Monday, December 31, 2012

Notes From a Beginner

Brin Wisdom
Brin Wisdom in Atlanta, Texas

Do you remember what is was like when you first began making cheese?  It was as if a miracle was unfolding right before your eyes when you saw the milk turn into curds and the curds into real cheese.  I was reminded about this when I found Brin Wisdom's post (below) at her fun blog- My Messy, Thrilling Life.

I asked Brin what she has been making since she wrote her post in February, 2011:

My first cheese was shockingly great. The flavor was fantastic. The first cheese I ever made was the farmhouse cheddar, and I've primarily stuck to it since I got comfortable with it. I would like to master a creamier, less crumbly cheddar this year, though!

I've yet to venture into any parmesan-type cheeses, so I definitely am eager to try those. But my favorite cheeses of all time are the Stiltons and Havarti-s, so maybe I can work up the courage to try something to get close to those?

I must say, makes it possible for all of us home, cheese newbies. I was too intimidated to try it all until I found the site and resources. Now, I just order and go!

As you all know, the press and the aging "cave" are among the most important pieces of equipment for making the hard cheeses.  I asked Brin what she was using:

I am using a used press I found off eBay.  Needless to say, a new press is HIGH on my list of must-purchase items. I can't find a brand name on it anywhere, but it isn't too old, so I'm thinking someone must have made it.

I've aged my cheese two places, depending on the weather: in a small refrigerator I used just for that purpose, and in an outbuilding on the property (during winter). My part of Texas doesn't get much winter to speak of, so the temperature is usually in the 50s. I quit aging in the building when there was an obvious difference between the cheeses stored in the fridge and those that were left to the mercies of temperature fluctuations!


Cheesemaking, Or, How to Turn Milk Into Magic
By Brin Wisdom at My Messy, Thrilling Life

Cheese - milk's leap toward immortality.
Clifton Paul Fadiman

I'm learning to make cheese. It was on my list of 30 things I wanted to do in my 30s. And so here I go, becoming quite the curds and whey girl.

(Actually, the whey girl is Millie. Did you know that dogs LOVE whey? I mean, they love it. Millie jumps in the air for it. Anyone know why this is- that dogs love whey?)

All cheese experts advise starting with "beginner cheeses" like mozarella or cream cheese. Cheese you don't have to load in a cheese press. Cheese you don't have to know advanced chemistry to make. Me? Ha. I flipped to Home Cheese Making's recipe for Farmhouse Cheddar and dragged out the milk.

My first stab at making homemade cheddar cheese was a success. Now I'm addicted. Farmhouse Cheddar is a crumbly white cheddar cheese- kinda along the same texture as feta- that you only have to age for a month. The ingredients are easily had and so's the equipment. I found the hardest part of the cheese making process to be regulating my electric stove to keep the heat just right; too hot and the curds break, too cool and the curds don't set. But with a little (okay, a cheese truck load) of patience, I made, aged, and waxed my first round of cheese.

If you're interested in giving cheesemaking a go, start here: And by all means, find a copy of the book I linked above and decide what you'd like to try your stove at first.

Anyone have cheesemaking tips or advice for beginners? I'd love to hear from folks who do or want to make homemade cheese. Thanks! -Brin

Friday, December 28, 2012

Experimenters - Be Careful!

An example of healthy looking Blue Cheese

It's about CONTROLLING the bacteria!

Dr. Peter Achutha

We recently received an interesting note from Dr. Peter Achutha, our longtime friend in Malaysia.  He's been a guest blogger twice - A Malaysian Scientist Experiments with Making Cheese and Durian Cheesecake for the Intrepid Only!.

Peter is a scientist who likes to experiment with food, so at his website, The Bread Diaries, you will find articles like his 4 part series - making cream cheese from yogurt,  numerous posts about making bread, including his piece de resistance - making bread from self-rising flour, and his scariest experiment to date - how to make dead cow cheese which involves fermenting milk with yeast.  (He charms us in the middle of that one by linking to our site when he says, "If you are serious about learning how to make cheese, here is the link."

When we received Peter's letter, I was concerned that he might be going a bit too far afield with his cheese experiments.  I felt obliged to forward it to our technical advisor, Jim Wallace.  (A brief note about Jim- He has been teaching advanced workshops and answering all technical questions for us for many years.  He has literally seen and heard everything having to do with cheese.  However, even Jim was a bit dismayed by Peter's adventures, as you will see in the correspondence below.)

I hope everyone (especially Peter) will be able to benefit from Jim's advice, so that everyone (especially Peter) can live to a ripe old age, making and eating their own healthy homemade cheese.

1.  Note from Peter Achutha

Remember the last time I wrote to you both about my utter failure at making cheese?  Well, I decided to try one last fling at it ... like it was some quite flirtatious affair.  It was do or die.  If 'do' then it would probably mean more misery with my affair with cheese.  If 'die' then gone for good, good riddance and the end to a cheesy chapter of my life.

The thing about my kitchen or rather my fridge was that, over the last year it had become a bio-hazard laboratory.  I had quite a few Tupperwares of cheese in various stages of maturity ... actually I am trying to be polite as they were at various stages of rot.

Worst still, my bio-hazard material had quietly invaded my mom's fridge and I had some "secret recipes" there.  At least that's what I told her.  No wonder my mom would complain that her fridge was too small and that there was not enough space in her fridge.

So, after I wrote to both of you I decided to clear out the fridge(s).  I had a peak in some of the Tupperwares and some of them looked like swivel and others looked like nothing had happened.


It truly is amazing how life evolves ... when it chooses to. Then I found this container of goats 'cheese.'  It was one of those milk to yogurt to cheese experiments. It almost looked like cheese but it tasted of yogurt. It had shrunk a lot since it was a thick batter when I placed it on a sieve to mature slowly. The sieve was to allow the water to drain out slowly so that it would solidify with time. Actually it was sitting in the back of my fridge for a year when I remembered it was there.

I threw it away as I had used rice paper at the bottom to support the 'liquid' cheese and the rice paper had something growing underneath. The goat's cheese was OK and it tasted more like a rock of yogurt than cheese.

That was the last of the bio-hazard material.

I had to try one last fling so I bought some cream cheese, Tarantula cream cheese - Australian.  Took out the Penicillium roqueforti that had been in deep hibernation in my freezer for, I think, 2 years.  I was not really expecting it to work.

I put a flat teaspoon of Penicillium roqueforti into a jar filled with two liters of water and let them revive over night.  I sprinkled a tablespoon of the water (there was a bluish layer at the bottom of the jar which I did not use) on the cheese and poked holes with a fork to get the oxygen into the cream cheese ... and waited.  Nothing happened.  Then I remembered that you could not stand there and watch it grow. So I put it back in the fridge - my mom's fridge and forgot about it for a week.

A week later, I noticed two pin head size tiny, tiny specks of blue and green.  The cheese chapter of my life was closing quickly.  I left it back in the fridge and thought nothing of it for a few weeks.

About a month later I notice that the whole top layer of cream cheese was layered in blue green stuff. There were white patches, so I assumed that the white patches were areas where the mold had not taken root.  I took some pictures and when examining the pictures noticed that the white areas were white mold - the whole top of the cheese was covered in blue green mold and white mold!

So now I have a problem.  Do I eat the stuff or not?  If I eat it and it is delicious, the cheese chapter will have a lot more written in it.  If I eat the stuff and turn blue green, then my cheese chapter will end, the book will be closed and all my blogging will come to an end. You know what they say -  '"ashes to ashes and dust to dust."

Does it look like blue cheese?  Please do let me know.  Maybe I should try cheddar this way.  What would you call this?  Cheat cheese?  Anything more exotic?

Ps: I woke up this morning and found my head was still on my neck, whew....

2.  Jim Wallace's answer

Peter, what you have there is definitely a good growth of the blue mold and most likely the one you added (but one never knows for sure).

Now the problem here is that the blue mold is meant to grow internally but in order to do that the cheese needs to be made with a bit firmer curd so that when the cheese is put together there are small openings internally.  The blue needs fresh air to grow.

The cheese you have chosen to use is too moist and too dense.  It also is a bit too acidic for the mold to grow internally.  The cheese you used is essentially a Greek (drained) style yogurt and not one that will do well with a blue mold.

What you need for blue is a curd set with rennet and then allowed to form a good firm curd before molding.  This is often done by dry stirring the curds as you drain them before going into the mold.

The blue mold you have on the outside might not taste great in such large amounts.  It is actually not the blue mold that adds the flavor but how the blue produces enzymes that change the flavor of the curds.

3.  Peter's response to Jim

Actually, I know I am not anywhere near good at making cheese.  You guys have achieved perfection, cheese nirvana and cheese enlightenment.  I, on the other hand, feel like a 'bum in a china shop' on the way to cheese imperfection and cheese 'delightenment.'

I learned a lot from Jim's e-mail and have cut up the cheese to expose more of it to air and allow the blue mold to spread.  I tried the stuff that stuck to the knife and it was simply gorgeous, simply delicious.  So now I plan to get some other molds like cheddar and infect some cream cheese with it - probably April time frame.

I am really excited by the blue cheat cheese and planning more experiments with the blue mold -  probably with other drier types of cheeses. Or, mix different 'off the shelf' cheeses and infect them with blue mold.  hhhmmmmm ... I have to find another excuse to tell my mom.

4.  Jim tries again

Peter, I caution you on these experiments without the knowledge of what is growing.

2 big problems would be:

   1.    In not producing enough acid, thus leaving lactose for unhealthy bacteria to grow on. The biggest culprit would be botulism or butyric bacteria as well as coliforms such as E.Coli.
   2.    If you do not create the proper surface conditions for a target healthy ripening mold, you may develop some unwanted growth such as the Listeria producers.

There are many other things that can be unhealthy and deadly even.

Cheese making is really about controlled decomposition of milk where the proteins and fats are broken down to specific components for flavor and texture but all in a healthy way.

Just leaving the cheese to whatever happens to come along is looking for something bad to pop up.

I am not trying to discourage you here but safe processing is VERY IMPORTANT.  People do get sick or even die from cheese processed or stored improperly.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Our Partnership with Local Veterans

They've become invaluable to our business ...

There are approximately 120,000 veterans in the area of western Massachusetts where our business is located.  They are all served by the Veterans Affairs Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare Center in Leeds, Massachusetts.

Three years ago, Ricki heard about a program there to provide some of these veterans with work. Businesses could contract with the center to have some of their light assembly work, etc. done at the health center. It's called the Compensated Work Therapy Workshop. All veterans are eligible and there are many of these programs at VA centers nationwide.

So, we met with one of the Vocational Specialists- Tom Haskell to evaluate our suitability for this program.  Tom took some of our kits and other products and did a cost analysis to determine whether the veterans could do the work for us at a competitive price.

Tom Haskell, Vocational Specialist

They could and we began to partner with the VA.  We started slowly with a few jobs we thought they could do (like packing our kits) and gradually we began to contract with them to do more and more for our business.  They have become invaluable to us and we highly recommend this program to any other suitable businesses.

Holiday Trip to the VA

This year we decided to visit the crew at holiday time to thank them in person for the fabulous job they are doing.  We took pictures to share a little more with you about how great this program is:

Kathy and Sarah packing bags of goodies for the trip to the VA

We wanted it to be a surprise, so the guys were told we were coming for an inspection!

Ricki (the Cheese Queen herself) led the way.

Alison was right behind her.

When we got to the shop, we all got shy and couldn't decide how to present ourselves.  Fortunately, Jim Pruner, vocational specialist, jumped in and announced our presence and our mission to the guys.

Jim Pruner, vocational specialist

Then before we knew it, Kathy began dancing down the aisle singing "Jingle Bells!"

Jeff and Sarah watched in amazement!

Kathy rocked!  (She is officially our Office Cheermeister and part of her job is to plan fun activities for the staff.)

Next, she gave everyone a hug while the rest of us passed out gift bags.

April handing a bag to Thomas Dziedzic.

Ricki and Victor Rivera

Ricki, Victor and Sarah
Left to right:  Angie, Bill Lauden, John Haverly, Ed O'Brian, Daniel Donovan, Steve Spencer, Hank Alves, Louis Marquez, Sarah, Thomas Dziedzic, Victor Rivera, Kathy, Ricki, Alison, April and Jeff

Our Intrepid Team

We would like to thank the following veterans for their service to our country, as well as their service to us:

Bill Lauden

Daniel Donovan

Victor Rivera

Steve Spencer

Thomas Dziedzic

Ed O'Brian

Hank Alves

John Haverly (showing off his hat!)

Louis Marquez

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Suris - Lithuanian Farmer's Cheese

Terese Vekteris

Attention Beginners: 

This is a Very Easy Cheese to Make

No rennet required and the culture is buttermilk.  The result is a somewhat dryer and more sliceable version of American Farmer's Cheese.

I found Terese Vekteris's recipe at her blog-My Lithuanian Summer in which she chronicles her trip to her ancestral home and all things Lithuanian.  She learned to make Suris at Camp Neringa, a Lithuanian cultural camp in Brattleboro, Vermont.

Terese lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she is the editor of Bridges -The Lithuanian American News Journal and the director of internet marketing at Cooper University Health Care in southern New Jersey.

Suris Success, or How I Made Cheese in a Pillowcase
By Terese Vekteris at My Lithuanian Summer   

Homemade Lithuanian Farmer’s Cheese with Caraway Seeds

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could make cheese at home.

I should qualify that to say making cheese easily at home. I know people who make complex things at home all the time, and I admire them, but I am known to run out of patience when the instruction list has more than four steps or I need to construct some specialty apparatus to accomplish the task. Not so with lietuvi┼íkas suris, a soft, mild Lithuanian farmer’s cheese.

It helped a lot that this recipe for making su-ris was thoroughly tested by my friend Jana, who teaches Lithuanian cooking in Toronto. She demonstrated her technique to me and a dozen others at the last Women’s Weekend at Camp Neringa. As the most challenging step seemed to be waiting for a pot of liquid to come to a boil, I was emboldened to try at home.

The Ingredients:

    1 gallon raw milk
    1 half gallon buttermilk
    optional: caraway seeds

That’s it. Really. Just a note on the milk: Jana found that the ultra-pasteurized milk available in most groceries doesn’t work, as it doesn’t readily form curds. You can usually get raw milk from your local food co-op or a nearby dairy if you’re lucky enough to live close to one.

The Tools:

    2 big pots
    wooden spoon
    2 cutting boards
    heavy weight

The Instructions:

Pour the raw milk into a large pot, and heat it until it just begins to boil, stirring to prevent it from burning. You can judge this by eye, watching for small bubbles forming around the sides of the pot, but I found it easier to take the judgment out of it and use a thermometer after consulting The Joy of Cooking about milk’s boiling point. After the milk reaches 180°F but well before it reaches 212°F, remove it from the heat and pour in the buttermilk. Curds should form immediately. Stir gently if they need encouragement, but be careful not to break up them up too much. If you’re Little Miss Muffet, I suppose you could stop here to enjoy your curds and whey, but I recommend continuing.

Curds form as soon as buttermilk is added to the heated milk

Line your colander with cheesecloth, making sure you have enough overhang to gather it up into a bag and tie it off. I’ll digress here a bit to discuss cheesecloth. The stuff you can buy in the grocery store labeled cheesecloth is a flimsy gauze, and you’ll need about three layers so you don’t lose the curds through the loose weave. Real cheesecloth is thin muslin, which you can buy at a fabric store. You could also use a flour sack or a 100% muslin pillowcase. The muslin, sack and pillowcase have the bonus of being reusable; all they need are a good washing in hot water with unscented detergent. I was lucky enough to have a perfect pillowcase of my grandmother’s, complete with beautifully tatted edges.

The 100% muslin pillowcase, complete with decorative tatting from my grandmother, that I use instead of cheesecloth

Curds and whey after being poured into the pillowcase-lined colander

If you want to save the whey (you can use it in place of milk or buttermilk when making breads, muffins and pancakes, in soups in place of stock, in smoothies, to boil pasta, even to water outdoor plants), place the lined colander in another large pot. Put the colander and empty pot in the sink and carefully pour or ladle in the hot curds and whey. Once most of the liquid whey has drained out, gather up the corners and hang the bag somewhere to continue draining for a bit. I just tie my pillowcase to the kitchen faucet.

Pillowcase with curds hanging from faucet to finish draining

Once most of the liquid has dripped out, give a last good wring, tie the bag securely, place it between two clean cutting boards and put a heavy weight on top of it to squeeze out the rest of the liquid. You can use a cheese press if you have one (or you could make one, but what did I say about specialized apparatus?). Just for fun, some illustrations of old Lithuanian cheese-making tools here and here. My personal favorite is the bed leg.

You’ll want to press the cheese somewhere it can be undisturbed for 8-10 hours or overnight to set. I use my laundry sink. The longer you press the cheese, the drier it will be.

Curd bag tied and sandwiched between two cutting boards

Our makeshift cheese press weighted down with full cast-iron stockpot

Our cheese the next morning, just unwrapped

Once the cheese is set, turn it out of the bag, and salt to taste. You can also sprinkle with caraway seeds if you like. Enjoy on a slice of lietuviška duona (dark Lithuanian bread) drizzled with honey. It makes a great breakfast, light lunch or snack any time!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Denis Barnard in Delta Junction, Alaska

Making cheese in a frozen tundra

Denis Barnard and his wife, Angie live 70 miles south of the community of North Pole, Alaska.  Denis began making cheese in the summer of 2010, just after they moved there.

How did you end up living on the edge of "civilization?"

We moved to Alaska in May 2010.  We were living in Layton Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City.  I had been talking to my sons about seeking a simpler life style and perhaps even retiring.  One day my son Colin called me and suggested that Delta Junction might offer such an opportunity.  He and his family had been living here since 2004 and we had been visiting them at least once a year since then. We were familiar with the area and even knew about the extreme cold during the winters but the area seemed to be an ideal place to live a more purposeful existence. 

These pictures were taken in Denis's back yard.

In the meantime, I was reading numerous books including Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle!." Then I came across the section that discussed cheesemaking. My son, Colin had tried making cheese and enjoyed the process so when I came to Alaska I asked him to teach me. For my birthday, he gave me the basic cheesemaking kit from New England Cheesemaking Supply Company.

I had always loved artisan cheeses but few were available in the cold interior of Alaska. As I invested more time in making and learning about cheeses, I found myself experimenting more with ingredients (herbs, Fleur de Sel, peppers, etc). I also found that my laboratory background, specifically in chemistry and microbiology helped me better understand the processes involved in creating cheeses.

Borealis Blue cheese a week after sprinkling it with Fleur De Sel and Poking forty holes through it from top to bottom.

Although people have asked me to make and sell cheeses to them, I hesitate to do so. I really want to just enjoy the process without the pressure for production. Besides I have found that I am hard pressed (forgive the pun) to achieve consistent results that most people expect from commercially produced cheeses. Whether or not this is a shortcoming, my cheeses are never quite the same. I enjoy the differences and the surprises.

His homemade press

I guess that other people like my efforts as well. Last year I won a Grand Champion ribbon at the Deltana fair for an herbed cheddar. This year, I was awarded 1st place for an herbed goat milk cheddar. Perhaps even better than the awards, however, are the times I spend with my family tasting these new creations. Andrea, my daughter-in-law, is a blue cheese aficianado and is always asking me to make Stilton or some other blue cheese. And Colin has never liked blue cheese- until now! However, I still have trouble convincing the grandkids that anything other than mild cheddar or gouda is real cheese!

What kinds of cheeses have you made?

I have made blue cheese, farmhouse and traditional cheddars, Emmental, Manchego, Ricotta (my wife actually makes the ricotta), soft goat cheese, Saint Maure, goat milk cheddar, and various types of gouda.  In fact, I just finished some goudas while I was recuperating.  I made one with fenugreek seeds that I called "Blooming Bunion Gouda" and another with garlic, chives, and other herbs that I decided to label "Sore Foot Gouda."  As you can tell, I had time on my hands and pain in my foot.

Sore Foot Gouda, Blooming Bunion Gouda, Borealis Blue

The past two summers I entered homemade cheeses in our area fair, the Deltana Fair.  In July 2011, I won 1st place and the Grand Champion Ribbon in the dairy category for a farmhouse cheddar that I called Borealis Blast Cheddar.  I used a seasoning from a spice shop in Anchorage.  The spice included white and black sesame seeds, peppercorns, garlic, and chili flakes.  This past summer, I received the1st place ribbon in the dairy category for a goat milk cheddar.  Unfortunately, I was edged out for the Grand Champion ribbon by someone who submitted a wild Alaska blueberry ice cream.  That will be the last time I help my wife pick wild blueberries!

Borealis Blast Cheddar

Where do you get your milk?

I buy my milk from a local dairy named Northern Lights Dairy. I obtain goat's milk from a neighbor. The milk from Northern Lights Dairy is pasteurized. In fact, the dairy is listed on The New England Cheesemaking site ( as one of the few suggested sources for milk in Alaska.  (Good Milk List)

Where do you age your cheese?

I use one room in our house as a cheese cave.  During the winter, I simply shut the door and the temperature stays between 55 and 60 degrees.  We even painted the walls a light cheddar yellow.

In the summer, I use a little dormitory refrigerator but the best temperature I can achieve is around 50 to 52 degrees.  I have included pictures of both. 

The cheese on top is Fromaggio Urbiaco.  Denis had just finished soaking it in wine and was letting it age in the cheese room (cave).
(He put it in the refrigerator just for staging this picture.)

The temperature outside was -20F in the daytime when Denis took this picture.