November 29, 2007

Solid Gold; or, The Case for Home Buttermaking

Blueberry buttermilk pancakes topped with a generous pat of homemade butter.

Okay, dear readers, here’s the deal: I and a dozen of my (geographically) closest friends have been enjoying the tastiest, most luxurious, homemade butter for a whole week, and I haven’t let you in on it because my draft postings were too technical-sounding and boring. But I’m still so excited about it that I’m writing in run-on sentences, and you just have to try it yourselves! So, here are a few notes to share my enthusiasm and advice, and when you decide to try your hand at buttermaking, consult the sources below for detailed instructions, and get to churning!

I procured organic, gently-pasteurized cream from Butterworks Farm of Vermont. If you get your cream at the grocery store, look for heavy cream that has not been ultra-pasteurized. This process of quickly heating the cream or milk to 191 degrees lengthens its shelf life, but damages its flavor and composition. Therefore, you might be better off with cream from your local mega-dairy (e.g. Hood’s, Dean’s) than from brands like Organic Valley and Horizon. (It goes without saying that the best scenario is to purchase cream from a local farm.)

Allow your cream to warm to room temperature before churning. I used my stand mixer to perform the churning, but don’t tell the folks at KitchenAid or they’ll bring an $80 “butter churning attachment” to the market. I started whipping the cream with the whisk, but switched it for the paddle after twenty minutes; I think that the whisk was breaking up the butterfat globules. When the butterfat and buttermilk separated about five minutes later, I was glad that I’d followed David Patterson’s advice to cover the top of the mixing bowl with plastic wrap, thus avoiding a buttermilk shower.

I dumped the mixture into a colander set in a bowl to collect the buttermilk, which I refrigerated and later used to make blueberry pancakes, ranch dressing, and mashed potatoes (all fantastically delicious, by the way). Next, I kneaded the buttermilk out of the butter in a bowl of cool water, changing the water a few times until it was no longer cloudy. Kneading is important because any residual buttermilk will cause the butter to spoil, even in the refrigerator.

Working the golden-hued butter by hand, I noticed its remarkable plasticity. At room temperature, the finished butter did not acquire the moist clamminess of stick butter, but remained firm and consistent. Its flavor is sweet and herbaceous, its texture tight and unctuous. I tasted the melted butter for the pancake batter, and its richness reminded me of fresh egg yolks. I am going tackle cultured butter next, and am planning to make butter caramels for Christmas gifts.

Well, are you going to try it? It requires only a half-hour of time and one ingredient (two, if you want salted butter). You will optimize the most important qualities of good butter: freshness and high fat content. Think of all of the wonderful things you could do with fabulous buttermilk and butter (if you don’t gobble up the latter on a loaf of fresh bread). One caveat: everyone who tastes your butter will be clamoring for more. Bon courage!


"Curd Mentality," by David Patterson, The New York Times, July 1, 2007

"Buttermaking," by Holly Gates,

Home Cheese Making, by Ricki Carroll, New England Cheesemaking Supply

November 22, 2007

Raw Milk Co-Star: Vermont Shepherd

Featured in the photo with Chase Hill Farm Camembert is a wedge of the acclaimed American sheep’s milk cheese, Vermont Shepherd. Vermont Shepherd is also a raw milk cheese, its natural rind formed over a four- to eight-month aging period in a hillside cave. The remarkable quality of this cheese reflects the terroir of the Major Farm in Putney, Vermont, where the herd of ewes graze and are milked, and where the cheese is produced and aged. Vermont Shepherd is a true farmstead cheese, influenced by the Basque cheesemaking traditions that the Majors traveled to the Pyrenees Mountains to learn.

A wheel of Vermont Shepherd has convex sides and a mottled brown, natural rind, resulting from many layers of mold that are brushed smooth during cave-aging. When you sit down to enjoy a wedge of it, you may notice that the rind, which is not meant to be eaten, carries the slightly musty scent of hay. The cheese has a smooth, pale yellow appearance, and its texture is pleasantly dense and tacky in the mouth. Savory from start to finish, the rich flavor of Vermont Shepherd exhibits an initial note of sourness, an indication of its pure ewe’s milk composition (sometimes referred to as “sheepiness”). Its complex flavor is characterized by fleeting herbal notes and a lingering, nutty sweetness.

Vermont Shepherd is a versatile cheese that can be appreciated by connoisseurs and novices alike. With its rich, subtle flavor profile, Vermont Shepherd is complemented by a range of accoutrements, including dried or preserved fruits (the cheesemaker suggests cherry preserves or glazed figs), nuts, or olives. I prefer the intensity of concentrated fruit to fresh fruit with this cheese, and suggest that you save the apples and grapes to accompany other cheeses. Similarly, choose a flavorful beverage to drink with Vermont Shepherd, be it a fruity red or white wine, a semi-dry cider, or a rich, smooth beer.

November 17, 2007

A Land Where Raw is Rare

Chase Hill Farm Organic Raw Milk Camembert (center)
with Vermont Shepherd (right), quince jelly, and crackers

On a recent visit to the Brattleboro Co-op, I asked John the Cheesemonger to recommend something he was excited about. Cocking one eyebrow for a moment, he directed me toward the Organic Raw Milk Camembert from Chase Hill Farm in Warwick, MA. He said that it isn’t often available, since the cheesemaker must hand-deliver the small wheels immediately on their 60th day of life. Why the hurry, you ask? Under federal law, cheese made with raw (unpasteurized) milk must be aged 60 days before consumption. While some styles of cheese adapt well to a two-month aging, soft-ripened cheeses (e.g. brie, camembert) approach or exceed peak ripeness during that period. In general, camembert reaches its peak at four or five weeks.

In countries where this restriction does not exist (France, Italy, Canada, and many more), the consumer is free to enjoy her camembert at any time after its three-week ripening period. Political questions aside, this is important because the flavor and texture of soft-ripened cheeses change dramatically over a few weeks. Upon opening my wheel of Chase Hill Camembert, I noticed the odor of ammonia on its rind, an indication of over-ripeness. The odor faded over the hour that I left the cheese open at room temperature, and I cut it in half to discover its uniformly oozing paste. The scent of the paste was mild and fresh, with a scent of sweet clover. The first bite carried the flavor of fresh milk, though it was quickly overpowered by a sharp bitterness. Eating the rind with the paste actually tempered the bitterness, and quince jelly on a cracker was an excellent combination with the camembert. The cheese was obviously high-quality, but it was overripe for my taste. What a shame I couldn’t enjoy it at its peak!

I will save the government-agribusiness conspiracy theory for the topic of NAIS, because my conclusion is that raw milk cheese is simply misunderstood in the US. From what I have read, I am confident that further research, as is being conducted at the University of Vermont through a USDA grant, will prove the safety of consuming raw milk cheese. Proponents of raw milk cheese argue that pasteurization of the milk used to make the cheese is irrelevant because dangerous pathogens in cheese are a result of improper production or mishandling.

I am in favor of lifting the restrictions against raw milk cheese for two practical reasons. First, as a consumer, I want to have the choice of what kind of cheese to buy, from whom, at what time. I have the legal right to order a rare hamburger at a restaurant (yuck) despite health risks; why can’t I eat my camembert when it still has some springy life under its rind? Secondly, the fantastic artisan cheese producers across the US should have every tool available to them when crafting their products. If they wish to use fresh, unpasteurized milk in a farmstead cheese, it should be their right.

I believe that the raw milk cheese controversy will ultimately benefit the artisan cheese industry in the US. It has led to self-imposed efforts by producers to maximize sanitation standards, illustrated by the pilot program to develop HACCP plans for farmstead cheese producers. It is my hope that this program will be implemented by the time the restrictions on raw milk cheese are lifted.

In the meantime, you can enjoy excellent cheese made by skilled producers. The flavor of high-quality milk is enjoyable even after undergoing pasteurization. If you sample the wonderful variety of American artisan cheese available today, I’m sure you’ll find some solace from the raw milk cheese debate.

Recommended article:
The Myths About Raw Milk Cheese,” by Janet Fletcher

November 13, 2007

Pates au Fromage Fort

Last night's dinner was inspired by the growing assortment of cheese scraps in my refrigerator… and also by a case of cheese abuse. The doggy bag from last week’s cheese and cider workshop experienced an overnight delay on its way to the fridge (did I mention it was hard cider?). The leftover cheeses, being the semi-firm variety, had leached their butterfat but were perfectly edible. I could forgive myself for such neglect only by devising a scrumptious use for the morsels. Having several other cheeses on hand, the idea of fromage fort entered my mind.

Fromage fort, like jambalaya or frittata, is an example of culinary alchemy: leftovers transformed into respectable fare. The traditional, French technique involves macerating cheese bits in milk for a few days before adding wine and seasoning to the mixture. The pungency of the fermented product earned its description as fort, or “strong.” The modern interpretation of this dish utilizes a food processor to combine cheese scraps (no rinds, please), a splash of white wine, a clove of garlic, and some fresh herbs into a savory spread. It’s delicious served cold or broiled on slices of crusty bread.

Lacking a loaf worthy of the spread, I decided to use the fromage fort concept to strengthen macaroni and cheese (trying desperately to ignore Emeril Lagasse's little voice in my head: "Kick it up a notch!"). As the water came to a boil, I collected all the cheese scraps available: aforementioned artisan goodies, extra-sharp cheddar, aged gouda, baby Swiss, a block of disappointing Comte with a spot of mold (oh, just trim it off), nubs of a couple more artisan cheeses, and the ever-present parmigiano.* I salvaged all I could, using a vegetable peeler on the harder rinds, and shredded the scraps together into a multi-tonal heap.
While the pasta was boiling (in this case, cellentani), I whisked together the base of a stovetop cheese sauce: evaporated milk and eggs, plus a dash of cayenne. I used Dijon mustard to supply a hint of white wine and to fill in for the dry mustard used in macaroni and cheese.

Stovetop macaroni comes together in a streamlined fashion: cooked pasta is drained while its pot is returned to low heat to melt unsalted butter. Drained pasta is returned to the pot, and the egg mixture is added amid constant stirring. Finally, the heat is turned off for the addition of the beautiful amalgamation of cheese. Sprinkle with black pepper and a seasonal herb (I chose thyme) for a finishing touch, but think twice before adding salt!

The result was the most luxurious version of mac’n’cheese I’ve ever had, and that includes the ones dressed up with truffle oil, smoked salmon, and the like. Unlike those flavors, the background components of fromage fort and homestyle macaroni enhance the intensity of the cheese without overwhelming it. This preparation is so rich that the recipe below will provide four main or six side servings.

8 oz elbow or other pasta
6 oz evaporated lowfat milk
1 egg plus
1 egg yolk
1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic (roast it and you'll be well rewarded)
10 oz shredded cheese (at least three varieties, rinds removed)
cracked black pepper
minced fresh herb (e.g. parsley, thyme, tarragon)

*What's that, you don't always have ten distinct cheese specimens on hand? Neither do I, but after retesting the recipe with only four cheeses, I can report that cheese diversity is integral to this dish. So, the next time you serve multiple cheeses at a party (the topic of a future posting, I promise), buy a little extra for this application. Fresh, soft, and blue cheeses must be used before they go bad (even fromage fort can't work miracles), but harder cheese can be kept for a while, any spots of mold trimmed off before use. You could even store bits of hard cheese in the freezer for a couple of weeks... it'll still produce a sauce that shames anything from a box.

November 7, 2007


The time has passed for
buffalo mozzarella;
I crave comfort food.

November 5, 2007

Pairing Cheese and Cider

It is appropriate that the opening posting on my first weblog should be an account of a new experience: tasting and appreciating small-production ciders. A newcomer to New England, I had previously considered cider to be a sparkling, characterless alternative to beer (if I considered it at all). Yesterday, I learned that cider is a surprising, versatile beverage that can complement cheese beautifully.

During Cider Day, a weekend-long festival held annually in Franklin County, Massachusetts, I attended a workshop on pairing New England cheeses and ciders. I will describe the six cheeses in detail, and will note particularly good cider pairings for each.

Triple, a soft-ripened, triple-cream cow's milk from Champlain Valley Creamery in Vermont, smells like sweet, fresh butter. Its rind has an "al dente" texture, and its neutral flavor does not detract from the citric note of the perfectly-aged paste. When buying this cheese, smell its rind to ensure that there is no trace of ammonia scent, which would destroy the cheese's sweet, delicate flavor. Tideview Vintage Ciders Vintage Dry enhances Triple by developing its subtle flavor of mushrooms. The gently-sparkling cider has a light scent of Bourbon, had a citrusy texture and acidity. In the mouth, this combination produces satisfying richness that whispers, "fall is here." Sweeter ciders did not pair well with this cheese, overwhelming it or producing bitter flavors.

Westfield Farm's (MA) Classic Blue Log is a delightful, aged goat's milk log with a thin rind of blue mold. The piece that I tried had the consistent, dense texture of a younger chevre log, but I imagine that it ripens like the Spanish Monte Enebro. Classic Blue Log has a pleasantly musty aroma, with traditional lemon zest flavor and chalky minerality. This cheese was an acceptable partner to the full, nutty West County Cider Roxbury Russet, resulting in a smooth, creamy mouthfeel.

Pierce Hill, a semi-firm sheep's milk cheese produced by Hope Farm (VT), emulates Basque shepherd's cheese, but retains more moisture in its three-month aging. Its mild, musty scent and full, fruity taste is flattered by ciders with residual sugar. It gained earthiness from Farnum Hill Ciders Semi-Dry, and was transformed into pure comfort food by Domaine Pinnacle's Ice Cider.

Hillman Farm (MA) produces several fantastic goat's milk cheese, including the aged Hilltown Wheel. Its flavor is rich and caramelized, with a hint of characteristic tang. Eve's Cidery Essence, a honeyed, floral ice wine with a vegetal note on the palate, brings a note of cocoa out of the cheese. Hilltown Wheel also paired nicely with Wescott Bay Orchards Traditional Dry's Bourbon-like aroma and lively acidity and Tideview Vintage Dry.

The much-acclaimed Cabot Creamery Clothbound Cheddar, aged by Jasper Hill Farm(VT), is a beautiful, bandaged-wrapped specimen bursting with luxurious, sweet caramel, a little bite to keep your attention, and an unctuous mouthfeel punctuated by fine grana. The classic union of cheddar and apples was demonstrated by this cheese harmonizing well with each cider, particularly with the intense ice ciders. Pair this cheddar with Eve's Cidery Essence for a simple but stunning dessert, or serve it beside Domaine Pinnacle's Ice Cider (read: apple pie in a glass). Keep your port and Stilton, this is how I want to end a winter dinner party!

Great Hill Blue (MA) is a rich blue cheese made from raw, unhomogenized cow's milk. This specific piece of the farmstead blue seemed a little saltier and less balanced than when I've tasted it in the past. (This is not unusual in my experience with blue cheeses; I recommend tasting blue cheese before each purchase to ensure its ripeness and saltiness please you.) Even so, the Great Hill paired well with Tideview Vintage Dry, accentuating the cider's apple flavor, and was complemented by both ice ciders.

My tips for pairing cheese and cider:
  • Tideview Vintage Cider Vintage Dry seemed to be the most versatile cider for pairing with cheese. Its neutral flavor and minerality reminded me of sparkling white wine, and it had a similar palate-cleansing effect. Its dryness complemented a variety of cheese styles. Ciders with stronger apple flavor had fewer successful matches.
  • The affinity between apples and cheddar absolutely extends to cider. This is a great place to start with cheese and cider pairing. Experiment with a couple of each, and your experience will guide you in future pairings.
  • Flavor intensity is important to consider when pairing cheese with any beverage. Avoid lopsided choices (such as mild cheese with full-bodied wine or acidic cheese with sweet cider) that will result in one overwhelming its partner.

The cheeses for this workshop were provided by Rubiner's cheese shop in Great Barrington, MA, and were presented by Rubiner's manager, Laura Simon. Some of the cheeses will be difficult to find and can be ordered from Rubiner's.

Cider Day organizer, Ben Watson, presented the ciders at this and other events throughout the weekend festival. Attendees included cider novices and connoisseurs, home brewers, and vendors from across the US, Canada, and even Australia.


Rubiner's Cheesemongers and Grocers

264 Main St, Great Barrington, MA, 01230