Cultivating a cheese culture

Making cheese at home out of tasty milk is an experience everyone should try at least once.

An instructor in an advanced learning course I took taught me once that people can be divided into three types of learners: Those who like to read, those who are auditory and those who need to physically experience the subject. When it comes to cooking, I think that most people learn best by activating the third option, that of physical involvement. The difference actual experience makes really came through for me when I made cheese for the first time. Like most people, I knew pretty well the basics of how cheese is made. Nevertheless, the first time I actually made simple cheese with my own hands was a true biochemical revelation for me. It was a strong feeling of becoming a part of a long lineage of humans who utilized the power of simple chemistry to preserve their milk. Since most of us don't even have the time to cook daily meals, not to mention make cheese from scratch, I find that a special occasion is needed for us to pull out the cheesecloth. The upcoming holiday of Shavuot is just that opportunity. Besides, a homemade cheese will always the center of attention at any Shavuot party. The basic ingredient in cheese making is milk. However simple that may seem, good fresh milk is actually harder to come by than it was when people actually kept livestock locally. For starters, modern milk goes through intensive "long shelf life" oriented processing by the large retailers, which takes a lot of the life and complexity of flavor out of the supermarket milk. Another ailment of the modern milk supply chain is variety. Cow's milk is the cheapest to mass produce, so it's almost all that's available at supermarkets. Goat and sheep milk create flavorful and interesting cheeses and are worth going out of your way to try. While fun, simple, homemade cheese can be successfully made from supermarket milk, I would highly recommend seeking out a local small producer of goat or sheep cheese and giving them a visit. In most cases (give them a ring before you arrive) they will be delighted to sell you fresh, pasteurized, farm milk at very reasonable prices. There's an endless variety of cheese-making techniques, which tend to be very technical and complex. However, simple homemade farmer's cheese is made with a rugged process that delivers consistently great results. Not surprisingly, the famous farmer's cheeses of the third world, such as queso blanco from Mexico and paneer from India are traditionally made under the most rudimentary of conditions, which means they can also be successfully made in any home kitchen. These cheeses share the heat-acid coagulation method, in which the milk is heated to about 80ºC, and then an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar is added. The reaction created causes the whey to separate from all the rest, which stiffens up into a curd. This method is great because it doesn't require any special equipment or ingredients. The only slightly tricky part is the draining, for which you can use a very fine mesh sieve. The best tool is a piece of cheesecloth, which is not always easy to find. Alternatives that are common and will work wonderfully are the inexpensive cloth diapers that are sold in pharmacies in Israel and are known as "Tetra" diapers or a piece of muslin cloth. CORIANDER SEED AND GARLIC PANEER Makes about 1 kg. (simply halve all ingredients to make 500 gr.) 4 liters fresh whole goat's, sheep's or cow's milk 250-500 ml. (1-2 cartons) heavy cream (optional - for a richer cheese) 150 ml. (10 Tbsp.) plain artificial 5% vinegar, diluted in 150 ml. water (you won't taste it in the cheese) 2 Tbsp. dry coriander seeds, lightly roasted in a skillet and crushed 2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced Sea salt to taste 1. In a large pot, heat the milk to 80ºC, stirring every once in a while to avoid possible scorching. If you don't have a thermometer, you'll have to use your senses: The milk just starts to give off faint steam that is accompanied by a very distinct "cooked milk" aroma. To be on the safe side, you can look for a very slight simmer as the "go" sign. 2. Turn off the heat and immediately mix in the vinegar using a large flat wooden spoon. The idea is to avoid disturbing the curd as much as possible, since vigorous stirring will break it apart into a crumbled mass. That said, the vinegar should be dispersed evenly in the milk so that the reaction can fully take place. This means you should gently spin in the vinegar and once you feel it has fully combined with the milk, stop stirring. The milk will start separating almost immediately. 3. Rest for at least 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes while the curd solidifies and floats to the top. The whey will look like a greenish, somewhat opaque liquid. 4. Line a colander with cloth (or use a fine mesh sieve) and strain away the whey, keeping the curd. Let the curd drain for 10 minutes so that most of the whey drips away. This means that if you poke at the curd, you shouldn't see puddles of whey in it, yet the consistency should still be soft enough to work the salt and spices in. 5. Add the spices and salt to taste. Gently knead in to combine, taste and adjust seasoning if needed. 6. If you don't care about the final shape, collect the cloth edges and seal them around the curd, creating a ball out of the curd. Keep twisting to squeeze out some of the whey. You don't want to squeeze it bone dry, just get most of the moisture out. Hang in the cloth for two hours and then transfer into a container and refrigerate. If you wish to shape the cheese, you'll need to improvise a mold. The easiest way is to find a plastic container in the shape you want, and punch little holes on the bottom for drainage. Once you've seasoned the curd, wrap the cheesecloth around to cover it well, and place it in the mold. Place a 2-3 kilo weight (such as a jar filled with water) and let it set for two hours. Remove from the mold, unwrap, and move to a storage container. 7. Eat as fresh as possible, but it will keep for a few days in the fridge. VARIATION Dry herb and chili 1. Replace the coriander with 3 Tbsp. mixture of dry herbs you enjoy (such as oregano, rosemary, basil, thyme, etc.). 2. Omit the garlic and add 1 dry chili, chopped.