The milk must have sat on the heat a little too long when I wasn’t paying attention–possibly just a few minutes past what it should have been, and I didn’t know. The lemon juice separated the curds like normal.
But when I dumped the whey through the cheesecloth, it caused the strands in the cheesecloth to break, creating a hole. I then had to replace the cheesecloth. That probably should have been my first indication that the batch was too hot, because that hadn’t happened before. But the cheese pressed under the pot full of water overnight and in the morning, when I tasted some it had a strange flavor to it; I almost thought at first that it had gone bad. I spit it out in the trash. Then, I realized what it was: burnt. And no good.
And it happened again a few days later, while trying to make a different kind of cheese. The milk didn’t seem like it was heating up at all, as an open window blowing in a damp Spring breeze caused the flames to scatter, so I kept turning the heat a little higher, then a little more. I sat down to read my cheesemaking history book, “Cheese and Culture”, and became immersed in tales of ancient Greek civilizations storing and trading different types of cheeses, and a group of explorers stumbling upon an island where they found a Cyclops making the most wonderful cheese (1).
It didn’t seem like that much time had passed, but I jolted myself thousands of years into the present to the pot on my stove. I discovered to my dismay that the batch was 14 degrees hotter than it should be. I needed to add a mesophilic culture (the non-heat loving one) and wasn’t sure that that much of a temperature increase would be alright for it; there must be a reason why the books specify 86 degrees and precisely that. It was fairly late at night and I didn’t want to wait for the batch to cool, so I decided to add ice cubes to the milk. It cooled down quickly to the desired temperature and I mixed in the culture, then the rennet after letting the culture set.
It sat overnight and in the morning, I pulled out the curds, which weren’t as nicely separated from the whey as they usually were and were more of a yogurt-y consistency, but they came out alright and held form in the cheesecloth as I strung them up to strain. I came back to them about 9 hours later, desiring to take some of my cheese at a party I was going to that night. When I opened the cheesecloth, the curds stuck to the sides and draped from the walls, in a way that wasn’t normal. As I started peeling them away, I discovered that the more firm exterior gave way to more gooey insides, like a Quark-y brie or something.
As I dumped it into a bowl, some whey still formed a film around the edges and the mixture was rubbery and damp, not the fluffy Quark of yore. I donned my head-lamp and walked it ceremoniously out to the backyard and to the compost bin through the fine mist that had pervaded throughout the day. The microbes of the compost would love it, as well as possibly a raccoon or squirrel, but it would not be making an appearance at the party.
Ah well. It is discouraging to mess up, but I have to remind myself that it’s part of the process. In a way, it’s kind of relieving because it proves that I still have much to learn and that is comforting, rather than discouraging: you want your hobby and your passion to keep you entranced and mystified, that’s what keeps you returning to it.
Broken shards of cheesemaking vessels, colanders and sieves found on temple floors… Throughout civilization, how many batches were ruined before mine? It took centuries for humans to perfect tools, domesticate animals, learn techniques. It’s all part of the process, and of our humanity.
(1) “Cheese and Culture” by Paul S. Kindstedt