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Friday, October 05, 2018

The Big Cheese

IT EMERGES FROM a milky, opaque bath the temperature of bodily fluids, and it’s a white rubbery mass that looks like a medical mistake. My next task is to drain the fluid away from it – saving the runoff, of course – and compact the stuff in a cylindrical mold. Upon which it will yield to a succession of ever-heavier weights, until it’s ready for storage. It’s going to be a wheel of pecorino, a sheep’s-milk cheese born in Italy (where sheep are pecora) and which has a fabulously complex flavor when it emerges from its five or six months of aging.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
When I learned that I could buy sheep’s milk from some Amish neighbors, I determined to make my own pecorino. I’m working on my fourth wheel of the stuff, and I can confidently state that I don’t know at all what I’m doing.

Beyond the milk itself, you need gear. And chemicals. And a recipe. And once you start reading about cheese, you realize that starting with pecorino is like picking up a violin and expecting to play the Beethoven concerto. You should practice your way towards with easier stuff.

Nevertheless, I want to have my own pecorino. Thus did I begin. I acquired the chemicals – a thermophilic starter culture, which inoculates the milk with necessary bacteria; lipase, an enzyme that acts as a flavoring agent; and rennet, an enzyme that starts the curd thickening. I should have built my own press, but I was impatient. I bought one that accommodates two- and five-pound molds, and which allows you to use the physics of its press lever to arrive at the correct weight: for example, when I hang a ten-pound bag of rice at a particular groove near the lever’s end, I’m applying forty pounds of weight to the cheese.

And, I discovered after the first batch, I need a double boiler with which to control the temperature of the brew. Because my wife and I are veterans of restaurant kitchens, we have a restaurant-kitchen stove in our house. We’re not supposed to, according to the company that manufactured it, and they won’t give us any kind of support because of that. But the thing has been functioning excellently for twenty-five years, needing only an easy-to-manage thermocouple replacement a few years ago.

A gas stove like this one puts out a tremendous amount of heat. You’re supposed to bring the milk to 90 degrees (all temperatures are Fahrenheit), hold it there for an hour or so, then increase it to 117 degrees over the course of 45 minutes. None of which is easily done over the little blue flame. Temperatures on my first attempt varied considerably, shooting past 90 right off the bat and then taking its damn time to cool. Even with the double boiler, I’ve had to learn to kill the heat before the milk reaches its target. Fortunately, once it’s at 90, it stays there for as long as is needed.

Then there’s the business of cutting the curd. You’re supposed to end up with quarter-inch cubes. Easy enough to slice it from above, but that only gives me quarter-inch (all right, half-inch) wands. I’ve admired a tool called a cheese harp, which makes the necessary horizontal cuts, but I’ve long since blown through my budget. So I take a whisk to the curd to break it up.

Draining the whey is easy enough. I use a skimmer to transfer the curd from boiler to colander (cheesecloth lined, of course), and then ladle the remaining whey through a sieve into storage (we’ll get back to it shortly). The drained curds go into the mold. The usual formula is that a gallon of milk yields a pound of cheese, so I’ve been using the two-pound mold. Last time I did so, however, I had a much thicker curd – could have been the extra thermophilic starter, could have been a whim of the rennet, could have been that I had the temperatures under control. I don’t know yet. But the cheese overflowed the mold, and has a weird topography where I tried to mush it all back together.

So my latest batch went into the five-pound mold. It sits under a ten-pound pressure for half an hour, under twenty-five pounds for three hours, and forty pounds for twelve hours. (You’ll note in the photo that I’ve hung a six-pound tin of olive oil in the 4X position on the press lever for the three-hour squish.)

Finally, the cheese gets a brine bath for another twelve hours. Then it’s ready for storage. It’s supposed to sit for several months in a 55-degree cave with high humidity. I’m repurposing a wine cooler for the job, putting moisture in it by way of humidor humidifiers.

Keep in mind that I’ve created four of these so far. The first one looked terrible, with a surface-of-the-moon aspect to its rind. The second was significantly better-looking, and the third was the one that overflowed. Number four is in the press as I write this. Figuring that the first was a total loss, I cut into it after only two months of aging – and it actually was pretty good! Lots of rind to cut away, but that gets grated into pasta topping.

Meanwhile, the whey can be turned into ricotta. Or so I was told. First time I tried it, it never separated. Second time, I added far more acid than the recipe suggested – and it worked. I got enough to make a decent cheesecake, as has been the destination of subsequent batches of ricotta.

Obviously, I’m going to have to expand my repertory. I have a source for raw cow’s milk that I hope to turn into cheddar and maybe even some softer stuff. I’ve got a bunch more reading to do. I wanted to be perfect at this right off the bat, but now I’m enjoying the trial-and-error aspect of what I’m trying to do – and the best part about it is that everything I’ve sampled so far has been pretty good. Out in the yard, I’m preparing my beehives for winter. Should they make it until spring, I’ll get the crop of honey we missed out on this year. And there’s no flavor on earth as magnificent as honey over pecorino. Here’s hoping.

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