"Cheese is one of the great achievements of humankind. Not any cheese in particular, but cheese in its astonishing multiplicity, created anew every day in the dairies of the world."
-- Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking
The multiplicity of cheese is astonishing and can be intimidating if you're learning to make cheese by carrying out small-scale experiments in the kitchen. In a previous article, "Say Homemade Cheese" (Table Talk, Feb. 24), I suggested some cheeses whose simple production allows relatively easy access to the world of home cheesemaking. If you've tried a couple of those cheeses, now you can explore further with more complex varieties.
Time is an important variable in cheesemaking. When you are considering a recipe, make sure you read it through, not only to verify that you have all the ingredients and tools necessary but also to see how time is allocated in it. Periods of activity, which require full and undivided attention, alternate with periods of alert waiting. During the "alert" waiting, you don't need to stand next to your cheese-in-the-making, but you do need to be aware of what is happening and how long the current conditions are to be maintained. A good example is when you are waiting for the milk to coagulate.
"Milk coagulation is the most exciting moment of cheesemaking," say Jody M. Farnham and Marc Druart in The Joy of Cheesemaking. Or, as Sarah-Kate Lynch in Blessed Are the Cheesemakers puts it, this is when "you realize that your milk is gone and your cheese is on its way."
Getting to coagulation takes a few steps: 1) Milk is brought to a certain temperature. 2) Starter culture (good bacteria) is added to the milk. 3) Rennet is added to the milk. (There are exceptions to the last two steps: for example, when either lemon juice or vinegar is used to coagulate the milk.)
After coagulation is achieved, different techniques are employed to remove a certain amount of moisture from the cheese curds; details depend on the kind of cheese being made. For example, I recently made English-style Coulommiers. Once the curd was formed, I used a slotted spoon to ladle thin slices of it into a Camembert mold (4-1/4" wide and 4-1/4" high). After filling the mold, I waited for some drainage to occur, then refilled, and so on, until all the curd was used. After the designated time, I flipped over the cheese in the mold, then allowed it to drain longer. A sprinkling of salt on the surfaces completed the making of this cheese.
For another example I'll go back in time to my salad days of cheese making: After producing a couple of soft, unripened cheeses, I followed my heart and headed straight for the land of hard cheese. The move entailed investment in a cheese press, which allows the application of weight in a controlled fashion. (A person with DIY skills can actually build a cheese press.)
I followed an illustrated recipe online that called for one gallon of milk. The first part of the process was familiar, but after cutting the curd into cubes, I found myself walking a new path. I slowly increased the temperature, while stirring gently, and saw the curds shrink and the amount of whey increase. When the curds satisfied the stated requirement, I poured off the whey. I mixed in some salt and then placed the curds in the press. With the leftover whey I made ricotta (starting a routine that I follow to this day).
The morning after, I took my first small wheel of cheese out of the press and unwrapped it. I could not taste it, because it needed to age for some time. I decided that a week was enough for my proof-of-concept cheese. I cut a slice, took a bite and ... I honestly cannot say what exactly I was expecting, but I was rewarded with something that looked, smelled, and tasted like cheese, of semi-soft texture and mild flavor. At that point, I realized that I was hooked.
Step by step I expanded my horizon and learned what is behind the defining characteristics of cheeses I like. For example, the holes (eyes) in Emmental and Jarlsberg are due to a bacterium, Propionibacter shermanii, that is added to the milk with the starter culture. During the aging period, the propionibacteria produce acids that contribute to the cheese flavor and create carbon dioxide gas that, trapped inside, slowly forms "holes." When I saw my Jarlsberg starting to bulge at the waist, I smiled in anticipation of the moment when, a few weeks later, the blade broke the integrity of the cheese for the pleasure of my eyes and palate.
"In that fantastic explosive moment when you realize just how ... good it is, you know it's all been worth it," writes Lynch.
Maybe you'll end up never making cheese at home. That's OK. Even if you don't, you might keep these words of Lynch's in mind next time you eat some good-quality cheese: "If you can see the magic in cheese, you can see the magic in everything."
Most soups can be enlivened with a topping of freshly grated cheese, the pairing to be chosen based on the flavors involved. Cheese crisps are another nice accompaniment. In the past I've used Parmigiano-Reggiano, but recently I tried using some of my homemade Tilsit (a.k.a. Tilsiter) and liked the result.
Heat the oven to 350 F.
Place 1 tablespoon of grated cheese on a silicone mat or parchment paper and spread it with your fingertip to create a circle three inches or so in diameter.
Repeat a few times leaving one inch between circles.
Bake for three minutes and check that the cheese has melted.
Bake another minute, if necessary, watching carefully.
Use a spatula to lift up the crisps.
French Toast and English Cheese
Make French toast according to your favorite recipe. I like to use homemade bread, especially challah (recipe from Peter Reinhart's Artisan Breads Every Day) or whey bread with butter and honey (recipe from Dan Lepard's The Handmade Loaf, for which I use whey left over from making some soft cheese).
After flipping over the bread slices, distribute a few thin slices of English-style Coulommiers on them. Finish cooking and serve.