Meredith wins the prize. I was, in fact, “making cheese or yoghurt,” more specifically cheese. I’m not exactly sure how to unite Meredith and her brownie, since she’s not local, and my brownies don’t ship well. I’ll see if I can figure something out. Anyway, the photo above is a closeup of some freshly salted Neufchatel.
Certain purists attacked me for my post on making yoghurt at home, arguing that it wasn’t “from scratch,” because I used a commercial yoghurt as a starter. So, in the interests of full disclosure, let it be known that the milk used in the following post was harvested from Purity’s well stocked dairy section, as was the buttermilk, as I do not have access to a cow, or to raw milk to culture into buttermilk. I left the dirty work of rennet processing to the Junket company, which kindly sells rennet in blisterpacked tabs. If you know how rennet is made, you should appreciate this, since if I processed it myself, I would post lots of revolting photos. So this cheese is not, technically, “from scratch,” but I’ll bet it’s more from scratch than any cheese you’ve eaten this week (unless you live on a farm).
For those of you who have never made cheese before, cheesemaking is an awesome and complicated process which is also tons of fun. I decided to make a very simple soft cheese, like the French Neufchatel (which is treated like cream cheese here, but it’s so much more). Basically, cheesemaking involves a couple of steps. First you need to culture some milk to get some happy bacteria going on (this isn’t always done). Then, you need to curdle it, coagulating the milk by raising the acid level, causing curds to form. Then, the cheese needs to be drained, to get rid of the whey. If you’re eating soft cheese, it’s pretty much done at this point, but it can also be packed and handled in a variety of way for hard cheeses, from cheddar to Parmesan. (Cheddaring is really fun; I may make cheddar sometime in the next year or so.)
So I started with a half gallon of milk, which I heated to room temperature and mixed with two tablespoons of buttermilk. The goal was to add some delicious tang and to start raising the acidity. Then I dissolved 1/8 of a rennet tablet in two tablespoons of water, and mixed it into the milk. Rennet, for those of you who refused to follow the link above, is an enzyme found in the stomachs of young mammals. It helps them to break down milk so that they can digest it. (There are ways to make vegetarian and vegan cheeses, and I may work on those later this year too, but since I haven’t made cheese in a long time, I wanted to stick with what I know.)
Next, the cheese has to hang out to coagulate at room temperature. Depending on the freshness of all of the ingredients, this can take only a few hours, but I was prepared for it to take overnight, as in fact it did. In the morning I tested for a clean break (photos didn’t come out, alas), and it was ready to roll, so I cut the curds, making the cheese easier to drain:
That watery liquid is whey. Whey is what we do not want, so:
I poured the curds into a colander lined with cheesecloth to drain. They sat like this for a few hours, to get the bulk of the whey out, and I was astounded by how much whey there was. If I’d known there would be this much, I would have saved it and made ricotta. Next time.
Next, the ends of the cheesecloth get pulled together to make a little baggie, and squeezed to press the whey out. In Greece, we used to hang the baggie in the kitchen, the coolest room in the house, but in the interests of food safety* I hung it in the fridge:
More whey was generated. It fell into the glass bowl you can see at the bottom of the image. Note how plump and happy the bag looks. Over around 20 hours, it shrunk to this:
I opened it up to check out the cheese inside:
Mmm. Cheese. At this point, the cheese is perfectly edible, soft and creamy and perhaps a bit sweet. However, to enhance the flavor and help it keep, it’s a good idea to salt your soft cheeses. So I turned it into a bowl, sprinkled a teaspoon of salt on it, and worked it for a few minutes to get the salt in before packing it into a tupperware for refrigeration.
And that, my friends, is cheese. I am really pleased with how it turned out. The result is a very soft, creamy cheese which can be used in cheesecakes and frostings, or just eaten on bagels (assuming you have access to bagels that don’t taste like ass). Or plain in spoonfuls out of the dish. Whatever. I think I’ll be making this basic soft cheese a few more times, and then maybe experimenting with harder cured cheeses.
I certainly won’t be trying to make all my cheese at home, since I can’t make Parmesan and Brie and other fabulous cheeses at home. But this soft cheese is far superior to the stuff you can get in the supermarket, and a lot cheaper to make. And it’s fun. I highly enourage you to venture into the wide world of cheesemaking.
*A note on food safety. Cheese can be dangerous if it is not handled properly. I used pasteurized milk, which reduced the risk, and I also handled it carefully, using sterilized containers and so forth to avoid introducing bacteria. Cheese hangs out at room temperature a lot during the manufacturing process, and that’s a good temp for bacteria to grow. That’s why you want to get acid levels up quickly. However, there’s always a risk that your cheese will attract some visitors. If you make your own cheese and it smells/looks/feels/tastes funny, throw it away. It is always better to be safe than sorry, as you don’t want listeriosis and other unattractive diseases. You should also keep yourself/your kitchen/your cheese making tools as clean as possible. I bear no responsibility for repetitions of this recipe that go awry!