Making Cheese while the Sun Shines

Well, it shone a bit.  Or didn’t actively rain.  Something like that, anyway.

Today, I attended a one-day workshop on making feta cheese.  Actually, we made four kinds of cheesestuff – Greek-style feta, gourmet feta, yoghurt and ricotta – and left with the recipes for two others – mascarpone and Amy’s Serendipity  (title mine – our instructor, Amy, made us some cheese a few days earlier but forgot to put in the rennet.  We all liked the result more than any of the other cheeses on offer at lunchtime, and begged for the recipe) It was excellent.  Even if I am now eyeing my gourmet feta and yoghurt with a dubious eye, wondering if they are actually going to set or if maybe I didn’t shake them up enough.  Or shook them too much.  Oh dear…

Cheese-making is very much at the chemistry experiment end of the food preparation scale.  You find yourself sterilising things, taking temperatures, using enzymes and making solutions and precipitates.  You also, if you’re me, find yourself developing Food Safety Whiplash: on the one hand, a lot of cheese-making is about encouraging bacteria to grow, so you’re leaving things at all these terribly dodgy temperatures, food-safety-wise.  On the other hand, of course, you, as cheese-maker, want to choose precisely which bacteria do the growing (no volunteers allowed), so you spend a lot of time obsessively sterilising your hands, dropping equipment into sterilising solutions and pouring boiling water over things (ideally not your hands in this case).  It’s making me paranoid about my kitchen at home, I must say (given my kitchen, I am undoubtedly right to be paranoid, though I’ve never poisoned anyone yet).

Of course, it’s kind of fun being able to say things like: “I can kill you… with CHEESE!”.  It makes me sound like this amazing ninja assassin who has unorthodox uses for foodstuffs, rather than someone who really needs to clean her kitchen more often.

But I digress. Amy, our instructor, was fantastic – she loves all the cheese chemistry, so she was great about explaining how things worked (I was amused to note that her metaphors about chemical bonding and cutting also involved scissors and hands, much like the ones I used to explain apoptosis to myself earlier in the year.  Only her metaphors had more Shrek and less country dancing.), and she has been making cheese for years, so while she could tell us amounts and quantities, she never really used a thermometer for anything except the ricotta, and her favourite unit of measurement was ‘a smidge’.

She started us off with the feta, which we made by adding our chosen bacteria, calcium  chloride and rennet to warm milk, and leaving it to incubate and set for an hour.  Then we got to cut it up and stir it around a bit – I’m not going to describe the whole method here, but my favourite part was getting to drag a biscuit rack through the curds to slice it into cubes – and drained off some of the whey to make ricotta.

Ricotta, incidentally, made me both happy and sad.  There were twelve people in this class, and we started off with 24 litres of milk for the feta.  From this, we were able to harvest 6 litres of whey for the ricotta.  And after cooking the whey, adding milk and vinegar and watching it go foomf! and separate into curds ready to be poured off and drained, we got… maybe 2 1/2 cups of ricotta.  That’s it.  So I don’t think I’ll be making much ricotta at home, alas.

The taste of the fresh, whey ricotta, on the other hand, was fascinating.  It was much more assertive in flavour than the kind you get at the supermarket (perhaps partly due to temperature, but I don’t think this was the whole story), and it brought back sudden memories of being little and really not liking the taste of ricotta when we visited Nonna.  I’m wondering, now, who in the family made cheese and used the whey to make ricotta, or maybe there was a particularly good local deli.  It’s certainly not a flavour I’ve tasted since.

Back to the feta, which needed to be transferred into hoops and turned.  This is the most fascinating thing I’ve seen for a while.  The un-finished (? raw) feta was in little cubes that reminded me strongly in texture of smooth tofu – sort of wobbly, and while you could cut them into cubes, they were very soft and easily broken.  But by putting them into hoops (little basket-like seives) and turning them regularly, they started to compress, and I can see already that mine is indeed going to have that texture you get in Greek feta from the deli, which doesn’t resemble cubes of tofu at all, even internally.  Fascinating.  I’ve just turned mine for the last time, and once I finish this, I’m going to be making brine for it to be preserved in tomorrow morning.

Lunch, incidentally, was really good bread, crackers and rice cakes, served with cheese.  Lots of cheese – the fresh ricotta, several kinds of feta, Amy’s Serendipity, cheddar, brie, camembert, and a blue, I think.  Delicious, but oh, so much cheese.  I came straight home afterwards and ate a red capsicum, whole.  Oh, we got to try some yoghurt, too.

Compared to the feta and ricotta, the other two recipes were very simple – both are a matter of adding culture (and, in the case of the gourmet feta, rennet) to the milk (we used homogenised milk for this part – the ordinary feta was unhomogenised and you could see the little yellow globules of butterfat when we were warming it – yum), mixing, incubating, and later draining the curds to differing degrees.  The gourmet feta will then be cut into pieces and marinated in oil and herbs.  Assuming it sets.  I must admit, I do not feel confidence in my feta at this stage.  It’s all wrapped up in blankets to keep it toasty in its warm water bath but I have a horrible feeling I either didn’t shake it enough to disperse the rennet, or shook it so much I’ve disrupted the curds.  Neither would be good.  I will report back tomorrow.  If you are very good, there may be photos.  (Edited to add: don’t tell a soul, but I think it is separating out after all!  And the blankets seem to be keeping the water warm, so it might be OK after all.  The yoghurt, on the other hand, is still runnier than I would like.  But that’s a problem I  know how to fix.)

All in all, though, a really fun day.  And even if it turns out I’ve mucked up the gourmet feta (or the yoghurt, which is looking suspiciously runny at this stage), I am so very chuffed with the Greek feta that it more than makes up for it.  I did end up ordering starter cultures and vegetarian rennet for feta, gourmet feta, yoghurt and mascarpone (not to mention the nifty little syringes you use to measure the tiny amounts of rennet and such), so with a bit of luck I’ll be able to try my hand at doing some of this at home in a week or two.  Probably the gourmet feta and soft cheeses to start with – the Greek feta is a bit more complicated, and will be best done with a partner and when I feel more sure of myself.

I don’t think this is the last cheese-making course I’ll be doing by a long shot.  The mozzarella and halloumi course sounds far too good to miss.  And it would be fun to learn how to make sour cream and quarg and mascarpone, though I think they might be manageable with just a cheese making book to help me.  And who doesn’t want to try cheddar or swiss cheese or camembert?  Even blue cheese, which I don’t like, has a certain appeal – it would be so much fun just to know how it’s made.

Though I must admit, right now I don’t think I could face a single bite of cheese.  But I’m sure that will change by tomorrow…

If you’re interested in cheese-making, the course I did was through CheeseLinks, and, as you probably gathered, I can strongly recommend it.  One caveat – they do ask you to bring your own milk, and for many recipes it needs to be un-homogenised.  Parmalat and Jonesys both have un-homogenised brands, and you can find them in supermarkets, but I didn’t know that until I saw the list of things to bring and nearly had conniptions because I’d never seen un-homogenised milk in a shop before… Anyway, it’s probably worth being aware that you’ll need to find a source before booking the course.

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8 responses to “Making Cheese while the Sun Shines

  1. I just love the word quarg.

  2. I think that the point is not to make Ricotta, it is to make other cheese, then make Ricotta from the “waste”. Then it is “free”, while the other cheese is the cost of the milk.

    • I believe so, yes (though you do actually have to add a little milk to the whey to make it). I just had no idea how *much* waste you needed to get even a small amount of ricotta. Quite eye-opening.

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