or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

I don't know if I have one single favourite food, but if I do, it's cheese. I love it immoderately. I'd eat it with every meal if that didn't mean I'd be a 400-pound sphere with every artery richly clogged. Havarti is probably at the top of the list, with its buttery, voluptuous sapidity, its hint of earthiness and tang. Then old cheddar, the older the better, crumbly and crystalline. Gritty parmesan and pecorino. Luscious goes-with-anything cream cheese. Red Leicester, which I buy every time I'm in England, like crumbly cheddar but tangier. Voluptuous Brie. Pungent Camembert. I love them all.

Every now and then I decide to do something I've never done before just to see what it's like, and a couple of weeks ago, I thought, "I should try making basic cheese*: I've read it's not very hard." So I got all the ingredients and supplies that I would need--there aren't many--and set to it. When the finished product had finished draining and I had turned it out into a bowl, three thoughts entered my head in rapid succession:

"Well, how about that. You can make your own cheese!"

"I can make my own cheese!"


And here is how you can make it yourself. To make about a pound and a half of cheese, you will need:

4 litres whole (3.25% fat) milk
2 lemons
Some vinegar, just in case

A large pot
A wooden spoon
A colander
A clean tea towel or a couple yards of cheesecloth
A yard of heavy string
A way to hang a 2-pound weight over your sink
A large bowl

Bring the milk SLOWLY to a boil in the pot: this will probably take half an hour or more. Stir it frequently, every few minutes at least. In the meantime, juice the lemons and measure out 100 mL: keep the rest aside should you need it. When the milk is just barely at a boil, remove it from the heat and pour in the lemon juice while slowly stirring the milk. It will rapidly coagulate into cottony curds and almost-clear whey. If the whey is opaque, then it's still milk: add the rest of the lemon juice (lemons vary in acidity so this is not science) and keep stirring until it's reasonably clear. If you run out of lemon juice and you're still not happy with the whey, stir in a little vinegar. The finished product will not taste lemony or vinegary--promise (as long as you don't add, I don't know, four cups of the stuff). Cover the pot and ignore it for a few hours.

When the curds and whey have cooled until you can touch them, line the colander with cheesecloth or a tea towel and pour the mixture into it. You can save the whey for use in soups and such: despite being stripped of most of its milk protein and fat, it still has some nutritional value. (I didn't bother on my first go-round.) Stir until most of the whey has drained off, pressing down with the spoon: then gather the cloth up, tie it at the top with the string, and hang it over the sink. Squeeze out whatever whey you can, and then leave it to hang for a while: a couple of hours will probably do.

Turn the cheese out into a bowl--it's cheese now!--and work in a tablespoonful or so of salt, breaking up the larger lumps into small curds. You can use less salt if you want, but I started with a half-tablespoon and it just wasn't enough. A whole tablespoon really amps up the flavour without actually tasting salty.

Cover tightly and refrigerate. It should last at least a week: it will be a little rubbery at first, though still delicious, but it will become tenderer and mellower as the days go by. It is gorgeous smushed on a bagel and broiled a little to heat it through. It won't melt like ripened cheeses, but by god it is cheese. And you made it yourself!**


"Fledgling" is one of those words that demonstrates how a dictionary definition is sometimes not enough--that a word can carry connotations that you have really be deep into a language to understand.

"Fledgling" comes from the verb "to fledge", which is descended from a relative of the German verb "fliegen", "to fly", and the suffix "-ling", used to turn a noun, verb, or adjective into a word referring to a person or animal: "Earthling", for example, or "hatchling, or the sadly archaic "youngling". Feathery "fledge" and "fliegen" are all tangled up with the word "fletcher", an arrow-maker, and its back-formed verb "to fletch", which means "to attach feathers to an arrow", descended from French "flĂȘche", "arrow".

As an adjective, "fledgling" might be defined as "young, new, or inexperienced", and this is reasonable. But it isn't enough, because the word is true to its source: it originally meant a bird which has just fledged--grown its flight feathers--and is about to try, or has just tried, flying for the first time. The implication here is that the fledgling, though not very good at first, is going to become better and better with practice and experience.

Therefore, I would not call myself a fledgling cheesemaker--although in a literal, dictionary** sense that is just what I am--because "fledgling" implies that I've just started out on a journey that will see me steadily improving, growing in skill and ability. I don't think that's going to happen. I'm not going to start storing wheels of ripening cheddar in the broom closet. I'm probably not even going to make any more in the near future. But the startling fact remains:

I can make my own cheese!

*I already make my own ketchup. Really.

**It has a texture very like ricotta, so I would think you could use it wherever you would use ricotta, although I never got around to cooking with it. It's also not awfully high in fat: 4000 mL of 3.25% milk means the whole 24-ounce batch has about 130 grams of fat, about 5.5 grams per ounce, so you have about 110 calories to the ounce, 50 of which are from fat (assuming all the fat from the milk gets bound up into the curds and doesn't remain in the whey--I don't know, I'm not a food scientist). I bet you could use lower-fat milk if you wanted, and I bet you could use 18%-fat coffee cream, too, or work a few ounces of heavy cream into the finished product to enrich it. Experiments for another day.

***Not every dictionary, though. The OED, as one might expect, is more thorough: they define the noun as "A raw and inexperienced person, one just starting on his career," with the obvious implication that the person in question has begun something which will lead to improvement and mastery.


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