Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Cheese Making Fail

Several years ago, I read a book called Animals, Vegetables, Miracles, by Barbara Kingsolver. It's a nonfiction book about her family move from New Mexico to Kentucky in search for a way of life that involved living off the land. The book changed the way I look at food as well as how I purchase food. It also inspired my dream of someday homesteading myself. In that book, Barbara talked about the process of cheese making. I was intrigued, but scared. You can't find the typical ingredients in a regular grocery store. Still, in the back of my mind, I was always thinking that I wanted to try to make cheese. From what I've heard, nothing is as good as homemade mozzarella.

Fast forward to 2013. One of the paraprofessionals who works in my classroom mentioned that she had begun making cheese. I immediately began asking lots of questions about ingredients, process, successes, etc. She had ordered rennet tablets (the hard to find ingredient) online and offered to share them with me. She brought me a box (8 tablets) the next Monday. That was several months ago.

I've been researching and reading and pinning (what would I do without Pinterest?), but kept finding excuses to not try. I picked up some citric acid at one point, and Jeremy bought me a cheese making book and cheesecloth for Christmas. That was 2 months ago.

Finally, on the perfect snow day last week, when I finally had nothing else to do but try, I tried. And failed. But I'll share it anyway, because this will be the first of what I hope a series of more successful trials. And by the way, the end result was edible and I used it in a dessert. It just wasn't mozzarella.

Here is exactly what I knew about making mozzarella before beginning: The rennet separates the curds from the whey, temperature is important, and you have to pretty much stand over the stove during the entire process. Scary, I know. Not really my kind of throw together recipe that I like, but still, the thought of a warm ball of fresh cheese kept me moving forward.

In addition to a gallon of whole milk, I had some rennet, citric acid, a digital thermometer and some cheese cloth (which you don't absolutely have to have. You could also use a tea towel).

I combined a cup of water with 1 1/2 t. of citric acid.
I combined 1/4 cup of water with a 1/4 rennet tablet. ***For the record, this is the step that led to my ultimate failure. I'll explain later.
I poured an entire gallon of whole milk into the pot and stirred in the citric acid solution. I let it warm slowly until it was 90 degrees. You're supposed to stir it this whole time. Once it reached 90 degrees, I took it off the heat, stirred in the rennet solution, covered it, and let it sit for 5 minutes. The point of this is to let the milk "set." In other words, if it process works, it should look like tofu. Mine didn't. The recipe I used said that if it wasn't set after 5 minutes, then let it set another 5 minutes. I did, but it still didn't look right. It looked a little clumpy, but the next step in the recipe was to cut the "tofu" into uniform pieces, and mine wasn't even close to being able to be cut. I realized there was a problem. I looked over the recipe again, and realized my error. The rennet I used was Junket brand, something the recipe said specifically NOT to use. It's not concentrated enough and requires much more than the recipe calls for. Remember, the rennet is supposed to separate the curds from the whey, so it's no wonder that mine wasn't separating. It did say you could try to use 2 tablets to try to make it work, but I was already past that stage and didn't know if I could add the rennet later.
Since I was this far in, I decided to try it. The worst that could happen was that I wouldn't have cheese, but if I didn't try it, I wouldn't have it anyway. I brought the milk back to 90 degrees, combined a couple more rennet tablets in a little bit of water and stirred it in. I removed it from the heat, then let it sit for 5 minutes, then another 5 minutes, then another 5 minutes. I had almost given up when this happened.
It still wasn't what the recipe described, but I followed the rest of the recipe anyway. I was determined to turn these curds to cheese. I turned the heat back on and let them get to 105 degrees, stirring them gently, in an attempt to get them to separate a little more from the whey. At 105 degrees, I ladled the curds into a microwave safe dish.
 I microwaved the curds for one minute, then drained the whey.

I spooned the curds over themselves and then microwaved for 30 second intervals until the temperature reached 135 degrees. At this point, if everything has worked, I should have been able to squeeze and knead the cheese curds until it becomes stretchy and formed a ball. For a split second, I thought mine was going to actually do that. I saw some strings forming which made me think it was working, but it didn't. The curds did eventually all form together into a more solid mixture, though.

I stirred in some salt and tasted it. It tasted just like cottage cheese! I made something of my curds! I drained the whey again and stored my cheese in the fridge. A couple of days later, I used it as a substitute for cottage cheese in a dessert recipe and it turned out delicious. So maybe it wasn't quite a fail after all. I will be trying mozzarella again though, once I track down some non-Junket rennet tablets.

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