I read the directions repeatedly and watched the accompanying video a half dozen times. I practiced some visual imagery of lovely curd formation and shiny pulled mozzarella. I studied my cheese making book and decided to take a careful, scientific approach to this. I would keep meticulous notes, wear an apron with an air of professionalism.
I brought the milk to temperature and added rennet, then waited for the chemical reaction of curd formation. This took about ten times longer than the directions optimistically said it would. Then I carefully cut and drained the curds and reheated them, pulling the whole mess like taffy to get it smooth and elastic. With the first batch I went old school and used the hot water bath method to heat the drained curds. It was a loser. I don’t think the water ever got the cheese hot enough to stretch properly. It turned into a rubbery ball that any dog in the neighborhood would fight for. And it was, to me, bland.
Larry cut a slice off of the mutant white blob and popped it in his mouth. “That’s good!” he said. “What’s wrong with it?” I hadn’t gotten the cheese salt into it and it took on the consistency of bathtub caulk. Grade: D
Undaunted, I tried another batch a week later. The curds took an inordinate amount of time to form, again. But this time I used the microwave method to heat the cheese to stretch, and it was working well – in incremental sessions it was taking on that coveted shiny, smooth baby-bottom texture – until I got greedy and nuked it a few seconds too long and it suddenly turned mushy and grainy, disintegrating in front of my very eyes. I stirred it and poked at it and swore at it, and proclaimed it ricotta. As mozzarella, I gave it an F, as ricotta, B+. Larry used it in some homemade eggplant parmesan, where it served us well. A good tomato sauce covers a multitude of sins.
Larry hit up a dairy farm friend for a gallon of his unadulterated milk, fresh from the cow. Wiser now, I laid out all my tools in order of need, purchased some different rennet, approached the curds with an air of authority. They formed in a shorter time and better structure. I got some salt in it and heated it in the microwave in microscopic segments. It stretched and formed into something almost resembling two logs. The texture was pretty good and the taste not bad. Grade: B
Encouraged by these moderate successes, I was jonesing to try some easy cheddar, something that had to be pressed and formed, something that required equipment not yet in my arsenal. So I went back to the big cheese making book and looked up directions for fromage blanc, an uncomplicated soft cheese akin to cream cheese. It required a culture which I purchased (I went from “guest user” to “welcome back, Beti!” on the cheese supply website) and some temperature finesse. It had to sit in the pot “at 72 degrees for 6 hours.” I wasn’t sure how to do that in a drafty farmhouse heated with wood. The woodstove is not exactly a steady temperature generator. I spent the next 6 hours moving the pot from location to location in the house, a digital thermometer tied to the lid, trying to find a spot that was reasonably close to 72 degrees and somewhat consistent. Much to my surprise, the curds formed beautifully, which I then cut and wrapped up in cheesecloth. Now it had to drain at 72 degrees for 12 hours. I finally hung the bag from a living room rafter, low to the floor, above a pot, about three feet away from the woodstove. It was as reasonable as I could get, and it would have to do.
I may have to add a cheese press to my Christmas list.