In the final installment of our dairy workshop, we look at hard cheese, which is made using rennet as a coagulant. The title of this article is “Hard Cheeses” because all the hard cheeses in your urban deli are made in basically the same way, with only slight variations of temperature, time lapses, or aging times.
Unique varieties have developed in various parts of the world due to the unique bacteria and climatic conditions in each place. You can try to reproduce cheese by ordering freeze dried bacteria from a catalog, or you can develop your own cheese unique to your locale – or rather cheeses, for each one will have its own unique “personality”. The first rule of cheese making should be this: There is no such thing as a flop; there are only new types of cheese.
If you followed my mozzarella procedure in the last issue, you have a good start at making rennet cheese. Start with sweet milk (slightly sour also works), adding 1⁄4 tsp of liquid rennet to 4 gallons of milk, or 6 drops per gallon. Use clean, stainless steel containers and utensils to lessen the chance of strange bacteria entering it. Stir the rennet in well and let it sit until you have a clean break, as explained in the November article (issue 30, pg 29). Cut the curds and let them sit for a quarter hour or so. Now, at this stage you can make queso fresco or Spanish cheese, the kind commonly available in markets in Belize. Just skip the heating step and drain, salt and press your cheese as described, but for only a few hours. This will yield a softer, mild cheese that will not keep long.
But for a sharper, aged cheese, proceed: heat curds slowly, keeping well stirred, until they are rather warm, around 100 degrees F. Then keep them warm for an hour or so. Your curds will have become rather rubbery; they are ready to drain when a handful pressed packs together easily. Then drain in a colander. The reserved whey can also be used to make ricotta cheese, as described in November’s issue 30. Salt the curds using about 3 tablespoons of salt for a batch made from 4 gallons of milk. (This should approximate 4 lbs cheese.) Now your cheese is ready to press, which will expel the maximum amount of whey, making your cheese hard and preservable. To press your cheese, you may simply line your colander with a clean white cloth, place curds inside, wrap with the cloth, and place a plate and heavy weight on top, and a container underneath. Or you can make a more professional press with something like a short length of 6” PVC pipe with a couple of pieces of wood cut round to fit inside, placed above and below the cloth-wrapped cheese. Place in a cake pan with a wooden block or other object on top, to come above the top of the pipe. Then on top of that place a heavy weight, such as a 5 gallon bucket of beans or corn. This precarious stack should be leaned in the corner of your kitchen, so as not to topple over, but it still might. Your cheese, a living breathing organism, may start to puff up overnight and even throw off its shackles, but it will not run away and it will still be cheese. Before evening, the cheese should be redressed, meaning the cloth removed, cheese turned and rewrapped and returned to the press, at least once or twice. The next day, you should have a round, smooth, beautiful cheese. But don’t eat it yet! Now you can age it. Put it on a plate, cover carefully with a cloth (careful not let any flies land on it), and keep it in a warm, dry place for a week or so, turning it every day, until it develops a hard, dry yellow rind. If it begins to mold, wash it with whey or water and dry it some more. If you like milder cheeses, you can eat it now, or age it longer.
The best way to age cheese for longer periods, we have found, is to wax it. Beeswax, which can be purchased from your local beekeeper, works best. Melt it in a shallow dish like a pie pan. When liquid but not hot, dip every side of the cheese in the wax. Do this at least 3 times until the wax is thick enough to keep out the bugs. Now you can keep it for months! (After you peel off the wax, save it to remelt, strain and reuse.) Try 1 or 2 and see how you like it. If your cheese develops an offensive odor, due to some strange bacteria or yeast that entered unawares, remember rule #1: instead of despairing, carry it to your European neighbors, and see if they don’t dub it with a German or French name, declaring that they have not encountered such delicious cheese since their last visit home. Present it to them as a gift, reserving a small piece with which to broaden your family’s horizons. Then go home and make more cheese.