First Cheddar Tasting

First Cheddar Tasting, on Flickr

I’ve been sitting on these photos for about a month now, but somehow word still got out: the cheddar is open! I’ve already tasted or given away half the wheel, and the initial reviews are quite positive. I’m pretty happy with it myself. It tastes good, but maybe not perfect. Given that I was worried about it being a soaking moldy rancid mess when I finally cracked it open, I’m feeling pretty accomplished. It’s a bit moist—creamy even—and somewhat mild at this point in time (it’s about eight months old). It doesn’t seem to be oversalted. The curd is really well knit, with no gaps or crevices. It tastes a bit like a colby to me, so I have to figure out what the similarity is there.

First Cheddar Tasting, on Flickr

I cut the wheel up into eights and vacuum packed them all. Hopefully I’ll be able to wait out the full year before tasting the rest, and we’ll see if it changes much in that time. In the meantime, the weather is getting nice and cool, and I’m finding myself in the kitchen more often on the weekends, cooking and baking and brewing. Hopefully the cheesemaking will resume in October, and I’ll be able to put up enough cheese over winter to satisfy the snacking appetite of family and friends for the next year.

First Cheddar Tasting, on Flickr

Three Cheese Update

3 Week Provolone, Slicing, on Flickr

My first batch of provolone, having completed three weeks of hard labor in the cheese fridge, was ready for slicing and tasting last weekend. Hooray! After many requests for “some cheeses we can actually taste within the next year”, we now have some cream cheese and provolone in an edible state in the fridge.

Cheese is quite a pain to cut with a knife, and I don’t have any piano wire handy to make a wire-based cheese slicer, so I was quite happy to finally have a use for one of my hand cranked deli slicers, as you can see above. Don’t tell the hoarding police, but I have three of these things kicking around in the basement. The first one I dug up didn’t work so hot, but the one pictured above sliced the provolone beautifully. It has some squeaks and needs some cleaning and tuning, but in general it’s a lovely hunk of cast iron and it chewed through my two provolone lumps with ease.

3 Week Provolone, Slicing, on Flickr

3 Week Provolone, Slicing, on Flickr

My parents scrounged me a vacuum sealer for Christmas last year, and this was its first use. I do hate the proliferation of plastic bags it encourages, but I suppose I hate freezer burn and wasted food moreso. The bags seem to be reusable though, so I’ll just be “that guy” who washes and dries items that are normally thought of as disposable. No matter… I hang laundry and prefer bikes to cars, so I’ve already been cast out of polite American society.

VacuuProvolone, on Flickr

The vacuum sealer worked quite well, and by the end of this process I felt like a proper supermarketeer, with nicely sliced and plasticized cheeses, ready to be hung in the deli case next to the bologna and prosciutto (dangerously close to the liverwurst too, usually!). Update: since writing this, we’ve broken into the provolone stash, and found all the slices had been vacuumed back into a single mass. Perhaps I will age provolone unsliced in the future.

I now realize I’ve failed to mention something important: how did it taste?! I am relieved to report that it does indeed taste like provolone. Fairly mild at this point, but with a hint of sharp cheesiness. The rind is a bit drier and more pronounced than I’m used to. The humidity was a tad low in the cheese cave, so that may account for that. The texture inside seems about right, despite my problems stretching and forming the curd. Not sure what else to say… no doubt cheese mongers have a bounty of words used to describe cheese taste characteristics. Perhaps they’re even as varied and silly as those of wine aficionados… but for now, all I’ve got is: tastes cheesy, not spoiled, not too salty, A++ would ingest again.

Parmesan, 3 Months, on Flickr

Since I was already breaking out the vacuum-sealer-bot for long term provolone storage, I decided to quarter and pack my first parmesan and romano cheeses as well. One disadvantage of making wee little two pound cheeses is that the rind to insides ratio is all off compared to an 80 pound wheel. Unless you rub the rind with olive oil every once in a while, or wax your cheese, or vacuum pack it, you’ll end up with an overly dry, cracked up, 100% rindy cheese. No good.

I was a bit worried I wouldn’t be able to cut the parmesan, due to my aforementioned lack of wire (not to mention the specialized knives usually used to split apart big wheels of parmesan), but my normal chef’s knife did the trick just fine. The romano was even easier, as it’s a bit more moist (probably too moist, actually). Both were quartered, and—after I snuck a taste—vacuum packed.

Again, I have no good tasting notes… the parmesan seemed to have the right texture, a little crumbly and grainy. The taste was “getting there”. Not sharp, more salty than anything at this point. The romano was about the same, except not so dry, with no grainy texture. I almost want to compare the texture to muenster. I think it’s grate-able though, so it’ll probably work out. It certainly wont be drying out any more in the bag, so that’s possibly a mistake, but since you can eat it young as a table cheese anyways, I’m not too worried. Worst case we’ll eat the insides and grate the outsides.

Romano, 3 Months, on Flickr

CheeseBags, on Flickr

Now that everything is all bagged up, my cheese cave is a bit boring. Besides the bags, I only have one wheel of waxed cheddar. Humidity in the cave isn’t so important now, but the temperature needs to remain at 50–55 degrees in order for everything age properly. So until I get a new cheese fridge up and running, the kegerator will remain a cheeserator. Sorry future party guests.

Now that summer is upon us, I doubt I’ll want to spend hours in the kitchen with the stove on, so I might have to concentrate on quicker and easier cheese recipes. I’m thinking summer salads might need some crumbly blue cheeses involved, so perhaps I’ll make it my goal to get more acquainted with that particular mold in the very near future…

Cream Cheesy Bagels

Cream Cheesemaking, on Flickr

There is something perversely satisfying about spending an excessive amount of time recreating commodity food items at home. I know I’m not alone in this affliction, as one of my favorite food blogs, Smitten Kitchen, seems to excel at making her own oreos, graham crackers, pop tarts, marshmallows, and so on. Thus, having confirmed that I’m in good company, I decided to fritter away yet another Sunday in the kitchen, this time making cream cheese and bagels (sorry, no lox (yet)).

I’ll have to give bagel details at a later date, lest your eyeballs glaze before you make it to the glamor shots at the end of this post. If you simply cannot wait, I’ve got some photos of the bagel process in my bread products Flickr set.

Cream Cheesemaking Fixins, on Flickr

First step! Lay all your utensils and goodies on the counter in a neat and fussy arrangement. Get up on a stool and take pictures. Express thanks for a kitchen with a nice wood countertop right next to the lovely light of a large, north facing window.

You may notice the counter is pretty bare. Compared to the last time I made cheese, this is going to be relatively simple. Hooray!

Cream Heater, on Flickr

Step two: warm up the milky bits. I used half and half. You can probably use straight-up light cream, or even heavy cream if you’re a crazy cheese daredevil. Seventy-five degrees is your target. Precision isn’t terribly important here, we’re just trying to make the bacteria cozy, and they do tolerate a range of temperatures.

One slight complication: there’s a twelve hour long step coming up, so you’ll probably want to start this the night before and let your microbe friends work while you slumber. Plan ahead!

M E S O P H I L L I C, on Flickr

Now that we’re up to temperature, it’s time to add our bacterial culture. This comes as a packet of powder, which you keep in your freezer in order to prevent its inhabitants from waking up and hulking out in your pantry or other such inconvenient location. Snip the packet with the scissors you’ve previously sanitized (you sanitized all your equipment, right?), sprinkle it on top of the milk, and mix it in thoroughly.

Now, here’s where my various cheese books disagree. Some of them tell you to add rennet as well. So, I did. I’m starting to think that’s unnecessary/cheating. The lactic acid produced by our bacteria should be able to curdle the milk on its own, given enough time. It sounds like the result would be lumpy curds floating in whey, instead of the uniform gel that I got, and I suspect that would be more authentic. I’ll try it the other way next time, if I’m feeling lucky and adventurous.

Cozy Bath, on Flickr

Cozy Bath, on Flickr

Either way, we now need to keep our pot o’ milkstuff warm for twelve hours. In my yogurt making days I learned that a cooler and some warm water will keep things toasty for quite some time. So put your pot in a “cooler”, pour in some warm water, close the lid, call it a “warmer”, and go to bed. How much water to add—and at what temperature—is an experiment I’ll leave to you. I try to err towards more water at a not-too-hot temperature, so there’s enough thermal mass to last through the night.

All of this assumes that you’re not making cheese in a balmy climate. If you do happen to roost where “room temperature” is between seventy and eighty, just leave the pot out, taking appropriate precautions re: marauding cats and curious primates.

14 Hours Later, on Flickr

I did these first steps at about five in the evening, so needless to say, twelve hours came and went before I rolled out of bed the next morning. No worries. I got to it at eight or so. Poking around in the pot with a washed finger revealed that our experiment had indeed firmed up overnight.

Straining Tools, on Flickr

Scoop and Strain, on Flickr

Step one million. Make yourself some tea, line a strainer with muslin, and grab an old-timey slotted spoon with a handle that’s quite likely covered in lead paint. Scoop and plop. Gather up the cloth to make a nice hobo sack (optional: contemplate “hobo cheese” for a bit), then hang it over a whey receptacle for about six hours while it drains.

Hanging Cheese, on Flickr

Hanging Cheese, on Flickr

Hanging Cheese, on Flickr

Six Hours Later, on Flickr

And there you have it. It should be firmed up and dried out a bit. Add some salt and you’re done. It’s never going to have the same texture as the cream cheese you get from the store, as it’s not full of odd gelling agents and fillers, but once you cool it down it’ll be nice and creamy and spreadable. It should last at least two weeks in the fridge.

Or rather, it shouldn’t spoil for at least two weeks. Whether it lasts that long depends on how many bagels you have on hand. Out of a half gallon of half and half I ended up with about 1.8 pounds of cheese, or—at current rates of consumption—about two dozen bagels worth.

Packaging, on Flickr

Bagelmaking, on Flickr

Cream Cheesemaking, on Flickr

Unlike all the other cheeses I’ve made so far, I’ve actually tasted this one! I think it came out really well. Pretty tangy and creamy. Maybe a little drier on the mouth than store-bought cream cheese, but at the same time a bit fresher and less gummy feeling. It’s probably not something I’d make terribly often (too many other cheeses to try!), but I’ll call it a success. It has certainly gotten good reviews in my limited test market of one.

The whole process of making cream cheese reminded me of making a strained yogurt cheese, and indeed I’m feeling like the final result is quite similar (though a bit richer). Soon I’ll document the idiotically easy process of making said yogurt cheese, for those of you unwilling or unable to sacrifice so much time in pursuit of cultured dairy products.