Thursday, June 17, 2010
My cheesemaking experience now stretches back almost three years. I have had some notable successes, and several notable failures. At last, I can now reliably produce chevre, queso fresco, and cheddar - which isn't bad considering the poverty of my equipment. One of my cheeses is even achieving some local fame - some of my friends ask for it by name. That would be my "Smokin' Goat Chilpotle Cheddar," a delicious, spicy, lightly aged cheese with chilpotle pepper flakes in it.
But to be honest, my cheesemaking is pretty much hit or miss. My recipe books say things like "hold the milk at 86 degrees for 18 hours." I don't know what kind of equipment they think I have, but I'm pretty sure they are imagining something more sophisticated than a stainless steel pot, a flexible cutting mat, and the oven-light. The rest of my equipment consists of a colander, some muslin, and a tall stack of heavy books. I do the best I can with what I've got and I'm willing to tolerate a fairly high degree of variability.
my cheesemaking equipment
This philosophy has so far resulted in a lot of delicious cheese, but it has not been very successful at producing specific, recognizable varieties of cheese beyond "soft" and "hard." Case in point: Quesillo.
Quesillo is a delicious, fresh, stretched-curd cheese (like mozzarella) indigenous to Oaxaca - in fact, if you are lucky enough to find it here in the states it will probably be labeled "queso oaxaqueno." It is most like string cheese in that it pulls apart into long shreds and melts beautifully. It is sold in long ropes wound into balls. My husband has been asking me to make it for him since the first time I made cheese.
Stretched-curd cheeses are difficult. There is a way to "cheat" with a microwave, but I don't own a microwave and anyway am far too much of a purist/snob to do it that way. Basically, stretched-curd cheeses are made the same way as other cheese up to the first draining, then they are plunged into very hot water or whey and massaged and kneaded until they become very smooth and elastic. Then they are pulled by hand into long ropes.
Sounds easy but it isn't. Since I have had a major milk-glut, I decided to begin experimenting. At any given time I have several gallons of milk and five or six pounds of cheese in the fridge - there's really no reason to be frugal. You gotta break a few eggs, right?
My first three attempts were total abject failures. Usually, any cheese can be salvaged, you just judge the texture and taste and then decide what to call it and how to use it. I tried for creamy and spreadable and got crumbly instead? That's okay, just call it "salad crumbles" and proudly say "I meant to do that." It's goat cheese; it all tastes good.
Well not this time. My attempts at quesillo were completely unsalvageable. Only the dog enjoyed the results. I was frustrated and confused. I thought I was following the recipe. Annoyed, I decided to let it go for a while and go back to something I knew and make some more cheddar. Oddly enough, it was this batch that turned into quesillo. I left the burner on low instead of turning it off and ended up with a very thick, tough curd. When I tried to cut it, it didn't cut cleanly, so I drained it on one solid piece.
Something about the way the drained curd looked made me decide to try one more time... so I heated up the whey to a temperature lower than boiling but hotter than "ouch" and plopped the curd back into it to poach.
I stirred the curd with a wooden spoon for fifteen or twenty minutes, and it began to get stretchy and droop off the spoon like Dali's clocks. Then I got out a clean bowl and placed the curd in it and scooped hot whey over it and began to knead it like dough. Yes, it was very very hot and my hands were poaching too. I got out another bowl and filled it with ice water so I could dip my hands in it when they started to feel like the skin was about to peel off. I kneaded for oh I'm going to say thirty minutes, frequently returning the curd to the hot whey for another bath.
After a while, I saw that when I picked up the curd out of the hot whey it began to stretch more and more. That's when I started to pull it like taffy, folding it over on itself and pulling, folding and pulling, and dipping it in the hot whey whenever it started to lose elasticity. I broke it up into smaller clumps and pulled each one into a long string and then laid it out on the cutting board to salt it. When it was salted, I rolled it up into balls, just like the balls sold in the 20 de Septiembre market in Oaxaca.
Well, almost like that. My skills are not refined enough to produce really thin strands or really round balls, but it WAS recognizably quesillo and it WAS good.
My next batch, however, was another throwaway. I'm trying again tonight. Consistency is the hard part - it always is. It was when I was playing pool and playing chess and it was when I was painting and it certainly is the hard part of parenting and it probably always will be the hard part of all my endeavors. On the other hand, as my favorite English teacher in high school, Mr. McAllister reminded us, "Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."