I'm not entirely sure how or even when I stopped making cheese on a regular basis, but somewhere down the line, the habit just died off. It was probably a function of buying this old house and it utterly craptastic kitchen. A kitchen I was sure we'd be fixing up soon. Five years later, it's not even at the top of the list, and I've slowly moved back into all the old kitchen obsessions despite its limitations. We've talked a bit about the cooking, and the canning/preserving, but I haven't talked yet about getting back to one of my true loves. Cheese. I'm not patient enough for aged cheeses, even if I had a clean, climate-controlled place to age them, so I tend to stick to the fresh cheeses. Both are easy, but let's face it - instant gratification is way more fun.
Yogurt (and its relatives, kefir, quark, et al) is, of course, the easiest entry into the rabbit hole of intentionally fermenting one's dairy products, and I guess I can say that I never really stopped making that. After all, one only needs milk, a thermos, and little bit of storebought live yogurt (or other target substance) to have an almost never-ending supply. However, in addition to yogurt, there's a vast, vast world of dairy products beyond our culture's 'fresh' (I'm going to work hard not to jump up on a soapbox here about how our milk supply is so adulterated, so far from fresh as to be almost indistinguishable from the real thing. If anyone cares, email me and I'll be happy to go on and on about this ad nauseum) milk infatuation that is as varied as it is yummy.
Other things that are dead easy to make at home include things like sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, fresh mozzerella (seriously!), creme fraiche, paneer/panir, queso blanco....the list goes on and on, and we haven't even talked about goat's milk yet.
This weekend, I threw together a batch of 'farmer's cheese', which is just a catch-all name, really, for a lot of fresh, simple cheeses. What they all have in common is very little fuss, and they tend towards creamy, lighter flavors that lend themselves well to all manner of flavor additions. How mild or tart they are is often a function of what critters are used to ripen the milk, and how long they are allowed to ripen it before turning it into cheese. There are plenty of excellent resources for specifics, but my go-to resource are the folks at New England Cheesemaking Supply. This is where I get any cultures I use, and their book seems to be the home cheesemaker's bible. The website is also full of useful info, free recipes, tips, and the like.
I typically start the night before, and can have fresh cheese with lunch the next day with only about 20 - 30 minutes of active work on my part over the span of that time. There are only a few bits of basic equipment needed, & I'll talk about those as we go. It's very easy and it goes like this:
1 gallon milk
1 packet mesophilic or buttermilk cultures (see #2 below)
5 drops rennet diluted in a couple ounces of room temp water
aprox 1 tsp kosher salt
1. In a large-ish pot (I'm using my small dutch oven in these pictures, but any basic stockpot will do for this cheese) on lowish heat, bring a gallon of pasturized (but not ultra-pasturized) milk up to 85 degrees F. (A low-temp thermometer is probably one of the few bits of equipment that is a real necessity for cheesemaking, along with real cheesecloth, but more on that later. Mine cost me a whopping $6) and hold at that temp for a few minutes while adding the other ingredients. It's important for the milk not to be too hot or too cool at this step, so this is the one place it pays to be attentive.
2. Add either one packet of mesophilic direct set culture, or one packet buttermilk culture, depending on how tart you wish the final cheese to be, and stir for a few minutes. Buttermilk culture will add a bit more tanginess to the finished product, a flavor not entirely dissimilar from a fresh feta. The straight mesophilic culture will tend to be a bit less acidic and have a milder flavor. There's also info on culturing your own starters in the cheesemaking book, which makes this even more economical, but for early cheesemaking adventures, I stuck with the packets until I was sure I wanted to keep going.
After stirring in the cultures, stir in the diluted rennet. Remove the pot from the heat, cover and let sit at least 5-8 hours or until set in a jello-like consistency. Time elapsed = maybe 10- 15 minutes? Here's the part where I go to bed & leave it to do its thing overnight.
3. Wake up. Have coffee. Peek under pot lid to see the chemistry magic. Is it jiggly? IS it?
4. OK. Assuming jiggly has been achieved, using a long knife, gently cut the set curd all the way to the bottom of the pot into a grid of aprox. 1/2 cubes. Like this:
As the curd is cut the whey (yellowish, thin liquid seen here) will begin to separate.
Once the grid is cut, let the curds settle for 10 minutes, at which point more whey will have settled out and it will look something like this.
5. Return the pot to heat and raise the temperature slowly up to 90 degrees F, stirring occasionally to keep things from sticking.
6. After 10 mins at 90 degrees, gently pour the curds into a muslin-lined colander to drain for an hour or so, then mix in salt to taste, gather up the corners of the muslin, and hang until your desired consistency has been attained.
By lunchtime it should be a creamy, lovely, spreadable cheese, similar in consistency to a neufchatel. Left to drain longer and the cheese will firm up and begin to resemble a fresh chevre. If you think you can wait until dinner, then after a few hours of draining take the bag down, and stack a couple of cutting boards on top of it to press out even more of the whey.
By the end of the day, it will look like the picture at the top, with a texture very similar to a fresh feta. The beauty is that you can stop whenever you want. Or so they tell me.
What are you still doing here? Go get some milk.