Monday, January 30, 2012

CHEESE, Gromit!

I love Wallace and Gromit! And I share Wallace's love of cheese...the whole family loves cheese! In fact, every time I'm at the grocery store, I pick up cheese, just to be sure we don't run out at home. And when Daddy ships us blocks of Sweetwater Valley Farm Cheese from Tennessee...Oh Yeah! Heaven! (especially the buttermilk cheddar and the fiery fiesta cheddar)

Not long before Christmas, I got a call from my best friend. She came across a mozzarella cheese making kit in the store where she works. I asked her to pick one up for me. She got one as my Christmas present.

Ever since that conversation about the cheese making kit, I have had cheese making on the brain. In fact, I've read so much about it that I wound up stumbling upon - the website of New England Cheesemaking Company that sells the cheese making kit.

From there, my thoughts turned to Cheddar, Jack and Bleu cheese as well as a whole host of others for making (they have LOTS of RECIPES on the site). But, my inexperience tells me I should start with something much much easier which leads me back to mozzarella cheese. Fresh mozzerella cheese is relatively quick and "easy" to make. I have yet to receive that cheesemaking Christmas present. It still has to be shipped from North Carolina. So, wanting to make it RIGHT NOW, I started...without the kit. I used this recipe.

Finding the rennet tablets was a royal pain. If I had it to do over again, I would have just bought the kit myself online and then gone back there later to get the raw materials if I wanted to make mozzarella again. I special ordered rennet from a local Sprouts grocery store. I thought I was going to get tablets (since that's what I asked for) but what I got was Liquid Rennet - actually better than the tablets and easier to get a more accurate measurement.

I also needed citric acid. I used to use citric acid regularly to make bath bombs:

The citric acid reacted with baking soda to create the "fizz". But since I hadn't made a bath bomb since The Girl was a baby, I needed to get more citric acid. Luckily, I knew where to get some...or so I thought. I had been able to find it pharmacies by the vitamin aisle and international/specialty grocery stores. After checking several stores, I finally located it at Vitamin Cottage Natural Grocery (which happened to already carry the liquid rennet). The citric acid was in the spice aisle near the honey and stevia.

I wanted to make the cheese using fresh milk from a dairy farm, and I actually found a place north of Denver, Johnsons Acres, that could supply the milk. But the farm required shares be purchased and I wasn't ready to dive into that yet. Still, they also offered a great many things that interested me from Goat's milk (for my soap), fresh cream, ice cream and buttermilk to local honey, beef and sushi grade wild caught salmon. I told Mr. LH I wanted to find a home fairly close to a farm - dairy, vegetable, whatever. I wound up buying whole milk from the grocery store - at least it comes from a supplier in Colorado and they "claim" their milk is in the grocery stores by the day following pick-up.

As soon as I got home with the citric acid, I got to work making the cheese. More about that below.

If you do it correctly, mozzarella cheese won't take long to make. The entire process took less than 45 minutes and it was so rewarding to wind up with a ball of freshly made mozzarella cheese!

I didn't try it immediately so I wrapped it and placed it in the refrigerator. A little later, we sliced off a piece and tried it. The cheese was very mild, but also very tasty. Then we tried it melted on Triscuits (it melts beautifully!) but tonight was pizza night so...

We used half of that cheese and absolutely smothered the pizzas with it! It tasted wonderful though it always does so I don't know if I can take credit...

If you want to read about my "cheese trials" (because it took me FOUR attempts to get it right), keep reading...

As mentioned before, as soon as I got home with the citric acid, I got to work making the cheese. I had been looking forward to this since before I special-ordered the rennet. I disolved the citric acid in cold water, added it to cold milk and began to heat it all up to 90F. The milk started to curdle a bit while I was heating it up (possibly from the addition of citric acid). Once I added the rennet, the mixture almost immediately turned into curds.

I let the milk sit covered for 5 minutes and then an additional five minutes to let it settle but the curds never formed a smooth layer as pictured in the "how-to's" I had been studying. You can see in the photo below where the curds pulled away from the sides of the pot.

I went ahead and drained them anyway and proceeded on to the next step.

I was to add hot water to the curds and work it into a ball, kneading it with a spoon. After two additions of water, the cheese was stretching nicely and becoming smooth. Then disaster happened. I added the last bit of hot water to keep it stretchy and the whole cheese practically disintegrated before my eyes! I think the hot water got a little TOO hot.

Okay...okay...breathe in...breathe out. I went to the store and came home with TWO gallons of milk.

Attempt #2:
The first batch never formed that smooth layer of curd at the top. In the instructions, it noted: if having problems with milk forming a proper curd you may need to increase this temp to 95 or even 100F ...

For this second batch I heated the milk to 100 degrees. The milk did NOT start to curdle from the citric acid this time. Nor did it start to coagulate as quickly with the addition of the rennet. However, it did form that smooth layer of curd as shown in the "how-to"...

...except it was VERY soft and didn't ever "firm up". I could cut the curds into cubes, but it never firmed up any more - even after 45 minutes. It was so soft, the cubes of curd wouldn't hold their shape when I tried to move them to the colander. I couldn't strain the curds because they would ooze through the holes of the colander.

Close eyes and count to

Attempt #3:
So maybe the 100 degrees was too high. I tried for 95 degrees this time (this being my last gallon of milk for the night - thank goodness milk was on sale this week).

The results...the same exact thing as attempt #2. This time I tried to strain the runny mess through cheesecloth just to have something to show. I placed it in a bowl to cool thinking maybe it might separate more overnight in the refrigerator and maybe I could still do something with it because I sure wasn't going back to the store again that night! It looked like REALLY small curd cottage cheese. Or maybe sour cream gone bad...

At this point I started to blame the altitude just because I had NO idea what else to blame it on. Then I told Will I didn't know how many times I was willing to try it before I gave up. But I knew I would try  to make the cheese again and I knew I would go back to the beginning. Even though my first batch didn't quite do what I expected it to, I almost had it right...besides, I still had plenty of rennet and citric acid.

I'd have to go BACK to the store in the morning to get MORE milk because I really, really wanted to get it done in time for Mr. LH to make his pizzas (as he does most Sunday nights now). Heck, at this point, I just really, really wanted it to WORK!

Day 2:

The "cheese goop" in the bowl actually wound up MORE runny after a night in the refrigerator. But, Mr. LH got me two more gallons of milk. Thank heavens he was willing to let me try it again even though I was going through milk like mad!

I decided to start making 1/2 gallon batches just in case they didn't turn out. At least I would get four attempts this time.

Attempt #4:
I decided to go back to heating the milk to 90F again since that was the closest I had come to completing the cheese. I also decided to try the microwave method instead of the hot water method for cooking the curds to reduce the chance of having "disintegrated cheese" again.

When I read over the recipe for the microwave method, I noticed this: "Do not prepare any other food while you are making cheese. Put all food products away." These instructions were not on the previous instructions I had been using. Hmmm...during attempt #1, there was no other food around and it worked (except at the end). During attempts #2 and #3, we also had dinner cooking. I wonder if that had anything to do with it...

Well, I got started again...using half the recipe this time. The milk started to curdle slightly with the addition of citric acid.

The addition of rennet had the same results as attempt #1. (they still seemed a bit soft so I let the pot sit for an additional 5 minutes)

I drained the curds in my colander to strain out the whey.

Then (and this is the part I did differently) I place the curds into a microwave safe dish and heated it for a minute on "high".

This created more whey separating from the cheese so I drained it and began kneading it with the spoon. I zapped it again in the microwave for about 30 seconds, drained it again and kneaded it more. It was starting to come together!

One final zap and I was in the home stretch, pulling and rolling my cheese until it (sort of) resembled a ball. I salted it at this point and continued kneading it. The cheese was a bit dry  - it kept tearing and every zap in the microwave would dry it out (this is where the hot water method would be better, I think). Next time I'll keep it a little moister.

I wound up with a very tasty ball of mozzarella! So I made another batch, this time leaving it a little moister. It stretched better then. And yes, after all this it would have been easier and cheaper to have just BOUGHT mozzarella at the store in the first place. But I get a lot of satisfaction from making my own stuff - even things that have me wanting to pull my hair out.

On a related note, I really want to figure out how to make the cheese balls like the chef in the following video from Food Wishes. And whaddya know...the chef is at The Lodge in Vail, CO! Maybe I should pay him a visit for a mozzarella ball tying tutorial :)

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