My book club recently read The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. It’s a very good story, set in San Francisco, about a wayward homeless girl who gets herself back on track by working as a florist. Her talent for arranging bouquets, which almost work magic for those who buy them, comes from her foster-mother who taught her “the language of flowers” as a child; the Victorian custom of sending messages through bouquets in which all the flowers convey a message through their symbolism.
My book club is also a bit of a food club and I, in particular, really like to theme the food to the book of the month. Many flowers are edible, so I tried to think of ways to make a dish using flowers and, of course, cheese came to mind. I decided to do a lavender chevre and I made rosemary flatbread crackers to go with it. Lavender stands for “devotion” and rosemary, that’s for “remembrance” (Hamlet, you know?). I wasn’t really trying to send a message with my cheese and crackers, but the hors d’oeuvres ended up having a lovely sentiment.
I used Debra Amrein-Boyes’ basic Fresh Goat Cheese recipe. It uses a mesophilic starter and just a tiny drop of rennet, which creates a very delicate curd that I drained in my wacky burger-joint ketchup and mustard bottle molds to form perfect chevre logs. As I scooped the gel-like curd into the molds, I sprinkled dried lavender (from my balcony garden) in a bit at a time. Once I unmolded the logs and was ready to serve, I also rolled them in a bit more lavender, because it had a nicer purple color than the bits that had been in the cheese for a few days. Ultimately, it ended up being a bit much and the cheese tasted a little soapy, which was disappointing, but a flower girl who practiced a little more self-control could make quite a nice delicate lavender infused cheese, I think.
The rosemary crackers were based on a recipe from the Smitten Kitchen, which is a great food blog with consistently spot-on recipes. Click here to link to the recipe. Instead of making big flatbreads, I cut mine down into rectangular crackers. They were thick and a bit chewy, but really flavorful and a perfect (non-crumbly!) base for a cheese spread.
People often ask me how long it takes to make cheese. Well, do you mean how long it takes to actually make it? Or how long until it’s ready to eat? I usually set aside a whole day to make a cheese, from milk to wheel (sometimes that involves setting an alarm to get up in the middle of the night to finish flipping it or to drop it in some brine). That’s the (relatively) quick and fun part. But the long period of aging is what really makes a cheese. And it’s interesting, and requires some skill and science, but it’s not always fun.
I have four cheeses aging at the moment. That’s about the most I’ve had going at once and they’ve kind of got me stressed out. The problems aren’t major, but when I consider the amount of time I still have to keep a few of them healthy and stable, it’s a bit daunting. So, this morning I did some major cheese maintenance in an effort to stay on the right track:
This is the cheese I made to take to Thanksgiving dinner in a couple of weeks. I’ve never had trouble with Camembert before. That’s one reason why I chose to make it; easy, but impressive. Unfortunately, this time it’s being a bit difficult. It’s fine, really, it just has some bald spots. A bit of the mange? I don’t know why it’s happening, but the mold growth is a bit sparse and the edges of the wheel have darkened to a vaguely parchment hue. When the cheeses first began to get a healthy coat of mold, weeks ago, I wrapped them in cheese paper, as you do, but they quickly soaked through the paper. I think in the places where the soggy paper contacted the cheese, the mold coating was compromised. I unwrapped them and they’ve been aging, au naturale, for the past few weeks, but the mold has never come back in spots. They seem to be less damp now, so today I wrapped one wheel to see if it would stay dry. Maybe the mold will get going better under the paper. At least there’s no “weird” mold growing, but the P. Candidum could step up its game a bit. We’ve got 13 hungry cheese-eaters to impress on Thanksgiving Day!
The Gouda is for the League of Urban Cheesemakers’ January meeting. I was really pleased with how the make went and am experimenting with coating the wheels in coconut oil while they age. (You can read about that here.) The problem is, I made Stilton at about the same time and for a while it was in an aging box in the cave with the Gouda. Penicillium Roqueforti – blue cheese mold – can be pretty aggressive at colonizing and the other day I found blue mold under the oil on my Gouda. Since the coconut oil makes a solid coating, I chipped it off where I could see dark spots underneath, scraped off the mold, sprayed a little white vinegar on the spot, and re-oiled. The blue mold is tenacious though and keeps coming back, so now I’m playing whack-a-mole… err, whack-a-mold… with it. Today, I got a little fed up though and after Lysoling the inside of my cave, I took most of the oil off each wheel, scrubbed them up with a brine-soaked sponge, sprayed vinegar, sprinkled salt, and re-oiled. One spot was particularly bad and the mold had gone down a crevice into the interior of the wheel. I started digging it out with the point of a knife, but the divet was unsightly, so I opted to amputate and just carved off one corner of the wheel until the mold was gone. I know, it’s probably terrible cheese craft, but what’s done is done and I hope the mold is now in remission. On the bright side, I got to chew on a few of the pieces I lopped off and it tastes great. If I can keep the P. Roqueforti at bay until January, I’ll have some very nice Gouda. If not, perhaps I’ve invented a new varietal… which I shall call “Blouda.”
The Stilton is past due. It had its moment at the last League of Urban Cheesemaker’s meeting, but as I explained in that post, it’s so ugly I’m having trouble getting rid of the second wheel. Now that its P. Roqueforti mold has colonized my cave, I moved the wheel to my regular fridge. Hopefully, the colder temperature will keep the mold in better check and it won’t colonize there, too. Basically, the cheese seems stable though. It doesn’t appear to be getting any moldier (would that even be possible), and is just hanging out, being hideous. My Dad actually volunteered to try it, so I’m hoping it lasts another few weeks until I can take it home for Thanksgiving. I wrapped it in foil, because I’ve heard many Blues are stored that way (I still haven’t figured out why though), and put it in a tupperware. At this point, I’m mostly worried about it losing more moisture, since it is already very dry. So, hopefully, the foil and container help keep it status quo… and my family will be brave enough to try it once they’ve seen the Blue Monster face to face.
I made Lavender Chevre earlier this week for my book club. I’ll tell you more about it once we eat it next week. It’s the one cheese that is not giving me anxiety though. It’s just sitting pretty until next Tuesday. It’s in my regular fridge, but as far away as possible from the crazy Stilton, you can be sure. I roll the log every once in a while, just so it doesn’t sit in a puddle of moisture or get too flat on one side. I have high hopes for it. Go, goat, go!
My Stilton does not look like anything you would want to put in your mouth. In fact, it looks like something someone pulled out from under the sofa after it rolled back there years ago. Or maybe something from a B movie of the sci-fi/horror genre. Or elephant feet… one friend definitely said “elephant feet.” In fact, my boyfriend cringed when I touched the cheese with bare hands and later swore he saw it move. Yeah, it’s that ugly.
The Stilton was made back in September for our second League of Urban Cheesemakers meeting, which was either a convention of moldy masterpieces, or an environmental crisis… depending on how you look at it. Luckily, we in the League are not faint of heart or taste-bud. We sat down to eleven hoary wheels and enjoyed ourselves immensely.
Once again, it was amazing to see the diversity of results. Rinds ranged from speckled beige to blackish green, which mostly seemed to have depended on the maker’s ability to “rub up” their wheels. Those that conquered the difficult task kept cleaner, lighter colored rinds, while those of us who couldn’t, found the mold covering the outside as well as in. The pastes were intriguing, too; from almost clean, to small clouds of mold speckles, to deeply marbled. This seemed to depend mostly on the moisture content of the curd, with drier curds achieving better veining.
More amazing than their dramatic appearances though, was that every wheel smelled and tasted just fine. Good even, or dare I say delicious. All had that signature blue pungency and complimented our spread of fruits, nuts, and honey well. It was quite a feast. And we’re all still alive to tell of it! I’m now trying to figure out what to do with my second Stilton, as no one I know is brave enough to eat it… How about you?
Our third cheese assignment for the League of Urban Cheesemakers is Gouda. The meeting when we’ll taste it is not until January, but I made mine last week so that it will have about four months to age. Gouda is usually waxed for aging (traditionally with red wax, but any color works), which seals the wheel, keeping moisture in and mold out. You can finish Gouda however you want though. The recipe I used suggested waxed, oiled, or spice rubbed.
I’ve made oiled natural rind cheeses before and actually enjoyed it more than waxed cheeses, both in process and results. Waxed cheeses are pretty stable, so you just flip them every now and then and otherwise leave them alone… which is boring. Also, when you open them (at least with the one’s I’ve made) there tends to be mold under the wax anyway, try as you might, which then has to be cut off and kind of ruins the aesthetic of the wheel. On the other hand, oiled cheeses take some more maintenance; rubbing them regularly with oil and chasing molds away, as well as flipping. You’re more involved and aware of their progress and the end result is a nice supple, clean, even rind.
In the past I’ve used olive oil to coat my natural-rind cheeses, which works well. It’s runny of course, and makes a very thin coating, and has to be re-applied frequently once it’s absorbed or dries up. This time I have a new idea though – coconut oil! It’s all the rage in the cooking world right now. I’m not sure it’s as healthy as a lot of the fad-followers claim, but I suppose it does make for tasty baked goods. I bought a jar a while back for a recipe, but haven’t really found a use for it since then. So, faced with a shortage of cheese wax and an odd jar of coconut oil, I decided to try it out as a cheese coating.
If you’ve used coconut oil, you know that it is very temperature sensitive. Just sitting in the cupboard it can be a runny liquid on a warm day, or completely solid on a cool one. This plays into my strategy for aging my cheese, since it will be in the cold cheese cave for the next four months. I caught my coconut oil at a moment when it was semi-solid; kind of pasty, which made it easy to rub all over the exterior of my Goudas with just my fingers. It didn’t drip, but made a nice smooth coating. Then I stuck the wheels in the cave and the oil quickly solidified into an almost wax-like coating. (I had to re-do some of it at first, because the oil solidified to the cheese mat and pulled off the wheel, but I just put the cold side down, re-oiled the top, and let it get solid. All better!) When I take the cheeses out of the cave to flip them, the heat of my hands quickly makes the oil just a little more malleable and I can smooth the wax around and make sure coverage is good. After about a week already, I haven’t needed to reapply oil, because the original coating is still thick and intact.
As for taste, we’ll have to see how the coconut oil influences the cheese. I think it will be nice. Coconut oil has a pretty pronounced coconut smell (which is lovely), but the taste is more subtle and I think it will meld nicely with the taste of cheese and maybe even give it a slight tropical note around the rind. I actually sampled some coconut cheese at a Dutch Queen’s Day festival once – made with milk and coconut cream – so I feel like I’m not even going that far out on a limb here. If it works, I think I’ll have found my prefered method of aging natural rind cheese; a good middle-ground between wax and oil.
So, I’m curious. Have you ever used coconut oil on cheese? Or any other interesting oils or fats (a friend told me recently about using bacon grease!)? What’s your favorite method for finishing and aging semi-hard and hard cheeses?
The title of this post is not one of Shakespeare’s best known quotes. It’s from the play Henry IV and expresses a character’s annoyance at another’s tiresomeness. In whole it goes: “O, he is as tedious as a tired horse, a railing wife; worse than a smoky house: I had rather live with cheese and garlic in a windmill, far, than feed on cates and have him talk to me in any summer-house in Christendom.” It kind of reflects my sentiments toward my most recent cheese; a Stilton. (Plus, I just like the imagery of hanging out in a windmill with a wedge of cheese and some garlic… I don’t think it sounds too bad, actually). But perhaps, for familiarity’s sake, we could subtitle this post “to be, or not to be.” Whether this Stilton will “be” or not is still up in the air. The recipe was quite different from any other Blue recipe I’ve used (albeit unsuccessfully)… and this time I actually used real cultures, instead of trying to clone store-bought Blue! The mold doesn’t seem to be having any trouble, in fact, but the curd is problematic and I think it has something to do with the make process. Here, with accompaniment from the Bard, are a few of the weird-to-me steps I encountered in making this Stilton:
“And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe…” – As You Like It
To ripen the curds, they were bundled in cheesecloth and put in the bottom of the pot, with the draining whey pooling around them. The bundle was tightened every hour via a Stilton knot. It’s nothing a Boy Scout would be impressed with, but I think it’s cool that there’s a method of tying up cheesecloth specific to Stilton. Later the curd mass was laid on a draining board and I kept a pot over it for warmth. This is where mine went the way of vulcanized rubber. It was malleable enough to flatten out into a large pancake, but given time, was like tearing shoe leather to break it into chunks for molding. Other recipes I’ve used have a similar procedure to this, but called for hanging the curds in a cloth bag, and then applying weight overnight, and despite the longer ripening time and applied pressure, did not produce the “lump of foul deformity” (Richard III) that was my curd.
“I’ll drain him dry as hay.” -Macbeth
This recipe called for draining Stilton more like I’ve drained Camembert in the past, without the use of a press. This means the curd relies on its own weight to knit together and form a wheel, and has to be pretty moist to fuse into a solid mass. It makes a lot of sense when you consider that Stilton needs open nooks and crannies in its paste for the mold to grow in. You don’t want to press those out with heavy weights. But of course, because my curds were super tough, they were too nook-and-crannyish for their own good and “cleaved not to their mould” (Macbeth). I ended up putting containers of water on top to apply some weight. Even then, they were reluctant, and only just held together as cohesive wheels. (And yes, one of my wheels is being molded in a soup can with the ends cut off. This will make a smaller wheel that will mature a bit faster and be just the right size for sampling at our next Cheese League meeting. If you’re creative, there are endless objects you can turn into molds!)
“Ay, there’s the rub” – Hamlet
The last step was “rubbing up.” I had never heard of “rubbing up” before this cheese. It involves using a butter knife to kind of spackle the exterior of the cheese, smoothing the curd together and sealing up the outside surface of the wheel. The recipe book says “rubbing up is not simple; you can expect lots of curd bits to want to crumble off the sides of the wheel… be patient!” This is an understatement. As I suspected, my curd was far too dry and rubbery. I draped a hot towel over the wheels, but it did little to make the cheese more malleable. In some spots I almost got the rub on, but in most places the wheel threatened to tear apart or crumble. Ultimately, I left it be, rather than totally destroy my cheeses. My wishful thinking goes something like this: the cheese needs air inside to allow the mold to flourish, so leaving the exterior un-rubbed will enhance the natural ventilation… “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” (The Tempest)… but not my cheese, please.
The Stilton is now in the cave becoming “blue with heaven’s own tinct” (Cymbeline). I pierced it with a knitting needle just the other day and found the wheels reassuringly solid, if crumbly on the edges. A few pieces flaked off, but this gave me a chance to sample them. I think, despite the difficulties, “there is some soul of goodness in things evil” (Henry V). They might be ugly, petulant cheeses, but maybe they’ll at least taste good. And cause people to exclaim, “Godsooth, she is the queen of curds and cream.” (The Winter’s Tale)
Well, I guess you want to hear a bit about the bloomy-rind double-cream cheese I made for the first League of Urban Cheesemakers meeting. (Right? Right? Of course you do!) I told you how we had 11 fascinating renditions of the same recipe. Here’s how yours-truly’s turned out…
Admittedly, it was pretty young when it was opened (4 weeks after being made). That was something most of the cheeses had in common, along with being a little light on salt. But, considering that, it turned out pretty well and has a lot of promise… which is why I’m glad I have a second, unopened wheel still in the cave. Given a couple more weeks, I think it will prove to be a solid Camembert. (Well, a little runny wouldn’t be bad.)
When we tasted the cheeses at our meeting, mine was third in line to be passed around following two very nice specimens. I feel like there was already some palate fatigue happening or that, freshly-opened, it hadn’t come into its own yet. My notes from the tasting described it as “mild” and “dull.” It tasted better and more flavorful on the second day. Maybe it just needed some time to breathe and get comfortable. Here’s how it was at its best:
Appearance: Full, velvety, white moldy rind. Very little, but not absent, proteolysis. That’s the layer just under the rind that gets gooey and runny as the cheese matures. It was not gooey, but just starting to form a thin layer of shiny, pliable cheese. Chalky, pasty, crumbly interior; much the consistency of Chevre. The interior also had some crannies and holes, which we decided were “mechanical” (curd not consolidating totally in the mold) rather than caused by bacterial gases forming bubbles.
Feel: Pretty firm and solid wheel. (Would have liked more squish, but alas.) Cut fairly cleanly with a butter knife, but a bit of muscle was needed. To the mouth, the rind was very snappy, almost papery (interesting, when others were more rubbery or pliable – I wonder what causes this) and the interior soft and creamy, a little dry, but not thirst-inducing.
Smell: Clean, milky, with a hint of that mushroomy Brie smell. Perfecto! And maybe just a tiny tiny hint of barnyard… but more of hay than cow pats.
Taste: Milky, still a little dull, but with a hint of tanginess – sort of a mix of sour and bitter, but barely discernible. The rind leans toward the bitter. It’s true that a bit more salt would really make it, but it’s pretty pleasant as it is.
I was not at all embarrassed to present this to other experienced cheesemakers for tasting and I think it held its own with others on the table. I’m looking forward to cracking open the second, slightly more mature, wheel this coming weekend and seeing what a difference a day (or 14) makes.
Wow, that was fast! The two months since we started brainstorming our cheesemaking club have whizzed past and this last weekend we had our first meeting of the League of Urban Cheesemakers. It was a true meeting of the minds… eleven enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and cheese-loving minds. We come from various places around the Bay Area and have a variety of alter-egos; tech workers, chefs, microbiologists, food stylists, architectural historians. Some of us work with food, some of us are just hobbyists. But one thing we all have in common is that we make cheese in our own urban kitchens… and we’re really excited about it!
The spread on the table at the start of our meeting was amazing. Eleven wheels of cheese, all of the same type, but all completely unique. We used a recipe for “Rennet Curd Bloomy Rind Cheese” from Mastering Artisan Cheesemaking by Gianaclis Caldwell (our recipe book of choice). But the recipe was about the only thing the cheeses had in common and a number of variables morphed them into one-of-a-kind wheels. Milk sources, amounts of cultures, temperatures, time, and aging locations all played a factor. In many cases, simple mistakes or the inability to precisely control conditions, temperatures, or time meant major differences in each cheese. Some were small, some were huge, some were tall, some were flat, some were very very flat. Most were bloomy, one was naked. Some were dense and pastelike in the center, others were gooey and runny. Some had rubbery rinds, some had snappy rinds. Some smelled ammoniated and tasted tangy, while others smelled of no more than milk and tasted of cream. But ultimately, none were bad. It was quite a feast!
Most of the meeting consisted of eating slim slivers of Camembert, with crackers, with bread, with charcuterie, with figs and quince paste. And, of course, wine. Eleven bits of cheese and all the extras sure add up to a meal though. While we nibbled, we shared the more technical side of our work: problems we’d encountered, solutions we came up with, questions and – best of all – answers. If you make cheese at home, too, you’ll probably identify with the fact that it’s a very solitary activity. When you get confused and all you have is a complex recipe in front of you, you just wing it, and keep on wondering. Sharing notes allowed us to see that we all come up with similar questions, or even questions we hadn’t thought of ourselves. We learn from others’ mistakes and have others who are able to explain our mistakes to us. Ultimately, it was a very satisfying session and could have gone on all evening (there was certainly enough cheese to go around). I foresee a lot of excellent collaboration in the coming weeks as we get started on our next cheese (Stilton), and our second meeting will surely be another revelation in cheesemaking! Curd on, Cheese League!