Posted by: edibleplanet | September 1, 2010

Blessed are the cheesemakers

Cheese in brine

Our cheese soaking in the brine

We have a fantastic next door neighbour. We hang out at each other’s houses from time to time, we BBQ, and we occasionally brew beer. We have named our brew ‘Summerstiejn’ (a portmanteu of our last names). It was one night while we were sitting around enjoying the fruits of our brewing labour that we got talking about cheese. You see, we’ve always had a hankering to make some. How hard can it be? It turns out that Lenny has also had a hankering to make some cheese, and being Dutch, he has the right heritage and all! So we decided to give it a go.

It would be rude not to make a Dutch cheese and because (according to Lenny) Gouda isn’t a very nice place, we settled on Leiden. We got a pile of books out of the library and read up on a few recipes. This is where we hit our first snag. All the recipes were different! Some of them were incredibly complicated, specifying the pressure the cheese needed to be pressed at (40lbs for 12 hours, turn the cheese and press for another 12 hours at 50lbs sort of stuff). Some of them just said “press the cheese overnight”. About the only thing that was consistent was the temperatures and I think this had more to do with not killing the helpful bacteria. We eventually settled on a middle-of-the-road approach.

First we had to order the special cheese bacteria from these guys. Some of the more simple cheeses don’t need a culture, but we needed it to make our cheese taste like gouda (sorry, leiden). The culture isn’t too expensive, and you get enough to treat 100 litres of milk! The culture is called Flora Danica and it’s a cocktail of specific helpful bacteria.

The next step was the milk. I know there is probably something wonderful about making cheese with milk fresh from the cow, purchased at a farm gate from a ruddy-cheeked farmer, but we’re urban cheesemakers, so we did what urban people do to get food. We bought ours from the supermarket—homogenised, 6 litres.

Now comes the actual cheese-making bit. Making cheese takes months, but almost all of it is waiting. The first bit is where all the hard work is (and, to be honest, most of that is waiting too!).

We heated the milk in a water bath to 32ºC and added our Flora Danica. We left it to sit for 30mins or so so the bacteria could de-freeze dry themselves and set to work turning the lactose in the milk into acid. Then we added some rennet—an enzyme that causes the milk to set like a giant white jelly. The curds get cut with a knife into 1cm cubes. This causes the milk to split into curds and whey. There is a phenomenal amount of whey released once you cut the curds up.

Following this was the tedious and slightly stressful process of ‘washing the curds’. This technique is important for the style of cheese we were making. You have to drain off a 1/3 of the whey, and replace it with warm water, trying to bring the temperature slowly up from 34ºC to 38ºC over half an hour or so. If you go too far then you kill all the bacteria, and cook your curds. This was easily the hardest bit, and I’m sure it just takes a bit of practice (and it wasn’t THAT hard really).

Once the curds were washed we strained them into a cheese-cloth lined colander and then packed them into some dinky wee gouda moulds we bought from trademe. Lenny had made a cheese press out of bits of timber with two huge Frankenstein bolts on the top, so we loaded the moulds into the press and cranked up the pressure. Light pressure for 10 minutes or so, then you turn the cheese over and press again with slightly more pressure. Whey pours out of them at first, then slows to a trickle, then drips. We pushed the pressure up quite high and left them overnight.

In the morning we had two perfect little wheels of leiden cheese. They went into a 20% brine solution for a few hours to start the rind forming, and to get some flavour into them. From here they go into the butter conditioner in the fridge to mature. It needs to be warmer than the fridge (about 10ºC) and reasonably high humidity (put a glass of water in there too).

They can be eaten any time after about 3–4 weeks, but if we can wait, they’ll be best after 3 months or so. Making cheese means you’re playing the long game! We have named our cheese Arkefield—the opposite portmanteu of our names, and a much better name for cheese.

At the end of our cheese adventure we discovered that making it is NOT hard. It’s actually pretty easy. In fact, we had started right in at the medium level. There are cheeses that are a lot easier to make than the lieden. If you want to get started grab a book from the library, some rennet, some milk and get cracking!

Have any cool cheese stories, recipes or hints for budding cheesemakers? Share them here!

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