Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A flood of milk, a wheel of cheese

And so the very warm days of May saw us committed to staying home and enjoying the life we were putting together on the farm.

The baby goats had been nibbling hay from the beginning but now they were really enjoying it. The result was that we had more milk for ourselves. Lots more milk. Streams and rivers of milk.

So it was time to start in earnest preserving it for the winter ahead, and that meant making cheese.

Each day, we would put what was left of the the morning milking, after the babies were fed, into half gallon bottles for us or those who were buying from us. And we would put what was left of the evening milking into a pot to make cheese.

The coagulant for the cheese was rennet that we bought at the drugstore. The bacteria to ripen the cheese and give it flavor would come from the air. 

We brought the milk back on the stove to a good temperature for the coagulant to work, about 110 degrees, then added the rennet dissolved in a small amount of water. Within a half hour or so the milk would begin to separate into curds and whey. By morning the separation was complete, and we'd cut the curd into inch cubes so even more whey could escape.

Meanwhile the bacteria were beginning to grow in the milk, changing its character in a way peculiar to each type of bacterium.

As long as we worked with meticulously clean pots and stirrers, and with fresh milk, we found only wholesome bacteria growing. But under less ideal conditions, the milk could produce yeasty or foul cheese. And sometimes if conditions were just right, we produced just curds with little bacteria and hence little good goat-cheese flavor.

After the curd was cut, it was time to put it in the collander. We used several layers of cheese cloth to retain even more of the curd while it was straining.

The mass of curds needed to sit for a while in the collander, usually several hours into the new day. Then we transferred it to a cheese press and cranked down on it. 

The press was a tube about 6 inches in diameter, with a disk that fit into it. A heavy wood screw could be cranked and made to press on the curds. Whey could leak out the bottom.

The harder we pressed it, the better it would keep and the harder texture it would have.

We made an effort to get most of the whey out of the curd. When we decided it was done, usually by the next morning - 36 hours after the process had begun - we took the wheel out of the cheese press, salted the outside to help preserve it, and put it in a plastic bag in the fridge. For many months we were able to produce a wheel a day.

Some went into the freezer. The texture was a bit crumbly after freezing, but perfectly good for a topping for spaghetti sauce or hot veggies.

At times we also left wheels out on the counter, and watched them closely for spoilage, rubbing salt on them each day as a preservative. If the cheese ripened at room temperature, or the warm temperatures of summer, they could ripen to a delicious flavor and smooth, firm texture. But the spoilage rate was high, and mostly kept it in the fridge to ripen.

We had plenty to eat, and plenty more to freeze for the winter ahead.

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