Cheese Cheese Everywhere

Accasciato

“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” – Charles de Gaulle

Ah, cheese. That decadent, delicious dairy delight that we all love to consume. But how many of us have really experienced the world of cheese? How many of us have truly all the different varieties of cheese that are out there? Very few of us, I’d wager. When it comes to this culinary delight, the majority of us are trapped in our own little bubble of cheddar, American, Mozzarella, Parmesan (usually in pre-grated form), and a few others. And this is unfortunate because there’s a whole world of cheese out there just waiting to be enjoyed. And when I say world, I mean all around planet Earth. Nearly every nation around the globe has one or more cheeses that are unique to their piece of geography. You’re probably familiar with Gruyere and Emmental from Switzerland, Parmesan and Romano from Italy, or Brie from France. But have you ever tried Vacherin Fribourgeois? That’s another cheese from Switzerland. How about Accasciato and Bel Paise from Italy or Cendre d’Olivet from France? Or why not get really crazy and serve Ackawi, Baladi, Kanafeh, Kashkaval, and Shanklish at your next dinner party. Those cheeses are all from Lebanon.

Okay those last few are a bit exotic and probably not available here in the US. But it still illustrates my point – that when it comes to cheese, there’s an infinite number of ways to provide some new sensations for your palate.

So if it’s cheese you want and love, then I encourage you to think outside the cheddar box and try some new varieties. Your palate will thank you. Note: if you have to think outside the Velveeta box or the Chez-Whiz can, then you’re beyond help.

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All Together Now

 

On a few occasions I’ve been asked, “Mark, I know that you do both fruit and vegetable gardening and home cheeesemaking. Are those two distinctly separate topics, or can they work together?”

Most definitely, yes, they can work together! In fact, if you combine the two just right, you create wonderful foods that can enhance your dining experiences for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Here are some suggestions.

Salads – You can enhance a salad of homegrown garden greens by sprinkling it with some of your homemade Feta cheese. Or how about using your homemade Blue cheese to create your own Blue cheese dressing to pour on your salad?

Infusing cheese with herbs – When making your own cheese, how about creating something distinctive by mixing some herbs into the curds before putting those curds into your cheese press? Some typical herbed cheeses include Caraway Swiss and Havarti with Dill.

Incorporating vegetables into cheese – The sky is the limit when it comes to making vegetable infused cheeses. How about adding some sun-dried tomatoes to your homemade cream cheese? Or a cheddar cheese infused with finely-chopped onions?

Wine-infused cheeses – At first glance, this sounds off topic. What, you might ask, does making a wine-infused cheese have to do with incorporating fruits and vegetables into cheese? Well, if you grow the grapes yourself, make your own wine, and soak your newly-pressed cheese in the wine for a few weeks, then, in a roundabout way, you are combining fruit and cheese. And if you substitute vodka for the wine you now have infused your cheese with a potato byproduct.

“Gee Mark, I’m not sure about this,” you say. “This sounds rather unusual.” Well, I have a one word answer for you – experiment. Try different combinations of fruits, vegetables, and cheese. After all, that’s how new foods are discovered.

“But what if I create something that looks awful and tastes worse?” Seriously? What if you create something that looks pleasing, tastes even better, and wins Cheese of the Year? Isn’t that worth the risk of maybe creating something awful? And if the worst happens, and your Limburger with Brussels sprouts tastes like the inside of a garbage truck? Then you simply toss it away and try a different combination. No one has to know about it but you.

So go ahead. Experiment with different fruit-cheese-vegetable combinations. And embrace the results – good, bad, or otherwise!

The Food Of The Gods

Apollo

 

In many of my classes and presentations, I often refer to cheese as “the food of the gods,” and not just because of its wonderful and complex flavors, aromas, shapes, and colors. While not on par with ambrosia, the drink enjoyed by the gods of ancient Greece that also had the power to confer immortality on any mortal who drank it, cheese has indeed played a part in the rituals and ceremonies of the many religions that have been part of the history of mankind.

In Greek mythology, the god Aristaeus, son of Apollo and Cyrene, was taught by nymphs the art of cheesemaking and beekeeping. After mastering these arts, he then passed this knowledge on to mankind.

Homer’s sang the praises of cheese in his Odyssey and describes how the Cyclops was producing and storing sheep’s and goat’s milk and cheese.

In ancient Britain, the architects of Stonehenge would offer cheese, milk, and yogurt to their deities as part of their religious ceremonies, while keeping meat for their own consumption; meat was viewed as impure and not suitable for deities. Milk itself was viewed by many tribes around the world as being a symbol of purity because of its white color.

Cheese is also mentioned three times in the Bible.

And Jesse said unto David his son, Take now for thy brethren an ephah of this parched corn, and these ten loaves, and run to the camp of thy brethren. And carry these ten cheeses unto the captain of their thousand, and look how thy brethren fare, and take their pledge. — 1 Samuel 17:17-18

And honey, and butter, and sheep, and cheese of kine, for David, and for the people that were with him, to eat: for they said, The people is hungry, and weary, and thirsty, in the wilderness. — 2 Samuel 17:29

Hast thou not poured me out as milk, and curdled me like cheese? – Job 10:10

So if you ever questioned whether or not you should be eating cheese, I’m here to tell you that the answer is most emphatically yes. If it was deemed worthy of being offered to the ancient deities of Britain, given to man by a Greek god, and served to the armies of the biblical Israelites, then it should be good enough for us.

If You’re Not Elite, Then Your Cheese Won’t Be Sweet

Cheeses

 

Cheese is a living food. No, I don’t mean that cheese is capable of rising up off the plate and dancing the mambo. And if your cheese is dancing the mambo, then you may want to consider cutting back on the wine you’re drinking with it.

By “living” food, I’m referring to the thousands of microorganisms (bacteria and mold) that play a part in turning milk into cheese. Nearly all types of bacteria will coagulate milk, but not all will produce a coagulated product that will look, smell, and taste good enough to become cheese. So you have to be selective about the kind of bacteria you allow into your milk.

When you make cheese, you are, in a way, hosting a very exclusive party. Sound silly? Well then let me ask you this. When you throw a party at your home, do you throw open your front door and shout to the neighborhood, “Hey, I’m throwing a party here! Everybody’s invited, and be sure to bring along your friends and relatives!” No, of course you don’t. Because if you did, then God knows what kind of riffraff and miscreants you’d be allowing into your home. When you throw a party, you privately invite the “right” kind of people – friends and family members whom you like and whom you trust will contribute to a fun evening without drinking all your booze or wrecking your home.

The same concept holds true for cheesemaking. If you left a carton of milk setting around for two weeks, you’d have a carton of coagulated milk, but one that would look awful and smell worse. It would not be something that you want to even attempt to turn into cheese. That’s because when you opened that carton, you invited every kind of bacteria in the air — the good, the bad, and the mightily awful — to come in and coagulate your milk. Any good bacteria that coagulated the milk into something tasty were overshadowed by the bad bacteria turning it into something disgusting.

When you make cheese, you only allow in certain kinds of bacteria – bacteria that have been scientifically proven will coagulate milk in such a way that it will produce curds that look, smell, and taste good. That is why we add starter cultures to our milk. These cultures contain these scientifically-tested microorganisms that will contribute to the look and taste of the finished product. Furthermore, certain kinds of cheeses require other types of bacteria or mold to make them into specific cheese. If, for example, you want to make Blue, Gorgonzola, or Stilton cheeses, you will need a mold — Penicillium roqueforti. Only Penicillium roqueforti can provide the bluish color and specific flavor that turns your block of curd into blue cheese. Want to make Swiss, Gruyere or Emmenthal cheeses? Then you’ll need Propionic shermanii bacteria, because they are the ones that form the holes.

So if you want to make cheese, then you have to become a bit snobbish. Don’t allow just any bacteria into your milk-house. Only allow the elite bacteria. The “correct” bacteria will give you the right cheese.

Your Cheese Ain’t The Rage If It Ain’t Got That Age

Cheese Cave

 

What is this thing called cheese? Cheese can be defined as coagulated milk solids that have been drained, pressed and aged. A simple broad definition that barely scratches the surface, because cheese is so much more than that. And what makes it so is that last part of the definition — aged. It is aging that gives the product its flavor and character.
While most of the soft cheeses such as Cottage Cheese, Mascarpone, Neufchȃtel, etc. can be enjoyed immediately after making them and do not need to be aged, hard cheeses such as Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, etc. have to be aged to develop the flavor that makes them what we expect from, Cheddar, Swiss, Parmesan, and any other hard cheese. If they ain’t aged, then they’re not really cheese. They’re just compressed curd.
So how do we go about turning compressed curd into cheese.
To properly age cheese, it must be placed in a temperature and humidity controlled enclosure for a length of time. The ideal temperature and relative humidity for aging cheese is 45-60ºF and 75-95%, respectively. These conditions allow for optimum exchange of ripening gasses from the cheese (e.g. carbon dioxide and ammonia) with oxygen from the air, all of which is highly important for flavor development.
If your aging chamber is too cold, the cheese will not develop the proper amount of acid for a safe and flavorful product. If the temperature is too warm, then the cheese will develop a sharp and pungent flavor and/or undesirable microbial growth. If the humidity of the aging chamber is too high, then undesirable mold will grow on the cheese and it will have to be checked more frequently. If however, the room is too dry, then the cheese will shrink and crack.
So where do you find a place that meets the aforementioned temperature and humidity requirements? Many home basements will satisfy this requirement. If necessary, you can purchase a small humidifier or hang wet towels in the basement to control the humidity. You can also purchase a second hand refrigerator or a small dorm-sized refrigerator. Your regular kitchen refrigerator is usually too cold and dry for aging cheese, but with a second refrigerator, you can set the temperature where you need it and then place a small bowl of water or damp paper towels inside to raise the humidity. Lastly, you can purchase a wine cooler. These are specially designed for precise adjustment of temperature and humidity.

Cheap-Mini-FridgeWine Cooler
How long should you age cheese? That depends on the cheese and how strong a flavor you want. Cheese can be aged for as short as a few days to as long as a few years. The longer a cheese is aged, the sharper and stronger is its flavor. The difference between a mild Cheddar and a sharp cheddar is simply the length of time which it is aged. Most hard cheeses should be aged for a minimum of sixty days. Some hard grating cheeses like Parmesan and Romano may be aged for years to develop a very strong flavor.

 
With an enclosure set at the proper temperature, you too can turn your compressed curd into flavorful, delicious, honest to goodness cheese!

Dipping a Toe in the Cheesemaking Waters

So, you’ve decided that you want to start making your own cheese. However, the thought of spending lots of money on cultures, molds, a press, etc. is making you pause and wonder if it’s really worth pursuing this.

Cheese Culture Cheese Molds Cheese Press
Let me ask a question. Do you work out on a regular basis? If so, how did you start? Did you right away spend money on a pricey health club membership and sign up to compete in your local triathlon? Did you spend big bucks on expensive workout clothing? My guess, is that your answer to my questions is no. You probably first visited your doctor to make sure that you were physically capable of starting a workout program. Then you started out slowly — perhaps with a few simple exercises at home. running a mile or two, purchasing a workout CD, etc. As time went on, and you got yourself in better shape, then maybe you found a health club whose membership fee fit your budget and began regular workouts there. Then as you continued to get healthier and stronger, then and only then did you start thinking about triathlons and 5K runs, etc.

Cheesemaking or any other hobby works the same way. If you want to begin making your own cheese, you don’t have to start by purchasing expensive equipment, cultures, and chemicals. There are some very simple cheeses you can make that won’t cost more than a few dollars for material that you can purchase at your nearby grocery store. Queso blanco, for example, is made by heating milk to 185-190oF, adding 1/4 cup of apple cider vinegar, and straining the coagulated liquid through fine cheesecloth. No fancy equipment required there. If your first batch of queso blanco is successful, then you can start trying some other simple cheeses that perhaps require cultures or molds. If these work out well, then perhaps you’ll want to attempt making a hard cheese like cheddar or manchego. Then you can justify purchasing more advanced equipment or more delicate cultures.

The whole key is moderation and starting slowly. Just as you wouldn’t jump into the deep end of the pool if you’ve never learned to swim, you wouldn’t start making Jarlsberg if you’ve never made cheese before. Start simply. Decide whether or not you’re enjoying this new hobby. Are you gaining in skill and knowledge? Are your efforts to make cheese successfully rewarded? If so, then you can justifiably spend whatever is necessary (within your budget of course) to advance to the next level.

And if you need some assistance, there are plenty of resources available — books, websites, classes. In fact, classes are an excellent way to learn — and I just happen to know of some that will be starting soon, and there just may be room left for a few more students. Yes, I know, this is a shameless plug. But then again, I never claimed to have any shame.

No Cow? No Problem!

Up until now, I have written countless blog posts on gardening and music. However, I have yet to post anything having to do with my other favorite pastime — home cheese making. So now, I’m going to fill that hole. Here comes my very first Garden Troubadour blog post referencing this wonderful dairy delight — and please don’t tell me that this is cheesy or an udder failure!

When most of us think about milk for making cheese, our first thought is of cows. And why not? The vast majority of the fluid milk in the US dairy industry comes from high-yielding dairy cows. But when it comes to milk, cows are not the be all and end all. Here in the United States, cheese is also made from the milk of goats and sheep, but throughout history, man has obtained milk from a wide variety of mammalian species. Can you imagine making cheese from the milk of a mare? How about from a camel? A zebu? A yak? An ass? (Okay, get your minds out of the gutter)!

The truth is that all of these animals and many more have been used throughout the history of mankind to produce milk for drinking and cheesemaking. Mozzarella cheese was traditionally made from the milk of the water buffalo. The Laplanders of Finland used the milk of the reindeer. (And you thought they were only useful for pulling Santa’s sleigh!)

On one occasion, in one of my classes, I had a student ask me if human milk could be used to make cheese. In my opinion, that would be a waste, since human infants need the milk more than we need cheese. It could be done, I’m sure, but why?

Here in the US, we are pretty much limited to the milk of cows, goats, and sheep. Here are some tips on using all three.

Cow’s Milk: Cow’s milk will produce a firm curd when properly renneted. Since it’s the most prominent dairy species in the industry, cow’s milk is abundant and relatively inexpensive.If you plan to buy a cow to produce your own milk, Jerseys or Brown Swiss are the best species to purchase. Both produce milk with a high butterfat content and both animals have a sweet temperament that makes them easy to manage.

Jersey CowBrown Swiss Cow

Goat’s Milk: Goat’s milk has smaller butterfat globules than cow’s milk, so it tends to be naturally homogenized (as opposed to cow’s milk which must be heat-treated and pressurized to homogenize it). As a result goat’s milk tends to produce a slightly softer curd when renneted, so they must be treated a bit more gently during th cheesemaking process. Goat’s milk also contains no carotene, so it produces a much whiter cheese. Because goat milk contains naturally occurring lipase enzymes, it produces cheese that has more of a pepper hot pungency to it. If you wish to purchase your own goat, recommended breeds include the Nubian, Alpine, Saanen, and Toggenburg.

NubianAlpineSaanenToggenburg

Sheep’s Milk: Sheep’s milk tends to have a higher vitamin and mineral content than goat’s or cow’s milk, making it a more nutritionally dense liquid. Sheep’s milk contains about ten percent less water than either cow’s or goat’s milk. Because of this, it nearly twice as high in solids and tends to produce two and a half times the cheese yield of the milk from the other two species. Sheep’s milk can also be frozen until you obtain enough to make cheese; freezing will not adversely affect the quality of the milk or the cheese. When making cheese with sheep’s milk, use three to five times less rennet; make larger cubes when cutting the curd; use half the amount of salt called for; and exert light pressure when pressing your cheese. The most common breed of sheep for milking is the East Friesian.

East Friesian Sheep

So if you find that you do not have access to the right kind of milk, don’t have a cow! Wipe that sheepish grin off your face, and don’t let it get your goat!