Aspiring cheese whizzes, curd nerds find pals at store
For Portlanders who ride on the shop-and-eat bandwagon, canning and preserving local bounty are so 2007. So what's hot for 2008? Making cheese.
'All of a sudden a lot of people were calling the shop asking if we sell cheesemaking supplies,' says Luan Schooler, co-owner of Foster and Dobbs specialty food shop (2518 N.E. 15th Ave., 503-284-1157).
The store stocks plenty of cheese, but doesn't (yet) sell cheesemaking equipment.
Schooler responded to the sudden interest in cheesemaking by offering her store as a venue for aspiring 'cheesers' to meet and share recipes, resources and the fruits of their labor.
Schooler says that the first cheesemakers night in January attracted about 20 people. 'Only one brave woman brought a sample of her goat cheese,' Schooler says. 'I think the others were a little intimidated. Hopefully next time there will be more cheese to taste.'
The discussion focused on fresh cheeses, but Schooler expects that next time aging will be a topic. 'There was a chat starting about how they would age it, and where in their house. I expect some people will give it a try.'
There aren't any stores in the Portland metro area specializing in a comprehensive stock of cheesemaking supplies, so cooks suggest online sites like www.cheesemaking.com to purchase starter cultures, enzymes and thermometers.
Most of the items cost under $10. Cheese presses, used for compressing harder cheeses like cheddar, are expensive, usually ranging from $250 to $500.
One of the goals of the cheesemakers gathering at Foster and Dobbs is to pool supplies and save money.
Not all homemade cheese necessitates an investment. Fresh ricotta can be made with just cheesecloth and a basic kitchen thermometer.
Soft cheeses, like chèvre, require a starter culture, much like yogurt.
And they all need practice, practice, practice. On a recent Wednesday morning, Harriet Fasenfest, part of the Foster and Dobbs group, was, she says, 'staring at a big blob of cheese.'
After buying supplies over the Internet, she has been attempting batches of basic farmer's cheese.
'There are a lot of mistakes you're going to make,' she says, but she has had some success (and even the mistakes are pretty tasty when spread on crusty bread).
'Because milk is pasteurized in the U.S.,' Fasenfest explains, 'the live cultures are taken out. You have to put the cultures back into the milk and cream to make your cheese.'
Fasenfest blogs about her cheesemaking hits and misses on www.culinate.com. (She also is a prominent food preservationist who teaches classes at Preserve.)
The general process for making cheese at home begins with slowly heating milk and/or cream. It's important to use a thermometer to get it to the proper temperature for the type of cheese you're making.
Then acidity is introduced, from starter cultures or white vinegar, to curdle the dairy. Next, the mixture is strained to separate the more solid curds. After that, there are hundreds of different recipes that manipulate the curds.
Soft, brielike cheeses, for example, require enzymes to transform the curds into a creamy paste.
Aging, molding and pressing take you to the black-belt level; you'll probably want to get confident with fresh cheeses first.
Regardless of the variety, you'll be left with at least several cups of whey, the liquid that has not turned into solid curds. You can save the liquid and use it in breads, scones, pancakes or to make sauerkraut.
Making cheese at home is time-consuming, and it takes quite a few batches to be cost-effective. Some aspiring cheesers, like Fasenfest, make an adventure of it. She travels to Kookoolan Farms in Yamhill to buy her milk.
Products from Strauss Creamery, sold in glass bottles at New Seasons Markets, also are favored.
Many cheesemakers liken the experience to making wine and enjoy tinkering with recipes and exploring subtle flavor differences. It's also a great lesson in kitchen chemistry.
Anyone is welcome to attend Foster and Dobbs' next cheesemakers night, 7:15 p.m. March 19. Information is at www.fosteranddobbs.com.
For inspiration from regionally made cheese, consider the Oregon Cheese Festival in Central Point on March 15.
The festival is organized by Rogue Creamery and is set up in tents, farmers market-style.
Hundreds of cheeses will be on display, along with plenty of experts to consult with.
The tasting fee is a bargain $5. Find details at www.roguecreamery.com, or by calling 1-541-665-1155.
But if you're ready to dive right into the cheesemaking world, try this simple recipe for fresh ricotta.
Fresh ricotta cheese
• 1 gallon whole milk
• 1 cup cream
• 3 tablespoons white vinegar
In a large pot gradually bring milk and cream to 180 degrees over medium-low heat (about 15 to 20 minutes).
Place a lid on the pot and let sit for two minutes.
Slowly drizzle in white vinegar.
Place a strainer in a large bowl, and line with two layers of cheesecloth. Pour mixture, separating the curds from the liquid whey.
Let the ricotta drain for a few minutes and use in any recipe - great for cheesecakes, ravioli and anything else.