I’m a sucker for wines and cheeses with clever names. Although I do love a fancy serious wine, I’ll buy cheap twist-top Screw Kappa Napa or R.C.T.J.W.F. (that is, Really Cool Trader Joe’s Wine Find) over Spring Mountain or Robinson Family, just to be amused by the name. That’s why I’ve always loved Cato Corner Farm’s Womanchego cheese. Womanchego is inspired by the classic Spanish sheep milk cheese, but is made with cows’ milk and only aged 3 to 4 months. They also offer Wise Womanchego that is aged for 9 months.
This summer I made Manchego for my friend Miranda who visited California from Wales. It was a rare chance to share my cheese making with her, an avid cheese fan. But of course I was a little behind the cheese ball, as usual, so my Manchego, which ideally would have aged for 3-12 months only aged for one. Traditionally, Manchego has a range of aging periods and is called different things depending on how long it has been sitting around. Eat it within 5 days and it’s Manchego Fresco, age it for 3-12 weeks and you have Manchego Curado, 3-12 months makes Manchego Viejo, and If you age it in a vat of olive oil for over a year it’s called Manchego Aceeite. Technically, the Manchego I made for Miranda fell into the Curado category, but in a shameless play on Cato Corner’s wit, I’m calling it Boychego.
As for the process, Manchego is pretty straight forward. One of the first steps after heating the milk is to add lipase powder. This is actually one of the first recipes I’ve made that calls for lipase, which is an enzyme that acts on fats to make stronger flavored cheese. It tends to be used in a lot of Italian cheeses, but isn’t a critical element. It just cheeses up the cheesiness, which can’t be a bad thing!
Manchego requires cutting the curds down to rice-size bits with a wire whisk (meaning more moisture release, meaning dryer cheese). You also cook the curds over steadily increasing heat, which makes them expel more moisture. (Now that I have a really really big pot that my really big pot fits inside of, I tried a double-boiler method, which worked nicely and meant better temperature control). Then, after pressing, there’s six hours of soak time in brine. The cheese itself is definitely a hard variety, but not as dry as all this cutting, cooking, and brining might lead you to believe. The final step in aging is to coat the wheel in olive oil to keep its rind from drying out too much and getting crusty. Then you flip the wheel regularly and tend it with fresh olive oil and mold removal until you can’t wait to eat it any longer.
Of note, I’ve really come to like the natural rind method of aging. I used to think wax coating was better – dip it, throw it in the cave, and forget about it – but that tends to mean more mold under the wax and a less controllable level of moisture in the cheese. Natural rinds are more work on a daily basis, but you can observe the cheese’s progress better, chase away mold when it shows up, and you get a generally nicer looking wheel with an edible rind.
After a month of aging, Miranda’s lovely family and I ate the Boychego, picnic-style, with fruit and salumi in the backyard of student housing at UC Santa Barbara, where they were staying, before spending a warm afternoon poolside. Despite its short cave time, the cheese had an enjoyable, if mild, flavor and a good pliable consistency. I look forward to trying the recipe again and allowing for a longer aging period to see if this cheese can man-up into something even more delectable.