The weather in California has been perfectly June-like all winter and I have access to a shady deck that overlooks San Francisco Bay. It’s a real lure for friends from the City, who will actually drive all the way across the Bay Bridge to visit. (It’s not a long trip, but if you know San Franciscans…)
Recently, I had a couple friends over for Sunday afternoon tea on the deck. We had all the usual accoutrements: tea, finger sandwiches, fruit, nuts, crackers and cheese, jams and jellies, and of course, scones. Scones almost demand clotted cream… “We want clotted cream,” they shout. And I say, “A dairy product?! I can make that!”
I got out my cheesemaking books (which invariably include various non-cheese dairy-related recipes) and found a couple recipes for clotted cream. It looked easy. Just heat a bunch of heavy cream to about 190-dgrees, hold it there for 45 minutes, then cool quickly, and pop in the fridge for a day. Then you are supposed to be able to skim rich lovely clotted cream off the top. Four cups of of cream (a quart) is supposed to yield about 1 cup of clotted cream.
My cream seemed to do everything it was supposed to, even forming that weird bubbly, congealed skin on top. But using a quart and a half of cream, I probably only got about a quarter-cup or less of soupy semi-clotted cream… and 3.75 cups of disappointment. Luckily, if you put disappointment in a food processor and whirl the heck out of it, you get some nice whipped cream. Whip it enough and it’ll turn to butter. I aimed for somewhere in between – whipped butter – and added a few drops of vanilla extract and a pinch of sugar. It looked a lot better than the clotted cream, spread nicely, and the scones heartily approved. “Forget clotted cream! Whip it good!”
It was a rainy weekend, no good for going outdoors. So, I decided to tackle the next League assignment: Morbier. I was feeling inspired after the pleasantly unexpected non-failure of my Reblochon. I have also made Morbier before. No sweat, right? It’s a relatively straight forward recipe, but looks so cool with that ash line running through the middle… Yep, that ash line. The Morbier Achilles Heel, as it turns out.
The make went very well up until the last. During the brining stage, I went to turn the wheels in their bath and they began to separate horizontally, right across the center, at the ash line. I let them float for the remainder of their brining time, worrying all the while (ash oozed out, turning the brine inky black, and making it look all the more disastrous), and then pulled them out to dry. I didn’t want to fiddle with them and make the problem worse, but it’s pretty obvious from looking at them that there is a definite split right along the ash line, where the top and bottom layers of curd did not knit together.
Were the curds too dry and congealed before being put in the mold and pressed? To much “cooking”? Too much draining? Did I put too much ash in between the layers? Whatever the cause, there is now a gaping fault line fracturing my Morbier. My hypothesis is that the cheese will not ripen well, because air and mold can now get into the center of the wheel and will dry and destroy it from the inside out. I’ve vacuum sealed the wheels to keep that from happening, but since Morbier is a washed rind cheese, that means foregoing the regular B. Linens/beer wash, and probably not achieving a proper rind. My hopes are not real high, but I suppose some maturation of the paste might happen even in the vacuum cocoon. We shall see…
Yesterday, the League of Urban Cheesemakers convened to taste our Spruce-Wrapped Reblochons. Most of us made them just after New Years (about 4 weeks ago), so they were a little young and a lot less odoriferous than the last time we made Reblochon. (There is a chance that, despite the general funkiness of a dance studio, we may never be allowed back at the ODC dance center, where we met that time. Our new meeting place at 18 Reasons community cooking school seems a lot more conducive to cheese stink, if it ever gets out of hand again.) Our current Reblochons were mostly firm, mild, and still putting on their rosy red coats. The spruce belts we’d put on them weren’t very necessary for structural integrity, but a few had begun to develop that nice acerbic woodland flavor near the rind. A few that were made pre-holidays had reached that wonderful oozy “cold fondue” state…. perfection!
My Reblochon was a royal pain in the affinage. The initial make went fine, but the blue mold (P. Roqueforti) was a constant bother. During the three-plus weeks of aging, I scrubbed the wheels almost daily with salt and washed them with beer. Flummoxed at times, I stripped the wheels down entirely to rid them of the tenacious blues. That included taking the spruce bark and twine off and boiling it each time, while thoroughly scrubbing and washing the cheese and digging blue out of its crannies. And I’m pretty sure each time I did that, I set the ripening back by sloughing off the good molds, too (Geotricum and B. Linens), and probably just spread the blue around more. It was only after the last overhaul that I feel I got the blue in check a little, but by then it was only three days before our League meeting and not enough time was left for any great maturation.
Still, when I opened one wheel, I was pleasantly surprised. It was young, yes, but had a consistent fudgy paste (with a lot of mechanical holes, likely due to my jury-rigged light-weight pressing technique that involved canned dolmas), a slight cheesy funk, and a mild flavor with no overt blue tones. While I was fed-up and ready to be done with ridiculously bark-wrapped Reblochon (who’s brilliant idea was it to wrap cheese in a porous organic spore-harboring material!?), opening the sacrificial wheel showed me that the cheese is not a loss and is actually headed in a good direction. So, I came home, inspired to keep caring for the second wheel – knocking the blue mold back and keeping up the beer baths – until it’s ripe, rosy…. and maybe even a little oozy? One can hope.
Back in early February, the League of Urban Cheesemakers came together to share our Goudas. You can read about how I made mine here. I’ve gotten a bit behind in my reporting though, so I’ll be brief… and mostly pictorial.
Here’s our motley collection of Dutch lovelies. Once again, we all used the same recipe, but had so many different results. With a hard cheese like Gouda, there was the variable of rind treatment. Most had natural rinds, a few were waxed or coated with cream wax, one was bandaged, one had even been rubbed with paprika.
We enjoyed the cheese with a few accompaniments. There were the usual crackers and wine, but there were a few amazing homemade treats as well; sourdough, backyard honey, jam, barley wine and home-brewed beer… it’s so exciting to be part of a group with such crafty kitchen skills.
A new tradition we’ve started is to bring a store-bought example (or two or three) of the subject cheese, so that we can all taste the “real thing.” (You can see them in the lower right corner of the photo above.) We had three nice Goudas for comparison, which tended to be a lot sweeter and caramel-y than the Goudas we had made. We decided most of ours tasted more like Cheddar, which I think means they were more acidic than they should have been… but there wasn’t a bad one among them. In fact, they were all Gouda. ;-)
Check out my thermostat!
My cheese cave is finally properly equipped and I can affinage like a pro! I was relying on the dumb temperature knob inside my dorm fridge and a suction-cupped thermometer to keep the temperature right for aging cheese, but it tended to be too cold, even when set at its warmest, and fluctuated a lot on the refrigerator’s normal cooling cycles. Now, with this little gadget, the right temperature (usually 55-degrees) is easy to achieve and keep steady.
This box plugs into the wall and the refrigerator plugs into it. The thin cord at the bottom has a sensor on the end that goes inside the fridge-cave and tells the box when to turn on and off, overriding the fridge’s own cycle, and making sure things stay at the right temp. As you can see, there’s a knob where you can adjust the temperature to whatever is right for the cheese you’re making, or even to different temperatures at various stages of aging.
Cheesemaking supply businesses sell these gadgets, but I actually got mine (thanks to my dear old beer-making Dad) from a brewing supply place (William’s Brewing) and it was much less expensive (like $25-35!). There seem to be some slight differences in how it works (like incrementally set temperature selections rather than a gradual adjustment knob, an option for cooling in stages rather than all at once, and even a heating function, which I assume is specific to beer-making), but it gets the job done. Now I can be sure my cheese is just the right amount of cool, and comes out looking, tasting, and smelling totally cool, too!
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!