Thursday, September 15, 2011

Suzanne McMinn onTeaching Mozzarella

And a lot more!

Suzanne held her first annual Chickens in the Road retreat last weekend, and it was so successful, she'll be registering for the next one soon.

Her participants came from far and wide to learn cheesemaking, preserving, soapmaking, breadbaking, candlemaking, homemade beauty products, simple woodworking, apron-making, spinning, and more.  (And that's just in the daytime- in the evening if they chose, they could attend evening craft-sharing circles!)

In her cheese making workshops, Suzanne taught her attendees how to make our quick mozzarella and it seems to have gone well.  Appropriately enough, her giveaway this month is our Starter Special which includes a 30 Minute Mozzarella Kit, our book Home Cheese Making and our DVD- Cheesemaking 101.

The Biggest Cheese Challenge of All
By Suzanne McMinn at Chickens in the Road

I took my cheese challenge from New England Cheesemaking to an all-new height this month when I started teaching other people to make cheese in classes at the Chickens in the Road Retreat. At one point, one of the attendees asked me if I’d been making cheese for a long time, and I said, “No. I’ve only been making cheese for a couple of years. And here I am teaching you! That’s REDICULOUS!”

And then she ran away screaming something about a refund. (I’m just kidding!)

I’ve told people many times that learning to make cheese is easy–learning to make it well is the hard part, but if you get the “cheese bug” to pursue it, it won’t take long at all before you, too, could be teaching other people to make cheese, or at least regularly making it in your own home. For many people, taking a class gets them over the hump of trying it for the first time. Ricki Carroll of New England Cheesemaking (the Cheese QUEEN!) has been teaching people to make cheese for 30 years. She’s probably taught more beginning cheesemakers than anyone else on the planet. And she knows what she’s doing.

Me, not so much!

Before the retreat, I had artist Kelly Walker and her student, Linda, at my house painting murals in my downstairs farm stay and workshop space. Immediately upon their arrival at the farm that weekend, I enslaved them in the kitchen as my test teaching subjects.

Kelly and Linda making mozzarella in my kitchen:

My theory on teaching people mozzarella is that, of course, it has to be a hands-on process. You’ve gotta get in there and touch the cheese! Knead it, stretch it, know what it feels like. Mozzarella is not a demonstration cheese to an audience–it’s a hands-on, hands-in blast. How to do that with a whole class at once?

I wanted to call Ricki and ask her how she does it! But she was busy getting married and everything, so I thought I better leave her alone. Besides, it would be embarrassing when she said, “Suzanne who?” I’m pretty sure my process can use some refining, but here’s what I came up with.

After a short overview discussion to the entire class about the mozzarella process and what they would be doing, I put teams of two on one-gallon pots of milk. One person stirs, one holds the thermometer. At the retreat, I had three teams of two going at a time, using portable burners.

I had their citric acid, lipase, and rennet solutions measured in advance and supervised the additions to the milk at the correct temperatures and so on. I loved seeing their amazement as the “magic” happened when their curd started pulling away from the sides of the pot to reveal the whey.

Once the curds were ready, I had a 2-quart bowl ready for each person–and they divided their pot of curds in half. When it was time for kneading, heating, and stretching, they each had their own bowl of curds!

We weren’t working in a kitchen at the retreat–the kitchen was busy with meal preparation and canning classes–so I had buckets on a table at the “whey station” for pouring off whey. I was a little leery of how this was going to work (I had visions of whey all over the floor), but it worked perfectly! Each of the teams had their curds ready at staggered times, just by slight differences in where the burners were set, so there was never too much of a clog waiting at the microwave or the whey station.

Beside the whey station, I had little cups with pre-measured salt–with a table and chairs and boxes of crackers! As soon as people finished their cheeses, they were sitting down to enjoy it as a snack. In some classes, I also shredded some of the cheeses, using my food processor, for later use in meals.

In some of the bread classes, we made pepperoni rolls, using the mozzarella made in the cheese classes.

As I mentioned, I don’t think this process worked perfectly–my main concern was downtime for students waiting their turns at the pots–but it did work better than I was afraid it might! I had planned to have students waiting their turns to be making butter, but it was so warm on retreat weekend, we weren’t able to do that. On the other hand, we kept them hopping so hard at the retreat that they might have just been glad to sit down and do nothing for a few minutes.

Even though I’ve only been making cheese for a few years, I realized during these classes that I had already begun to take for granted the magic that is making cheese. I handle curds on a regular basis. I forgot that it is a little miracle, and that is probably the most rewarding thing, for me, about teaching cheesemaking–experiencing that new cheesemaker excitement all over again through the eyes of the students.

Photo courtesy of Blyss.

Blyss was in one of my mozzarella classes at the retreat, and is the epitome of the excited new cheesemaker. Her post-retreat report on the Chickens in the Road forum included this as she recounted her weekend accomplishments: “Not only accomplishing this year’s goal of learning to pressure can, but adding the bonus of MAGICAL Mozzarella! Not being embarrassed to ask a complete stranger (until I met her by asking) to take a picture of me (grinning from ear to ear) holding the above mentioned Magical Mozzarella! The sting of being told said Magical Mozzarella tasted terrible… and then deciding that person didn’t know what she was talking about, or didn’t know magic when she was in its presence!”

Of course, there is nothing that tastes better than fresh, warm, homemade mozzarella, so I have to agree with her there! And hers is the kind of excitement that inspires me to keep teaching people to make cheese. We’ll be holding more big retreats, and mini retreats, in 2012 through Chickens in the Road Events, but you don’t have to wait. Ricki holds classes throughout the year. You can find information on her upcoming beginning cheesemaker classes (includes mozzarella-making) here. New England Cheesemaking expert Jim Wallace holds advanced cheesemaking workshops–get the schedule for his classes here.

Fresh mozzarella resting in ice water:

If you’re ready to learn on your own at home, I have a mozzarella-making tutorial here, and New England Cheesemaking has a fantastic tutorial with lots of photos as well as a Mozzarella FAQ page.

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