Friday, October 31, 2008

Makin' Cheese in the Kitchen

Photo: Sarah cuts the curd.

Got a call from some friends that are building a dairy and creamery about 15 miles away. They had 10 gallons of goat milk that they couldn't use and were offering it to me. It thought about it for three seconds. Long enough to take inventory of our spare fridge. Do I have room for ten gallons of milk? You bet! Woo hoo! I jumped on the chance to grab some milk and make cheese.

I had to get my cultures, too. Luckily, there is a place on the way that sells cheese cultures as well as raw milk, eggs, and chicken. Kookoolan Farms is a great resource. They built their own chicken processing plant so that they could ensure that their chickens were treated humanely from hatching to slaughter. They are big cheerleaders for the consumption of raw milk. To make it easy, they provide the cheesemaking supplies to encourage folks to make cheese at home. Nice folks! I also mail ordered other cultures from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. I also like to stock up on stuff from Glengarry Cheesemaking from Canada.

Jim and I drove to Scott and Summer's place. In the fridge was the milk that they had promised. Two gallon milk cans and a bunch of half gallon jars filled with the goat's efforts. They milk 16 Nigerian Dwarf goats. I've never worked with the milk from this type of goat so this will be good experience for me. The goats are much smaller than the standard dairy breeds, about a third of the size. The give less milk but the milk is much richer. It is higher in butterfat as well as in yield (more solids held in suspension) as I soon found out.

We packed the milk in our coolers and rushed home to start the cheesemaking process. As we drove I was running over my recipes in my head. What to make? I want to make chevre so I can make a big batch of my chocolate chevre truffles. They freeze nicely so I can have them ready to give away for the holidays. I also want to make some raw milk, aged cheeses. Hmmmm.

We got home and transfered the milk into fridge in the garage. I pulled out my recipes and decided to go with the semi-firm aged goat cheese from Ticklemore. The first time I made it I dubbed it Sarahmore. This one will be different because I'm using fresh, raw milk from Nigerian Dwarf goats. Plus I don't have the same culture I used before. Kookoolan didn't have it, so I'm trying a different one and we'll see what happens.

Photo: Freshly hooped curd starting to knit into cheese in my fancy cheese molds.

Massive clean up of the kitchen took a while, so I didn't get the milk on the stove until 4:00. I use the double boiler method to heat three gallons of milk so I can ensure even heating and less chance of scorching. Gently heating means better cheese. Goat milk is very fragile. The more it is handled the more likely it will break down and add off flavors. Milk can get bruised! If it gets jostled around too much, the structure of the milk gets bruised and you get off flavors. Be nice to your milk and it will reward you in the end.

Slow heating means lots of time to get the molds cleaned, the sink scrubbed and everything sterilized. Gotta have a clean environment to make cheese. Lessens the chances of bad microorganisms entering the cheese. I want good food, not toxic sludge.

The milk heated to my target temperature and I added the culture. The ripening culture is freeze dried. When added to milk, the culture "wakes up" and begins to eat all of that tasty sugar a.k.a. lactose and makes the milk more acidic. A cheesemaker selects certain cultures for certain cheeses. If you want to make Monterey Jack, you want a culture that gives you a nice even texture without any eyes or holes. If you want to make something like an Havarti the cheesemaker will select a culture that produces a bit of gas and leaves small eyes in the cheese. Ecoli makes eyes that look weepy. Those weeping eyes must be crying because they can make you die. These are bacteria that have been selected by The Culture Houses of Europe because they produce consistent end results. These strains have been around for many years. It is only in the past century that these cultures have been isolated and replicated.

Some folks create their own starter with the naturally occurring strains in their milk and environment. Traditional English Farmstead Cheddar makers use their own starters to keep their cheddars tasting so good. Some have used the same mother culture for generations. If you ever eat sourdough bread from San Francisco you've experienced the same thing. A small amount of sourdough is held back after each batch to start the next day's bread. Remember kids, this stuff is alive!

Photo: Draining fresh goat cheese.

Got another pot on the stove with two more gallons of milk. This other vessel of milk will be pasteurized so I can make chevre. The pasteurized milk will be cultured and left to sit overnight in a warm room. In the morning, the milk is transformed into a solid curd mass that looks like two gallons of tofu. When I think it is firm enough, I gently ladle the curd into a cheesecloth lined colander. The ends of the cheesecloth are tied together and I hang it up to drain for several hours. When the cheese is drained and as dry as I like it, I'll take it down, add salt and enjoy my fresh chevre.

Back to the other pot. The culture is acidifying the milk and the rennet is added to firm things up. More waiting. My molds are clean and sterilized. My knife is ready to cut the curd. I keep checking the texture, looking for a clean break. This is the point at which the curds hold their shape, and a small puddle of greenish whey is released from the cut surface. It is ready. I take my knife and I begin cutting the curds. I use a firm, assertive motion, trying to keep my cuts straight. I cut one direction and then rotate the pot and cut in the other direction, at a angle. The objective is to cut cubes or diamond shaped blocks of curd of a similar size. Large cubes = soft cheese, small cube = firm cheese. I finish cutting and wait again. This is the healing time. The cut surfaces are all releasing whey and contracting. Waiting allows the surfaces to literally heal so that when I begin to stir, they will maintain integrity as well as continue to release whey. We want the whey to go away, but at a controlled rate.

Time to stir. I stir slowly at the beginning. The curds are very fragile at this point. I want them to gently bump into each other, but not clump together. Stirring will go on and on. I pull of part of the whey and continue to stir. I add fresh water back in to wash the curds. Washing the curds removes some of the lactose, and will make a chewier and sweeter cheese when the cheese is ripe in a few months. You gotta put a lot of investment in the beginning and won't know the results for months. This is why keeping good records is critical. If the cheese turns out really well, I want to be able to repeat what I did. If something goes wrong, I want to know why.

I can see that the milk from Nigerian Dwarf goats doesn't need as much rennet as "regular" goat milk. This batch is a bit firmer than I would like. Better reduce the rennet for the next batch. The milk is thicker, almost like sheep's milk. Higher yield, too. Amazing stuff.

Photo: New cheese after the third flip.

The curds have shrunk and are ready to go. Time to hoop! I've got my colanders ready to go, sitting on a cookie sheet over the sink. As fast as I can, I scoop all of the curds out and it the plastic forms. The curds are eager to mat. They're bonding to each other. They liquid that held them in suspension has now been removed and all they want to do is bind together. Putting them into a form like a colander or a traditional cheese mold helps give them a shape but also controls how quickly moisture is lost. In my case it seems to be losing moisture pretty fast. If I use a different form with different perforations, I'll get a different cheese because the moisture loss will change. Every little variable will make a big difference in the end result. This is one of my countless reasons cheesemaking fascinates me.

As soon as my colanders are filled, I flip them. The newly formed cheese needs to drain evenly, so flipping is essential. What was once in the bottom side of the cheese is now the top. A few minutes later I flip the cheese again. This process will be repeated over the course of a few hours. In the morning I'll flip them again and then I'll turn the cheeses ever day until they're ripe.

In order to free up my kitchen, I turned our laundry room into our curing room. The cheeses are set on racks over a clean and sanitized sink to drain and dry. The light is kept on so the room stays warm. This will encourage draining, too. My chevre bags are draining into the sink as well. I like this set up.

Photo: An aging wheel of cheese, two weeks old.

I repeated the process two days later, but this time all of my milk was pasteurized. We'll see how this will affect the aged cheeses. I don't know.

Now the wait. I made cheese on October 31st and November 2nd. They might be ready in January. I'm thinking February will be a better bet. The first batch of cheese is looking good, but a bit dry. Hmmmm. The second batch looks amazing. Funny, the better looking batch is made with pasteurized milk. We'll see what happens in a couple of months.

This cheese needs a name.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Coming attractions

photo: deer in my garden in the morning.

Coming Attractions.

Our place seems to be a magnet for everything. Sure, squirrels love us. We've got 500+ filbert trees for their dining and hoarding pleasure. There is so much good food that trying to poison them or entice them with other treats like peanut butter doesn't work. Not that I'd ever try to kill a cute, little rat with a fluffy tail. And we're bad shots, so there's no point in trying to shoot the little buggers. Yes, we've got a Daisy air rifle. It is a pretty good one for us wimpy, city folks.

Can't get away from my liberal, anti-arms race past. Guns are a very effective tool that can kill people. Violent, unstable, crack-crazed, speed-fueled individuals wielding weapons of mass destruction kill people. Governments kill people. I'm pretty much a peacenik. I try to maintain a live and let live existence. My bloodthirst comes out on my dinner plate. Yes, I eat meat. I love a well marbled steak. I adore lamb. I am not opposed to eating something that might have been adorable when it was on the hoof. I try to buy meat that is local and raised in a sustainable manner. We've got a butchered lamb in our freezer that lived a very nice life a few miles away in a pasture at Figment Farm on Mineral Springs Road outside of Carlton, Oregon. I don't want to be the one to pull the trigger, but I'll butcher the beast if asked to do so. I can filet a fish like a pro! If you have to be a vegetarian to achieve enlightenment, I guess I've got a long way to go.

Not only do we attract squirrels, our place seems to be a haven for every critter that lives in the Red Hills of Dundee. We've got several deer that hang around, day and night. I've seen a doe with her teenage twins in our garden. There's a three prong buck that I've chased out down the driveway on several occasions. Since our gate broke, the deer have been enjoying our cosmos and lower limbs on our apple trees.

Our lawn is a haven for every burrowing creature that exists in the Pacific Northwest. We've got Willamette Valley Pocket Gophers, ground squirrels, chipmunks, voles, moles, and mice. The hawks and other predators can't keep up and our dog just likes to sniff the holes. I think we need an outdoor kitty.

Photo: Box Elder bug

And then there are the flying insects. Paperwasps, yellow jackets, honeybees, bumblebees, and hornets among the many flying bugs. Currently we're under siege from a swarm of box elder bugs. They're slow and like to cling to the screens and windows. They go where the sun is, so in the morning they're all over the front of the house. They're harmless and gross.

Photo: The western edge of the hazelnut orchard. Hazelnuts on the left. Douglas fir trees on the right.

Several days ago I spotted another creature in our orchard. I saw something dart across the driveway as I was driving up the hill towards our house. I pulled up slowly to where it was and visually traced its path into the orchard. Sitting several feet away, under the green canopy of hazelnut trees was a bobcat! It blended in perfectly with the dappled sunlight and shade. I could clearly see the tufts on its ears, the lack of tail and the feline face that was staring me down. It didn't seem to be afraid of me. Actually it seemed to be eager to stand its ground. Lots of fat squirrels to eat for dinner. I rolled down the window and watched it for a few seconds. I then said, "Good kitty! Eat them squirrels!" It just looked at me and looked away. I drove away slowly, happy that our place is so inviting to local wildlife of all stripes, spots, and shades.

Photo: squirrel and coyote habitat.

What else is hanging around our 12 acres in the Red Hills of Dundee? Coyotes! Two days ago, Jim and I had to take Alistair, our newly adopted English Springer Spaniel to the vet to get snipped. It was dawn as we cruised down the driveway, past the orchard. As we passed the broken gate, I see coyote emerge from the upper orchard, cross the driveway, and speed through the lower orchard, making a mad dash for the woods. Three more followed it. They were the size of small German shepherd dogs. Jim and I have seen mystery poop around the trees, especially on the west end of the orchard, near a tall stand of Douglas fir trees. This is a spot popular with the squirrels. Maybe they're looking for some tasty squirrels and field mice. I won't discourage that, but I'll keep the dog close. He doesn't wander, so I'm not too worried about him. The feral cats in the neighborhood might have to be on their toes.

The harvest is going on all around us. The vineyards are buzzing with activity and air cannons. Birds like to dine on ripe grapes. The cannons are going all day long, trying to scare away the flocks of hungry birds. Being surrounded by vineyards isn't so pretty this time of year. The cannons can be nerve shattering at times.

Photo: late afternoon Autumn light on our neighbor's vineyard, dry grass, and trees on the other side of the fence.

Our swarms of fearless hummingbirds are starting to diminish. They must be migrating south for the winter. The nectar stays in the feeder longer these days. The big leaf maples and the poison oak are turning pretty colors. Fall is here!