April 30, 2008

Making Cheddar: A Slideshow

Cheddar likes to work under pressure.

Cheddar was the first cheese that we tackled in Jim Wallace's Advanced Cheesemaking workshop.    

For a detailed synopsis of cheddar making, view my slideshow.  Display the descriptive captions by selecting "Options" in the lower-right corner.

April 28, 2008

Cheesemaking Workshop with Jim Wallace

A batch of cow's milk ripens in Jim Wallace's cheese room 
in preparation for our cheesemaking workshop.

Who here has read Barbara Kingsolver's book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle?  Those of you with your hands raised will recognize the name Ricki Carroll.  Ms. Carroll runs New England Cheesemaking Supply, and she has taught thousands of people to make cheese through her book and workshops.

Anyone who wants to take their cheesemaking efforts to the next level should learn the name Jim Wallace.  Of course, it may already be known to you: perhaps you've read his advice on NECS's website, where Jim is the resident "tech guy;" maybe you know him by his brewing efforts (ribbons from beer competitions line a corner of his basement brewery); you may have browsed through the art gallery that he and his wife, Robin, own in Shelburne Falls, MA.

Many folks in the world of artisan cheese know Jim as a friend and consultant.  And I do mean the world: Jim is on a first-name basis with many artisan cheesemakers in the US, and has traveled extensively in Europe to learn the "old ways" from producers of classic cheeses like Parmigiana-Reggiano, Reblochon, and farmhouse Cheddar.  Jim shares his knowledge with aspiring artisans in workshops held in his home, which is where I met him this past weekend.

The workshop attendees ranged in experience and goals: beginners (including yours truly) who obtain milk from local sources; hobbyists who own small goat herds; dairy operators who will produce cheese commercially.  One woman, upon her return to Tibet, will make cheese from dro (yak) milk for students of her primary school.  

We were a diverse crowd, united in our pursuit of cheese edibility... er, excellence.  Jim guided us through the production of three aged, cow's milk cheeses: traditional Cheddar, Camembert, and vacha Toscano.  The final cheeses would display different textures, flavors, and appearances based on our choices in culture, temperature, and timing.  We learned about the importance of acid development, techniques for controlling the moisture of the curd, molding and pressing, and affinage of the cheeses. 

Of course, one can learn about acidity testing and floculation from books; Jim recommended several titles for delving deeper into the technical aspects of cheesemaking.  However, in his basement-cum-cheese-room-sometimes-brewery, we got a sense of the intuitive side of the process.  Jim explained how the outcome of cheesemaking can direct changes to improve the next batch.  We discussed how lifestyle-- that of say, a Norman farm wife, or an Alpine shepherd-- contributed to the characteristics of some of the world's great cheeses.  While this perspective is helpful to us in emulating classic cheeses, it also provides the freedom to create a new generation of unique, American artisan cheeses.

By popular request, Jim also shared his secrets for creating cloudlike mozzarella, fluffy whey ricotta, and smooth yogurt.  While I won't reveal those, I will share photos and summaries of the making of Cheddar, Camembert, and toma in forthcoming posts.

April 13, 2008

Out-of-Town Adventures

Bonding with Herman the Hound at my parents' home in Tennessee.

I've been enjoying a sneak peek of spring this week, visiting my family (parents, little sister, six dogs, two cats) and friends in Middle Tennessee. There's enough of a chill to keep the pellet stove in use in my family's log home; however, the area's hills are cloaked in soft, lush shades of green.

I did my best to get the household members excited about cultured butter, promising to churn a batch using fresh cream from Hatcher Family Dairy in nearby College Grove, TN. Conveniently, the dairy was represented at Saturday's farmer's market at The Factory, a group of 1929 brick buildings converted to retail space in Franklin, TN. A trip to The Factory was already scheduled: Saturday is Adoption Day at Happy Tales Humane, a "no-kill" animal shelter where my mom volunteers. Two rat terrier pups, the last of a litter that she'd rescued from county animal control, found new families that morning. Congratulations, Cricket and Peanut!

If only the butter had been so successful. I set out three pints of the Hatchers' cream to ripen for several hours. In the meantime, my best friend came over, made us all laugh until our sides ached, and gave me a new hairstyle (v. successful, in my opinion: bobbed and red!). We set about whipping the cream with a hand mixer, visions of buttermilk pancakes dancing in our heads. After half an hour, and attempting to shake the butter in Mason jars, we realized that the endeavor was fruitless-- the cream was frothy, but it hadn't even formed peaks. I retrieved an empty bottle and finally realized that the product was "Whole Cream--Rises to the Top!" Aha. Not heavy cream. Not going to make butter.

Luckily, the fam owns an ice cream machine that exists, as many of its kind, in nearly-permanent hibernation. I adapted Alton Brown's eggless ice cream recipe to make Balsamic Strawberry Ice Cream for a dinner party tonight. I'll also be bringing a wheel of Cowgirl Creamery's St. Pat, an organic, soft ripened cow's milk cheese wrapped in nettle leaves. I found it, among a bustling brunch crowd, at Marche Artisan Foods, a new spot in East Nashville. I liked the cheese for its consistency and herbal flavor, and was glad to have found the seasonal cheese. However, I would have chosen Mt. Tam in retrospect: a triple-cream is a crowd-pleaser, and Mt. Tam is all gentle richness. I'm still on the look-out for Cowgirl Creamery's Red Hawk, a popular washed-rind cheese... probably the most-requested domestic cheese that I didn't sell in my cheesemonger days.

This trip also yielded a regional cheese discovery: Kenny's Farmhouse Cheese produces raw-milk, semi-firm and blue cheeses in Barren County, Kentucky. The Mattingly family was inspired by the cheese production of family farms in Europe, and embraced the concept of farmstead cheesemaking. Their cheeses are produced with milk from their 120-cow herd, and are made with vegetarian rennet. Kenny's Smoked Gouda was the perfect topping for our fajitas over the weekend. We found Kenny's Cheese at Dennison's Roadside Market in Horse Cave, KY, but there are many retailers listed on the company's website.

Tomorrow, I return to Massachusetts. Maybe springtime will be there to greet me.

April 6, 2008

Crème Fraîche + Churning = Love

Serving suggestion: Spread cultured butter thickly on bread. Or muffins. Or crackers.
Thanks to Wonderful Husband Charles for white ceramic butter bell.

We've talked a bit about butter here at Savor Culture, even discussed the pleasures of churning (and eating) your own beurre maison.  Well, hold on to your whisk, because butter just got even better.  Cultured butter is more flavorful than sweet cream butter, making it the ideal partner for your carb of choice: potatoes, sliced bread, warm rolls, plain rice, saltines, cornbread.  Or, for the well-behaved, apply it lovingly to spring vegetables like green peas, asparagus, radishes, and artichokes.
Cultured butter is basically churned crème fraîche: starter culture is added to heavy cream, which is ripened for twelve hours or so before churning.  The result is a butter with complexity and a hint of acidity, one that begs for a pinch of salt and a permanent place at the dinner table.  I guarantee that if you serve cultured butter with the bread basket at your next dinner party, your guests will notice.  There are likely several brands of cultured butter at your grocery store; I recommend one with some salt, like the version from Vermont Butter & Cheese Co.  

Making your own cultured butter is simple, but the quality of its few ingredients is paramount.  You will need heavy cream, of course; organic or local cream is preferable, but be sure that it isn't ultra-pasteurized (a sell-by date more than three weeks away is your clue).  Ultra-pasteurized dairy products have been subjected to such high temperatures that their flavor and protein structure are damaged.  

Ripening the cream requires a mesophilic starter culture, which is active at low temperatures.  You may purchase crème fraîche, buttermilk, or fresh starter for this purpose; alternatively, use all-natural (no stabilizers or preservatives) buttermilk or crème fraîche to provide the bacterial cultures.  I used mesophilic culture, which I also used to make mozzarella; the butter has a hint of cheesy flavor.  I believe that buttermilk or crème fraîche culture will produce a milder flavor.

Then, it's a matter of time: allow the cream to ripen overnight at room temperature.  After twelve hours, the cream should appear thickened and have a slightly sour scent, like yogurt or sour cream.  Note: The presence of bubbles indicates undesirable bacteria, and the cream should be discarded.  Using fresh dairy products and clean utensils will prevent this-- I've never had a problem.

Next, the churning, and there's some good news here: butter formation occurs much more quickly with cultured cream than with sweet cream.  In fact, the butter formed so quickly in my stand mixer that buttermilk was splashing on the counter within three minutes!  I haven't used a manual method, such as hand-churning or shaking the butter in a jar, but cultured cream makes it seem doable.  Let the bacteria do the work for you!  The culturing process also produces thicker, richer buttermilk than results from sweet cream butter.  This article contains photos and a detailed account of making cultured butter with a hand churn.

Cultured Butter Recipe
yields 24-26 oz butter and 1-2 pints of buttermilk; can be halved

4 pints heavy cream
1 packet mesophilic starter or 1/3 cup buttermilk or crème fraîche
Good quality salt, such as kosher flake or sea salt, to taste

Allow cream to come to room temperature in a clean, sterilized non-reactive bowl.  Add culturing ingredient and stir well with a clean, sterilized spoon.  Cover loosely and allow to sit at room temperature for twelve hours.

Beat the cultured cream at low speed in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.  Use plastic wrap to tightly cover the mixing bowl as completely as possible.  First it will resemble whipped cream, then it will appear grainy, and suddenly, granules of butter will separate from the buttermilk.  Drain buttermilk into a clean bowl and refrigerate. 

Rinse the butter with cool water.  Knead with your hands and a clean spoon or spatula, and rinse frequently until the water runs clear (about six rinses).  Knead in a teaspoon or so of salt, to taste.  Divide the butter into four- to six- ounce pieces.  Wrap pieces individually in parchment or wax paper and plastic wrap.  Freeze butter for up to three months.

Since rising food prices are currently a hot topic, let's spend a moment comparing the costs of homemade and store-bought butter.  A pound of my everyday butter, Plugra, costs about the same as a pint of local cream.  Thus, I buy Plugra for baking and cooking.  However, when I ordered a half-gallon of heavy cream from my local dairy, I saved about 40%!  The culture I used was about $1.50, the cost for sea salt was negligible.  Churning and kneading the butter took about ten minutes, clean-up and storage, another ten.  An 8-ounce log of VBCC cultured butter costs around $5, but I compare my cultured butter with their premium Sea Salt variety, a 6-oz pat that sells for $6-8 (admittedly, with fancy packaging).  So, not counting 20 minutes of foregone blogging, my cultured butter costs less than $7 a pound, and I get several cups of delicious buttermilk to boot.  A comparable butter costs $10 to over $20 a pound.  Victory is mine!

Need more inspiration?  Check out the March 2008 issue of Saveur magazine to learn about butter in cuisines from around the world.  I liked learning about smee, fermented butter used in Morrocan cooking.