn to talk. I was the self proclaimed rookie in the room. All I could muster after a long awkward pause was this: “Well. I’ve never met a piece of cheese I didn’t like!” They laughed. I don’t think it was at my joke. It was at my ignorance.
Anyhoo, the class began, and I was mesmerized. All I ever knew about curds and whey was from the Little Miss Muffet nursery rhyme, but my suspicions were true. Cheese making is all about Chemistry and Latin, two subjects I was never very good at. But just because I’m no good at it doesn’t mean I’m not interested in the ‘How To’.
I declare myself an incurable DIYer, and cheese making is one of those subjects on my life’s ‘Bucket List’. As it turns out, cheese making is indeed a science, and a gastronomic creation anyone can tackle, if one follows the proper steps.
First, there’s the heating of the milk.
Then there is the addition of a culture. The culture, or a mix of milk and specified bacteria, creates an acidic environment. The bacteria consumes the lactose, the milk sours, then the curds form.
There is also the addition of a rennet. Rennet? I had to ask, what is a rennet? As it turns out, a rennet is a coagulant that comes from the inner lining of the stomach of young mammals. Hey moms, remember that spit up from your infants? That be a form of rennet. Animal rennet or vegetable rennet (not human, fear not) is available for purchase, but it is that coagulant that is necessary, and present, in most cheeses.
*From a learned text, link below.
After coagulation comes the process of separating the curd from the whey to make the specific variety of cheese.
I learned that he amount of acidity affects the texture of the cheese. The higher the acidity, the more moisture is retained by the curds, which results in a softer cheese. In the class, we were making blue cheese, so we began by slowly separating the curds from the whey by draining the whey in cheesecloth and with a colander.
Overnight, the curds are separated from the whey by a very scientific method only recently developed! Actually, it’s been around forever. You drain the whey by tying the curds up in cheesecloth. Get it? Cheesecloth. Cloth made for cheese making. Hence the term ‘cheesecloth’.
Aren’t you glad I am here to tell you these things?
Actually, the Cheese Professors told me.
That’s what I want to be when I grow up. A Cheese Professor.
You press the curds in the cheesecloth, then the next day, (they brought in these curds) you crumble them up and press them into sanitized cheese molds.
And then there’s this very scientific process of pressing and flipping them every 20 minutes or so. Then you store them in a ripening box and the magic of penicillium roqueforti (the culture in blue cheese) begins to work. You’re supposed to turn the cheeses a few times a day in the first few days.
Then you pierce the cheese with a knitting needle, keep it at a certain humidity (90%) at a specific temperature (55 degrees) and a few weeks later you get this heavenly delicacy. Blue cheese.
Ah, the miracle of cheese!
I walked out of the class, my head spinning, wanting to recreate so many varieties in my own kitchen. For now, I’m devouring the recommended text which is extremely informative and guaranteed to make you crave all forms of yogurt, chèvre, cheddar, mozzarella, ricotta, and more.
It’s Tim Smith’s Making Artisan Cheese: 50 Fine Cheeses That You Can Make in Your Own Kitchen. I have yet to try any recipes, but it came highly recommended by the Cheese Professors. It gives some history on cheese making. It explains lactose intolerance. It’s filled with pretty pictures of various cheeses and helpful illustrations.
And it gives (who would have thought?) 50 recipes for making cheeses at home. I can’t wait to try some of them.
Just because I love you, and blue cheese, in that order, here is one of my favorite hors d’œuvres to serve:
Endive, Blue Cheese & Cranberry Bites
2 heads of endive
6 oz. blue cheese
4-5 tbsp cream (or half & half)
2 oz diced dried cranberries
candied walnut halves
Blend blue cheese with cream or half & half in mini processor until it makes a paste. Spoon into rinsed endive, then layer with candied walnut halves. Sprinkle with diced cranberries and drizzle with caramel sauce (Tip: heat 2-3 oz of caramel sauce in microwave, spoon into plastic bag with a *tiny* snip of the corner cut off for the best ‘drizzled’ presentation.) Makes one dozen endive bites. One is missing because I ate it.
These won’t last long, so it’s best to make several dozen. .
So tell me,
I need to know.