March 31, 2008

My First Batch of Mozzarella

Mozzarella is a pasta filata cheese, meaning that its curd is stretched or pulled.

This spring, I am beginning to make fresh cheeses at home.  This category of cheese, including such favorites as cream cheese, cottage cheese, and fromage blanc, are among the simplest dairy products to make, along with butter and yogurt.  While hard cheeses require aging in proper conditions (high humidity and constant temperature around 55 degrees), fresh cheeses are ready for consumption or refrigeration right away.

My goal in these first weeks of cheesemaking, apart from its edible rewards, is to understand the process of milk becoming cheese.  On one hand, the mechanics are so simple that they take care of themselves: microbes in fresh, raw milk convert lactose into lactic acid, increasing the acidity of the milk and causing the separation of curd and whey.  It is the cheesemaker's task to control the conditions of this process-- ingredients, temperature, timing, and sanitation-- to produce the desired outcome of edible cheese instead of spoiled milk.  

On this day, I was intent on crafting fresh mozzarella, using the method described in Ricki Carroll's popular book, Home Cheese Making, and materials purchased from her business, New England Cheesemaking Supply.  I used unpasteurized milk from Cook Farm, which is licensed by the state to sell it at their farm store.*  

You may view my slideshow of photos with captions describing the process of making mozzarella.

The process to make this mozzarella called for two gallons of milk, and took over five hours.  During this time, I monitored the temperature and acidity of the milk almost constantly.  I used pH test strips to test the acidity of the milk periodically.  Though it was difficult to get a precise reading, I could determine that the pH was decreasing, as it was meant to do.  The large pot containing the milk was set in a hot water bath over a low, gas flame.  It was difficult to maintain the 90 degree temperature the recipe called for-- the temperature kept creeping up to 100 degrees.  Curd formation happened quickly, so I felt reassured that I was on the right track in spite of these snags.  

Overall, my first batch of mozzarella was successful: its flavor was fresh, it melts beautifully, and no one who ate it suffered gastric distress.  However, its texture was tough, even rubbery.  This unfortunate feature revealed itself in the curd-cutting stage, when I had to secure the slippery curd mass with a spatula so that I could pull the knife through it.  I could tell when stretching the cheese that it wasn't going to have cloud-like consistency.  

Jim Wallace, the technical advisor at NECS, informed me that farm-fresh milk may require less rennet and lower temperature to set.  It seems that my raw milk is really eager to become cheese.  For the next batch of mozzarella, I won't use a double boiler at all, but will warm the milk in a sinkful of warm water.  I'll use less rennet to promote a softer curd.  

I kept several pieces of brined mozzarella in the refrigerator for eating over the following few days, and froze the rest in individual baggies of brine.  We'll use them to top homemade pizza over the next few weeks.  

If this account has prompted a craving for fresh mozzarella, there are quicker options for making it in your own kitchen.  NECS sells kits to make 30 Minute Mozzarella using your microwave.  Other companies sell fresh mozzarella curd, ready to be submerged in hot water, stretched, and shaped.  

Stay tuned for more cheesemaking adventures!

*The decision to consume raw milk products is a personal one.  I have a healthy immune system and trust the farm that supplies my raw milk.  Women who are pregnant or nursing, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are advised to avoid raw milk.  In the U.S., it is illegal to sell a raw milk cheese that has been aged less than 60 days.  An Internet search will provide information from both sides of the raw milk debate.

March 29, 2008

Celebrate Cheese: Two Goat's Milk Varieties

Coach Farm Triple Cream Wheel is a special, elegant goat's milk cheese from New York.

Raw Goat's Milk Cheddar from Ozark Hill Farm is a cheese that will please a wide audience.

Loulou, an ex-pat blogger in southern France, invited her readers to celebrate cheese for the eighth annual Journée Nationale du Fromage, the National Day of Cheese, on March 28.  I had an idea to try a soft-ripened, French goat's milk cheese; after all, it was a French holiday.  However, the cheese that beckoned from the assortment at Whole Foods was a tall, snow-white wheel from Coach Farm in New York.  The Triple Cream Wheel is mold-ripened, with a two-toned paste that offers subtle differences in texture and flavor.  I was also struck by its price tag: at $36.99/lb, it's on the upper-end of the bulk cheese market.  I attribute this to the extra goat's milk that must be used to enhance the butterfat content of the cheese.  A sample  assured me that it was a good investment.

Triple Cream Wheel has a silky mouthfeel, with mellow herbal notes and lingering minerality.  I thought that it had just the right amount of salt: if over-salted, triple-cream cheese just tastes like butter to me.  The distinctive tanginess of goat's milk is balanced by the creaminess of this award-winning cheese.  It's perfect for serving to company after a springtime lunch or after dinner.  To accompany it, I would choose a white wine with good minerality and medium acidity, like a dry Chenin Blanc. It would also be fun to pair a fruit wine or fruit-based cocktail (e.g. kir royale) with this cheese.  I suggest eating Triple Cream Wheel with a fork and knife, but if you must have crackers, choose a wheat or oat biscuit with a hint of sweetness.

To give the fête its proper respect, I also picked up a raw goat's milk Cheddar at the Brattleboro Co-op's cheese counter.  It's a flavorful, versatile cheese that I would offer to goat's milk skeptics.  The satisfying texture of Cheddar and a lingering sweetness make this an approachable cheese.  Enjoy it with a light red wine, cider, or brown ale.  This Cheddar is produced by Ozark Hill Farm in Missouri; if you cannot find it in your area, then look for Fromagerie Tournevent's version, Le Chevre Noir.

Both of these cheeses are tasty and mild, and offer delicious alternatives to the usual cow's milk varieties.  Try something new, and celebrate your own cheese discoveries!

March 27, 2008

Update on Vermont producer of Buffalo's Milk Products

You may recall a recent post, in which I recommended yogurt produced by Woodstock Water Buffalo Company under the Spoondance Creamery label.  On a shopping trip a couple of weeks ago, I noticed that Whole Foods was nearly sold out of the yogurt.  "Wow," I thought,"a ton of people in western Massachusetts read my blog and rushed out to find buffalo's milk yogurt!  Eat your heart out, Clotilde Dusoulier!"

Unfortunately, I learned that the shortage was not caused by a sudden explosion of Savor Culture fanaticism.  Days after I published the post, Woodstock Water Buffalo closed its doors.  It seems that the company had been sold by its founder, David Muller, to a private investment group in 2006.  In February, those investors declined to provide the capital needed for national distribution of WWB's products.  Production ceased, and the company was put up for sale.  

The new owner is an Italian-born businessman currently residing in Toronto, Canada.  According to the Burlington Free Press, he is committed to keeping the company in Vermont, and he plans to expand the product line to include grass-fed buffalo meat and aged cheese, in addition to yogurt and mozzarella.  In a telephone conversation, an employee of the company told me that aged cheeses will be developed with several Vermont small-scale cheesemakers: Plymouth Cheese, Crowley Cheese Company, and Jasper Hill Farm.

The company is now known as Vermont Water Buffalo Inc, and its products are expected to be available beginning in April, though distribution will be limited to Vermont for some time.  The name "Spoondance Creamery" will not be used for at least six months, as a condition of the business deal.

I was relieved to learn that this unique operation, with its herd of 680 water buffalo, is back in business.  By all accounts, the new owner seems to have the passion (and the deep pockets) needed to make this project successful again.  I'm looking forward to trying the new products from Vermont Water Buffalo, and will provide updates about product distribution.

March 19, 2008

Vermicomposting Bucket

Photos of the vermicomposting bucket (made by Wonderful Husband Charles) just didn't do it justice.  In fact, a photo of the inside of the bucket after an application of worm feed (aka "worm salsa") looked downright unappetizing. 

Here's an illustration of the vermicomposting system that we use.  Its parts include:
  1. Loose-fitting lid that allows air circulation
  2. Opaque, five-gallon bucket
  3. Smaller bucket, punched all over with small holes to allow fresh air to reach the soil
  4. Metal mesh cylinder running through the center of the soil; empty, to promote aeration
  5. Layer of soil to prevent odors from escaping and to provide darkness and moisture for the food layer
  6. Layer of "worm salsa," the worm feed that we prepare using vegetable scraps
  7. Soil and castings created by our worms, red wigglers and night crawlers
WH Charles created this system using materials we had on hand (well, except for the worms themselves).  You may purchase a vermicomposting system from many sources online.  The "upward migration" style allows you to harvest castings without losing your worms.  We will release our worms when we apply the compost to our garden this spring.

Read the original post on vermicomposting here.

March 18, 2008

Try, Try Again (The Growing Challenge)

My planting medium is composed of vermiculite, perlite, and peat moss.

Our seeds from Baker Creek arrived in today's mail.  Unfortunately, they were out of bok choy, but I'll try to find those seeds at the local garden center.

The wonderful husband and I started a batch of herb seeds under a fluorescent light a couple of weeks ago.  Sadly, they succumbed to "damping off," which means that a variety of fungi in the planting medium attacked the young stems just below the soil line, and they toppled over.  We had started them early as an experiment, and have more of the same seeds to start again.  This time, I have a plan.

I've done my homework by consulting some of my favorite gardening blogs: Elements in Time, Tiny Farm Blog, and Seeded.  Based on advice gleaned from their posts, comments, and forums, here are some steps that I'll take to ensure seeding success:

  1. Sterilize seed trays using Melinda's method: wash with soap and water, rinse in a solution of three parts hydrogen peroxide to one part water, rinse with water, and dry.
  2. Plant seeds in a soilless medium composed of equal parts by volume of peat moss, vermiculite, and perlite.  This mixture holds moisture and is light and fluffy, to promote good aeration.  It also creates a sterilized environment for the seeds to germinate.
  3. Moisten the medium with cooled, weak chamomile tea to prevent damping off of the seedlings.  Apparently, chamomile discourages the growth of fungi that cause seedlings to fall over.  Mike recommends a solution of one bag of chamomile tea brewed in one quart of boiling water.
  4. Keep medium moist by bottom watering: place trays in a tub of water for about 15 minutes to allow medium to rehydrate from the bottom.
  5. Place a heating mat under seed trays and hang a fluorescent light several inches above the seed trays.  The light will be kept on at least 12 hours a day after the seeds germinate, and will be raised as the seedlings grow.
  6. Turn on an oscillating fan to "breeze" the seedlings for an hour or so every day.  This promotes stout growth of the seedlings, and prepares them for transplanting outdoors.
  7. Sow appropriate seeds directly into the garden soil.  Beans, squash, beets, and radishes are among Melinda's suggestions for in situ planting.

I should mention that Wonderful Husband Charles thinks that some of the steps above are "hooey."  Implementation of my plan may involve "His" and "Hers" seed trays.  We'll see who eats the first lima beans and tomatoes.  Ha!

We're in no hurry to start our next batch of seeds.  Since our garden is going to be a hobby, and since we don't expect it to be our principal source of nutrition this year, we're content to wait until a little more snow melts.  When we race to the farmer's market in May, it will be as patrons, not as vendors.

The rare seeds that we ordered didn't have any instructions written on their packets.  I liked the seed planting spreadsheet at You Grow Girl.  I found the most specific information on frost dates here.  

If you ran out of toilet paper rolls to make the seed cups in my previous post, check out the instructions on Seeded for making seed cups out of newspaper.  

March 12, 2008

Seedy and Crafty (The Growing Challenge)

A few snips on a cardboard roll produce biodegradable seedling cups!

Recovering from the flu has allowed me ample time to choose seeds for our garden.  We have plenty of herb seeds (at least 20 varieties) remaining from last year's order from Heirloom Seeds.  I also have mache, French mache, and something called "Salad Burnet," but I'm going to order several additional leafy types because I love fresh lettuce.  Plucked from the garden and rinsed, it's a totally different animal, so to speak, from greens that have spent any length of time in a bag.

This year, most of our seeds will come from Baker Creek, which produces an attractive catalog and has user-friendly, online ordering, as well.  I really like the story of this company-- Jere Gettle started selling heirloom seeds at age 17, collecting rare varieties from around the world and promoting seed-saving by his customers.  Now, he and his wife run a multi-faceted business in Missouri, including publishing a quarterly magazine and operating Bakersville, a pioneer-themed village with monthly events.  Whew!

Though Baker Creek's selection meets all of our needs, I'm also going to order from the Turtle Tree Biodynamic Seed Initiative catalog that I picked up at the Hawthorne Valley Farm Store.  Turtle Tree offers open-pollinated seeds from a network of biodynamic growers across the country.   Information in the catalog, such as source codes for each seed variety, is reassuring to anyone who is concerned about genetically modified organisms in our food supply.  

Baker Creek seeds:
Dixie speckled butterpea, Mexican sour gherkin cucumber, Ching Chang bok choy, Tainong Emperor heading mustard (for kim chi), Chinese Red Meat (or "watermelon") radish, Pantano Romanesco tomato, Riesenstraube grape tomato, Orangeglo watermelon, Red Wonder wild strawberry

Turtle Tree Seeds:
Golden beets, Charentais cantaloupe, arugula, "Frilly Oaks" lettuce mix, King of the North pepper, Anaheim hot pepper, Ronde de Nice zucchini, Rainbow Swiss chard, Principe Borghese tomato, Harold's Special Mix cosmos, alfalfa cover crop, burgundy amaranth cover crop

The lists represent about one-third of my original selections.   I crossed off my list those vegetables that are expected to be in plentiful supply at local farmer's markets: squash and zucchini, root vegetables, and several varieties of cucumbers (we love cucumbers).  I kept unusual varieties, such as the Mexican sour gherkin cukes and the "watermelon" radish, and varieties that I have great plans for, such as heading mustard for kim chi and Principe Borghese tomatoes for drying.  Wonderful Husband Charles is excited about cover crops (really, who isn't?).

And finally, to explain that wacky photo I took: biodegradable seedling cups can be made from empty, cardboard toilet paper rolls.  Use scissors to make an angled cut at one end of the roll.  Rotate the roll to create four to six parallel cuts.  Gently overlap the flaps, like closing a box top, and press until you have closed one end of the roll.  That creates the bottom of the seedling cup.  Fill the cup with growing medium, plant your seeds and keep them warm and moist, and you can transplant the seedling in its cup!  Happy planting!

March 10, 2008

Little Buggies, Good and Bad

It got me again.

The flu, that is, some New England strain that my Southern immune system is powerless to resist.  I spent the weekend in various reclining positions, in my bed and on the couch, watching such classic films as "The Princess Bride," "The Big Chill," and "Joe Vs. The Volcano."  Wonderful Husband Charles assures me that "A Few Good Men" is the ultimate get-well-soon movie, so maybe I'll give that one a try this evening.

Before I lost the use of my nose, I jotted down some notes about something tasty, and today I feel well enough to write about it.  The wonderful stuff in question is maple-vanilla yogurt from Hawthorne Valley Farm, a biodynamic and organic operation in the Hudson River Valley of New York.

The farm comprises a market garden and community-supported agriculture program; a dairy with a closed, sixty-cow herd; a bakery; a processing facility for lacto-fermenting vegetables; and a farm store, the highlight of which is a comprehensive organic dairy section, including the farm's own raw milk.  Did I mention that their products are organic*?  Everything grown on the farm, including dairy and meat products, are also biodynamic.  Biodynamic farming is a holistic approach to agriculture that focuses on improving the health of the soil.  There are specific practices involved in biodynamic farming, such as using homeopathic fertilizers and planting by celestial signs, that may cause skepticism amongst consumers.  However, I figure that farmers are busy folks, and that they wouldn't invest time and energy a methodology unless it produced desirable results.  Besides, given a choice between eating food that's been sprinkled with compost tea, or that's been sprayed with pesticides, I choose the former.

The fabulous yogurt produced by Hawthorne Valley Farm also suggests that they're doing something right.  Because the unhomogenized whole milk is used to make it, you might scoop up a few globules of cream in your serving.  The yogurt contains no stabilizers, so it has a loose texture, like lightly-whipped cream.  Unfortunately, this makes it all the more tempting to take a second helping, and a third... my appetite grows by feeding on this yogurt!

It has a delicate, well-balanced flavor: neither the tanginess nor the sweetness comes across as aggressive.  Sometimes, I find the flavor of maple syrup to be overwhelming, but this flavor proves that, in moderation, it can be a very mellow sweetener.  The yogurt itself must be mild, as one cup is sweetened with only 24 grams of sugar.  Further investigation: I was surprised that other organic yogurts contained 29 grams of sugar per cup in lowfat and 33 grams in nonfat versions.  I expected them to contain drastically more sugar than HVF whole-milk yogurt; the explanation for HVF's superior flavor must not be that simple!

HVF products are sold at two NYC Green Markets, at the farm store, and through the CSA.  Plain and maple-vanilla yogurts can be found at Whole Foods and various grocery co-ops in New England.  Some products, such as cheese and lacto-fermented vegetables, can be ordered through the website.

*Due to high demand, HVF purchases some ingredients for its lacto-fermented vegetables from neighboring farms.  Though all of the vegetables are grown organically, some may not be certified organic.

March 2, 2008

Savor Vermiculture (The Growing Challenge)

I'm a planner: I like to have an itinerary when I go on vacation, I can spend hours researching where to go to dinner, and I've been making the rounds on the gardening blogroll for pointers in planning our garden.  Wonderful Husband Charles is bold and likes to experiment: last spring, he started an unconventional container garden, composed of (in order of greatest to least success) small hot peppers, basil, mache, onions, and sweet corn.   I, however, become sheepish after the seed selection process is complete and it's time to mate seed and soil; what if something goes wrong?

I've come to terms with the possibility that the seeds might get started too early or too late; that the garden plot may not be ideally sited for every variety I want to grow; that the critters whose tracks I now see in the snow may ultimately eat more of our salad greens than we will.  But the timing of the planting still feels a little early to me.  Let me tell you instead about something foundational, the preparation of which can never be premature: the soil.

Along with our housemates, we deposit food scraps, eggshells, coffee grounds, and spent tea into a gallon bucket near the sink.  Once full, its contents are conveyed to one of two large, black cylinders in the back yard, usually by WH Charles on one of his infamous, barefoot compost runs.  I wonder if that practice will lose its allure when the snow melts.  

Fortunately, maintenance of our other compost system offers no such opportunity for pneumonia-inducing activities.  The worms are housed warmly in the basement-level mechanical room.  WH Charles made their home by nestling a large, plastic pail in an opaque, five-gallon bucket.  The inner pail is pierced with many quarter-inch drill holes, and has a hollow core of metal mesh to promote air circulation.  WH Charles filled the doughnut-shaped space with alternating, quarter-inch layers of soil and a concoction we refer to as "worm salsa," vegetable scraps blended with water in the food processor.  He feeds our squirmy friends every couple of weeks, sprinkling a layer of soil on top of the food to prevent any odor from escaping.  He also keeps the lid loosely on the outer bucket, as worms prefer dark, moist environs.

Our worm community is composed of earthworms and night crawlers.  We're on the lookout for red wrigglers to add to the population, as well.  WH Charles developed our system after reading a couple of articles on vermicomposting.  If you want dig into the subject, as it were, there are many informative resources online.  I found a good overview on this website.  Happy composting!