Blessed are the Cheese Makers

November 21, 2011 § 2 Comments

I thought a little Monty Python would be an appropriate end my cheese making week. This clip brings to mind another brilliant Life of Brianism: “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”.  I should have thought to hum that song to myself when I was in the midst of my failed Camembert experiment yesterday afternoon.
That, my friends, is the sad result of unset curd being poured into cheese moulds only to fall straight out onto the counter. I had even given the curd and extra hour to set. One would think after 4 hours of cheese making that I would curse the day I ever thought to make cheese. Instead I thought about what I still might do about it.
My husband helped me pour the curds and whey into a large cheesecloth so I could try to retain the stronger curd to pour into the moulds. When I visited Haystack creamery, they mentioned how slippery the bags of curd and whey were and I got to experience this firsthand. As I was trying to re-position the cheesecloth I lost one corner of it and half of the remaining mixture went into the sink and down my front side.

There was a little cursing voice in my head telling me to just dump the rest in the sink and be done with it. No, wait, that was my husband’s voice as he looked over my shoulder at the mess I was making of our kitchen. I can’t say I blame him as it was pretty gross and more than a little disconcerting.

I continued on and preserved just enough curd to fill one cheese mould. I popped on the lid of the container and let it continue to drain overnight. That sad, lonely container is my attempt to look on the bright side of life.
I don’t have high hopes for this round of cheese, but in a way the failed experience makes me want to learn more about cheese making than if it had all turned out perfectly. I think one of the important aspects in learning a craft is learning from your failure along the way.

I immediately started scouring the cheese forums to understand what might have happened to prevent the curd from setting. It is either the milk I used, contamination or old/not enough rennet to coagulate properly. I believe it was the rennet in this case. The thing about cheese making is that it is all about a number of variables you can manipulate until you get the result you want. I like that aspect of trial and error and experimentation.

I’m just feeling good about the fact in one week I’ve learned enough about cheese making that I even know what set curd looks like and what a clean break is (Thanks to Jimmy). It’s given me a much greater appreciation for what goes into mastering artisanal cheese.

A Visit to Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy

November 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

I first had a bite of Haystack Mountain cheese at the Boulder Farmer’s Market last year and their Haystack Peak has been one of my favorites ever since. Haystack Mountain Goat Dairy started on a small farm with a handful of goats and has since grown into an artisanal dairy of 8 hard-working folks producing 150,000 lbs. of cheese each year.

On Friday I met with Maureen Reagan, Haystack’s Sales Manager, to walk through how this special goat cheese is made and responsibly sent to market.

Before you even get a whiff of cheese curing in the caves you are struck by the odor of cleanliness. The creamery is one-part food prep and one-part laboratory, constantly being cleaned and sanitized. I donned my hair net and boot covers and made my way in.

Maureen explained that half the day is spent cleaning just about every surface of the creamery. She went through 2 weeks of cheese making training when she started, learning each part of the process. She has a lot of respect for how much work goes into producing those delicious rounds of queso. It definitely looked like back breaking work cleaning those huge vats inside and out.

Maureen walked through each part of the process from when the trucks roll up with the milk to transfer through the piping to the finished product being shipped out. Below are 60 lb. bags of curds & whey draining after setting up. She laughed that trying to carry these is like trying to carry a 60 lb. water balloon. I later experienced how slippery curds, whey and cheese cloth can be in my own kitchen. (More to come on that)

After visiting a few of the different cheese caves, I met Jackie Chang, the head cheese maker of Haystack. She seemed to be in 3 places at once. With as many cheeses as they produce, there are all sorts of tasks from setting to flipping to wrapping that need to happen each day.

Jackie was in the process of experimenting with a beer washed-rind set of cheeses in conjunction with Breckenridge Brewery. She sent me home with a small round of her Breckenridge Brewery IPA washed-rind creation. I am not ashamed to admit a friend and I promptly ate half of it a few hours later. It hasn’t even hit the market yet but I highly recommend it. She was also making a stout version.

Beer and cheese are so good together and Jackie has now removed a step for us. When I met with Will and Coral at Cured they talked about the wonderful aspect of experimenting in American Artisanal cheese making and I got to see it at Haystack firsthand.

Aside from learning about the cheese making process, another interesting aspect of talking with Maureen was how they manage their product going to market. They hand date each package of cheese to ensure freshness. They also recently completed an entire freshness audit of their operation from the freshness level of each ingredient that goes into their cheeses to how the final product is handled where it’s sold in all their markets. They tracked each piece of cheese. Wow.

I asked Maureen about the questions that arise in regard to raw milk cheese from time to time and how safe it is to eat. She shared that it’s frustrating for small producers who specialize in this because there isn’t really any foundation for the concern. There are more serious problems that arise with all other sorts of foods each year that don’t lead to the same concerns, such as spinach, tomatoes and melons. From her experience, other dairy operations use the same level of sanitation they pride themselves on and there have been few and far between cases that lead to sickness.

Goat cheese is also lower in fat than other cheeses. Compared to cow milk cheddars and cream cheeses, Haystack Mountain Goat Cheese is lower in fat, calories and cholesterol. My husband just found out he has to go on Lipitor to lower his cholesterol, so he will be happy with a Haystack treat now and then.

Going to Fruition

November 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

These are the curious ladies of Fruition Farms, the 35 original ewes (with a ram for good measure) that represent one of the few sheep’s milk farms in Colorado. On Friday I met up with Chef Alex Seidel, of Fruition restaurant in Denver, who graciously invited me out to show me around his farm. His story is a pretty remarkable one. Just last year he was named one of the 10 new best chefs by Food and Wine magazine. Beyond his knack with cuisine, he’s doing something pretty special. He’s showing the world what farm to table really means. You see more and more restaurants sourcing locally but you see few that go to the extent Alex has in handling both sides of the equation himself.

Alex explained they got into artisanal sheep’s milk cheese making because everyone was doing goat’s milk here in Colorado; it was something different. He also appreciated that sheep’s milk has much higher fat content in the milk which makes better cheese. Having the palate Alex and the other chefs he’s partnered up with have puts them in a unique position in terms of making cheese. They know what they’re looking for and can take it into account when making decisions on feed and how that impacts the final product.

Their operation is pretty impressive. They re-vamped all of the buildings on the property themselves and built a lot of the structures needed for milking which Alex walked me through. He humbly brushes off the compliments when you admire just how much work that is on top of running a restaurant. It is a devoted group of people.

After an overview of the farm, Alex took me to meet Jimmy Warren, shepherd and cheese maker of Fruition Farms. I immediately liked him because he’s a Red Sox fan. He was the sous chef at Fruition restaurant and after attending a dairy symposium with Alex decided to invest and move over to working at the farm full time. He spent a few months on an established farm learning sheep farming to get started. While he doesn’t have a formal background in husbandry or cheese making, it only takes a few minutes with him to see he is a jack of all trades who gets in and figures things out by learning and doing firsthand. He’s not afraid to fail and keep at it until he gets closer to what he wants.

Jimmy was in the process of making “Shepherd’s Halo”, one of his experiments. If he was looking for redemption for something then he’s found it in this cheese. It is just a deliciously creamy, well-balanced cheese. I liked that it was not too strong or salty.

He gave me an overview of his cheese making process while we waited for the curd to set. We even talked a bit about beer brewing since he also brews the beer on the farm. He approved my setup from last week and talked about where I could go with it. He also offered to teach me welding and how to put up dry wall for my blog.

We got back to cheese making and he showed me what the consistency of the curd should look like when it’s ready. This is where it really helps to watch someone who already knows what they’re doing. It should have a nice break and not leave too much residue on your fingers. He then cut the curd to release the whey by cutting it into 3/4″ cubes. By cutting it into chunks of equal size it ensures the whey will release at similar rates per curd. It also creates a better consistency in texture throughout the cheese.

The moulds sit to drain overnight to start the process of becoming more rounds of delicious “Shepherd’s Halo”.

At this point it came out that in my own cheese making the curd was improperly set based on my description. My glee from the science fair-like nature of instant coagulation I described sounded wrong to Jimmy’s ears. This troubled Jimmy and I think he couldn’t bear the thought of cheese week ending without a properly made cheese. He sent me home with a camembert recipe, culture and moulds which I will be experimenting with this afternoon. I promised to return the moulds (those things are not cheap!). He even insisted I call him so he could be there to answer any questions.

I drove away from Fruition Farms in a bit of a dream state. I went in search of cheese making knowledge and left with a glimpse at a pretty admirable way of life. I got a sense for why people fall in love with an endeavor like this.  It’s hard to put into words but there is a simplicity and an intention to make good and to see how you fare with your common sense and own two hands in living up to it.

The Curators of Cured

November 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Not everyone who loves cheese to a professional extent goes down the path of becoming a cheese maker. Some become what I would call curators. They’re the voice of fromage, and, similar to curators of great art, expose you to a whole new world of styles, textures and flavors. They share their educated point of view and give you a greater appreciation for what you’re nibbling on. I’m lucky enough to live 3 blocks away from the most talented curators around.

Coral Ferguson and Will Frischkorn are living the dream as proprietors of Cured, a shop specializing in a hand picked selection of cheeses, cured meats, table wines and other unique grocery items. They spent years living in Europe, falling in love with the locally sourced,  neighborhood market way of living which led them to creating their own here in Boulder. To say I was happy when they opened this fall would be an understatement.
Will and Coral have traveled the country meeting with producers at the forefront of American cheesemaking and have been inspired by how cheese is evolving in the States. Artisanal cheesemaking has seen tremendous growth in the last 5 years. Coral and Will both agree that what makes it exciting is the fun, experimental side of cheesemaking here compared with Europe where it is more steeped in and restricted by tradition.

They shared that people in the US are not only making wonderful, traditional style cheese but making it their own. A good example is the sheep’s milk Cacio Pecora, from Fruition Farms, a local farm I visited yesterday. They’re also huge fans of cheese maker Andy Hatch at Upland Farms in Wisconsin (of course) whose Pleasant Ridge Reserve has won Best in Show 3 times in the past 10 years. It is divine.

Aside from making delicious cheese I asked them to tell me more about the cheese makers they meet. Who are they? They said about half they’ve met are from established dairy families and the other half are people for whom cheese making is a second career, ranging from ex-Wall Street guys to corporate attorneys. There’s a desire to get back to the land and a simpler way of life.
(photo: WSJ.com)
One such cheese maker they got a kick out of is John Putnam (above), owner of Thistle Hill Farm in Vermont. He is an ex-bankruptcy lawyer turned european alpine style cheese maker. After 17 years practicing law he made the switch full time. It took him 4 years to learn cheese making after several trips to Europe and the help of a French work-study student.

I toyed with the idea of getting into cheese making when I was working in advertising in Los Angeles but never followed through at the time. It’s good to know there are all of these people out there getting into the craft and tirelessly working to raise the profile of American cheese.

At Cured, Coral and Will link all of these amazing cheese makers together in a delightful neighborhood shop where one can stop by and explore the world of American artisanal cheese making a few bites at a time. It’s a pretty delicious world I must say.

Making Curds and Whey

November 15, 2011 § 2 Comments

I now have a much clearer visual of what Little Miss Muffet was eating on her tuffet before the spider came and chased her away. I made up a batch of my own curds and whey thanks to a lovely gift of the Urban Cheesecraft Mozzarella cheese kit. I know making cheese is probably not always so simple, but this kit was so easy to use and fun! It took under an hour to make 2 fist sized mozzarella balls.
They say cheese is milk’s leap towards immortality, so as you can imagine the key ingredient is milk. For this recipe, I used organic vitamin D milk. They don’t recommend using ulta-pasteurized or too lowfat a milk in cheese making.
Cheese making is not unlike beer brewing in that you’re standing over a pot of liquid on a stove watching it hit various temperatures before adding in ingredients at certain stages. It would be a fun thing to do with friends, especially in the summer when you have fresh basil and tomatoes.
The second ingredient added is citric acid dissolved in water. The milk immediately begins to curdle and then you bring the temperature to 100 degrees. At that stage you add the third ingredient which is 1/4 rennet tablet (coagulant) dissolved in 1/4 water.

Magic! It gave you that same feeling you had as a child doing a science experiment. I would put it right up there with the vinegar volcano eruption. The milk mixture immediately transformed into fluffy white curds and golden colored whey. I may have let out a little oooooing and aaahing to myself. Kids would love this (although then refuse to eat it I would imagine).
After the excitement of coagulation, it was time to strain the cheese.
One interesting part of the recipe is using a microwave to further heat the cheese and drain the whey. They also offer an alternate water bath which I will try out the next time. I went with the microwave.
Here you add in the 4th ingredient, cheese salt as well as any herbs you desire. They say rubber gloves are optional to a spoon but I would say if you’re going to make the mozzarella recipe that you will need them for sure for stretching and shaping. I did not have them and it made it a bit tricky. You need the cheese at 135 degrees to stretch and that was a bit hot for my delicate little hands.  Those of you with tough, calused man hands should be fine.
My mozzarella ball was not as smooth as I imagine it should be, likely the cheese was not hot enough. The cheese will get tougher the more you work with it so I didn’t want to do too much folding and stretching.

The true test will be a taste later once it cools. We have some guests staying with us who I will enlist as my victims. Even if it tastes awful the whole coagulation thing was well worth the little bit of effort it took to make!

Two thumbs up for cheese making.

Cheese please

November 14, 2011 § Leave a comment

As we get closer to Thanksgiving I think about all the things I’m thankful for and one of them has to be that I am not lactose intolerant! I love me some cheese. My heart goes out to those of you who have to venture carefully into that territory.

I figured cheese making would be a good week to come on the heels of beer brewing. They do go together nicely and should be ready about the same time. I also now know how to make home made pasta to go along nicely with the mozzarella I’ll be making.

This week was inspired by a thoughtful wedding gift from some of our good friends, Steve and Steph who live in Portland, another great foodie city. They sent us this wonderfully simple cheese making kit from Urban Cheesecraft, a venture started by a couple who could not find cheese making supplies locally in Portland (that is a huge surprise).

They’ve done a ton of research that has gone into simple, affordable kits they sell online. If this goes well, I definitely want to try the goat cheese kit.

This week I also hope to visit a farm or two locally to check out the cheese making going on around these parts in Boulder.

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