The Cheese Stands Alone
So, you think you can make cheese? It’s entirely possible that you can. After all, you might be one of those types who can make pickles. Or jam. Or French baguettes. Or raviolis filled with pumpkin puree… from scratch. I have long considered myself one of those types. Recipes with never-heard-of ingredients? Pages of complicated steps? 24-hour cooking times? Bring it.
I have an unwavering obsession with all things curd and whey. I’ve been hooked on the stuff since childhood—beginning with my first taste (of a cellophane-wrapped Kraft Single), and I still can’t get enough. Most of my days begin and end with cheese (cottage for breakfast, a hunk of blue, Brie, or parmigiano-reggiano for dessert).
I’ve also spent a lot of time at the counter of Delfina Pizzeria, watching the cooks stretch the curds of fresh mozzarella in a bowl of water and form them into little balls. There is something so sensual and tender about it, as there is with any food that is made by hand. Plus, the taste is sublime – eyes-roll-back-in-your-head good.
Cocksure and confident, I set out to make fresh cheese. But let me tell you: it was humbling.
Before I embarked on my mission to make my own cheese, I decided to get some advice from the cheesemongers at Cheese Plus, a gourmet grocer in Russian Hill. I spent a few hours observing from behind the counter, and watched as they solved a multitude of dairy dilemmas, from what to eat with specific wines to what cheese is best in fondue to what cheese would be good atop sliders.
Lucky me – I was generously fed samples of a variety of different cheeses, the most memorable being a goat raclette (served both heated and unheated, to get a feel for the difference in texture). As I wolfed it down, a pair of Japanese tourists approached me. “Excuse me,” they said. “Where is stinky?” I started to tell them that I don’t work there, but, to my surprise, I realized that I could actually help them. “At the end of the counter, to your left – that’s where you’ll find stinky.”
I asked one of the cheesemongers, Samantha Chertoff, how she learned so much about cheese. “By eating it,” she said. “I know exactly what everything tastes like.” And it’s evident in the way she talks with her customers, using words like pungent, stinky, buttery, fresh, sweet, smooth, at every turn, like a walking, talking cheese encyclopedia. She had no experience in home cheesemaking, but assured me that she’s thought about doing it and it shouldn’t be too hard to whip up a simple mozzarella.
I left the store emboldened, but listening to my new cheesemonger friend speak so fluently about my favorite food group made me realize I knew much less than I thought. I decided to enroll in Cheese School.
Yes. I said “Cheese School.” The Cheese School of San Francisco is exactly what it sounds like. It is where you go to study cheese.
The school is housed in a small, pleasant building on the edge of North Beach, on Powell Street. It’s curriculum ranges from fundamentals (primers, presentation, and pairings) to tastings (European and American) to further explorations (washed rinds say, or pecorinos). Being a neophyte, I enrolled in the primer course, taught by Judy Creighton, a seasoned cheese educator. I found myself in a room with two long tables covered in white tablecloths, a wineglass and a plate of twelve different cheeses.
In other words, I was in heaven.
For three hours, I learned the ABCs of cheese. I sampled each of the twelve flavor families, from a fresh fromage blanc (tastes like rich cream) to a mountain appenzeller (my favorite, with a full, nutty flavor) to a bloomy rind Brie de Nangis (delicious and vastly superior to any Brie I’ve had). I learned how to taste it, serve it, and store it; the difference between cow, goat, and sheep milks; how and where they are made; and the incredible range of aging techniques.
I headed home with a belly full of cheese and wine, a head filled to the brim with new found knowledge, and a heart that immediately wanted to take another class. So I signed up for my next course, Cheeses of France.
The Cheeses of France class is taught by Colette Hatch, a food and wine authority whose business card reads “Madame de Fromage.” After tasting twelve delicious cheeses and going into the ins and outs of aging and bacterias, I decided to stay after class to talk to the Madame about making my own cheese. She seemed a little skeptical, and told me you really have to get the best quality local milk, which is hard to find. Nevertheless, she steered me in the direction of local cheesemaker Soyoung Scanlan, the owner and cheesemaker at Andante Dairy in Petaluma.
Soyoung, a former dairy scientist, told me that she doesn’t recommend home cheesemaking, for the same reason: it’s generally very difficult to get good milk. I was slightly discouraged but decided to do it anyway. Because the Internet says it’s easy.
I decided to go with the 30-minute mozzarella recipe from The New England Cheesemaking Supply Company. (It’s founder, Ricki “The Cheese Queen” Carroll, is profiled in Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle — the bible of DIY food production.) With visions of my future dairy farm (full of cows and goats and big wheels of delectable cheese) dancing in my head, I bought my supplies: two gallons of Straus Dairy (local) organic milk, liquid vegetable rennet, and citric acid (all purchased from Rainbow Grocery). I poured the milk in a big stockpot, added the ingredients, and slowly heated and covered the milk.
When I lifted the lid up, things are not looking that good. The milk, rather than looking like a smooth custard, was very soft, wet, and separated into quivering little curds. I left the lid on for a few minutes more, and then drained the curds into a colander. I kneaded them like I would bread dough and reheated them in the microwave. More whey runs off, leaving me with a firm, round ball of curds. At this point, the stretching began.
The curds stretched magically, but the resulting cheese was really tough, almost rubbery. I formed the mixture into a ball and slice off a piece. It tasted like a wet, milk-flavored sock. Disappointed, I tossed out my efforts, and washed the pot. I was not used to such unmitigated disaster when I cooked, and my ego was a little bruised. It had sounded so easy—heat milk, drain curds, heat milk again, stretch.
I decided to give it another go. I slowly heated the milk and let it sit, covered, longer this time. Happily, when I lifted the lid, the curd was smooth and slightly firm. I drained it, reheated it, and folded it onto itself just-so, being careful not to overwork it. I formed the curds into a smooth ball and noted that its texture was soft, almost like a water balloon. I ate a slice. It tasted creamy and fresh and pure.
It will take some refining before it’s ready for the ultimate test of a cook’s mettle: the dinner party. But I’m confident that with practice, I’ll have a unique addition to my pre-dinner cheese plate: my own.
Design: Kari Stevens