At this time a few weeks ago, I was probably shoveling gouda curds from a 5-gallon vat to a mould before pressing. An hour or two later, my classmates and I would be elbow-deep in stainless steel bowls trying to delicately stretch mozzarella and form it into those perfect little balls you see in the stores; a process that is harder than you’d think.
I was attending an all-day cheesemaking workshop in a Northern suburb of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, called Mequon. My boyfriend and I had driven in the night before and settled in at a Motel 6 not too far away, and about a mile from Lake Michigan. My boyfriend dropped me off at “The Cheesemaker” Steve Shapson’s elegant home tucked in the woods outside Mequon at 10 AM that morning. He would explore the area for the day while I did my workshop, as he’d have to pay the workshop fee if he wanted to attend. He would join us at 6 PM for a wine- and cheese-tasting, which was open to friends and family.
I was greeted by Steve’s cheerful wife as I entered through the garage and into their finished basement, which was set up with lines of tables holding 5-gallon stainless steel vats, pots, pans, moulds, and presses: the cheesemaker’s essentials. She directed me to a table where there were folders, a note pad and name tags for everyone attending the workshop. I found mine and put on my name tag, which listed where I was from underneath. I spied others’ on the table: there were even two people from Hawaii!
I was greeted by Steve, a smallish, semi-serious man with a twinkle in his eyes. He’d been in home-brewing and had apparently owned a shop before discovering cheese in the late ’90s. He eventually started “The Cheesemaker” (www.thecheesemaker.com), an online cheesemaking supply and information center. He prides himself on being available to cheesemakers for any questions they might have; indeed, I’d been struggling with one of my cheeses at one point during this past year and when I called, he’d answered immediately and had given me a prompt suggestion.
The walls of the basement were decorated with beautiful framed paintings of different cheeses and displayed the certificates he’d received upon completing a cheesemaking workshop in Vermont. I chatted with the other workshop attendees while we waited for the rest of the group to arrive. There were 15 of us total: most were middle-aged couples from the Midwest, but there were a few who had travelled a good distance, like the couple from Hawaii (“there isn’t really any other workshop of this kind anywhere else,” the man from Hawaii stated), a couple from Utah, and another group from Oklahoma and Florida. “We’ve had people from all around the world,” Steve informed us as made introductions.
He asked some starter questions to get a feel for where the group was at with cheesemaking and I discovered that I was one of the more “experienced” of the bunch, in that I had previously done some cheesemaking; most were attending to workshop out of general interest, or for a fun weekend excursion, it seemed. One woman was a sales representative for a specialties company; her company was paying for her to attend the workshop, which was part of her pre-coursework leading up to taking the Certified Cheese Professional exam offered by the American Cheese Society, which she would do at the annual conference in Des Moines, Iowa, this July. The company she works for is also paying for her to complete that–what a sweet gig!
That day, Steve would be walking us through making the following cheeses: Camembert/Baby-Brie, Blue, Gouda, Cheddar, Chèvre, Feta, Butter, Mozzarella, Whey Ricotta, and yogurt. We first followed Steve around to each of the different vats filled with milk he got from local farms (goat’s milk for the chèvre and cow’s milk for the rest) to heat the milk and add cultures as each of the different cheeses needed (except butter, yogurt and whey ricotta, which require different processes and which we would do later).
We let them sit as the milk was inoculated. The cheeses don’t start off that much different from one another, save for some different cultures used and temperatures. Added processes and molds will later create the difference between them. Steve fielded any questions we had then shared various cheesemaking anecdotes such as milk temperature range for most cheeses is 86-92 degrees Fahrenheit; Mesophilic cultures are used in cheeses heated up to but not exceeding 102 degrees and Thermophilic cultures are for heat-loving cheeses, whose temperatures need to be greater than 102 degrees, though he says that if you don’t have one on hand, the other one will still work. Acidity is raised the longer the milk sits at a certain temperature.
After waiting an hour or so for the cultures to inoculate the milk, we went around and added rennet to all of the vats, as needed. I believe we used all animal rennet: Steve explained that vegetable rennet can be used for fresh cheeses, but shouldn’t be used in hard cheeses aged over 3 months, as they won’t hold up as well. We added some Annatto (a natural coloring used to make cheeses orange) to the Cheddar vat.
We sat down in the living room area as the rennet set the milk, keeping our eyes on the clock, as Steve said it’s best to cut the curds as soon as you’re able to achieve a “clean break”: when you put a utensil into the curd and it sloughs off clean, like jello. Steve started going around the room, asking us what our particular needs for cheesemaking were, but he soon got up to check on the gouda vat and discovered that he had a clean break. The next one did too, and then the next one, as well. So he dragged a nifty utensil composed of 1×1-inch square holes through the vats and we all took turns stirring the chunks of curd in the whey. He informed us that the longer you stir the curds, the more whey is released.
As the Gouda had many more steps at 10-minute intervals and such than the other cheeses, he suggested we appoint a “Gouda Manager”. I was directly in front of him and eagerly raised my hand and he handed the directions to me: Stir curds for 10 minutes, add water, stir for 10 minutes, allow curds to settle for 10 minutes, remove 1/3 of the whey and replace it with water, stir curds. Allow curds to sit for 20 minutes. Collect curds into mould for pressing.
Steve had some of the other attendees scoop curds into a number of small moulds for the Camembert/Baby Brie, Feta, Chèvre, and Blue cheeses. And possibly the most interesting thing I learned in the workshop is the process of “cheddaring”: repeatedly cutting and stacking the curds, which further releases whey and raises the acidity of the cheese, creating that sharp “cheddar” flavor.
We paused for lunch, and I ventured through the walk-out basement door into the beautiful backyard which was a mass of walking paths framed with gardens, streams, a pond with fish, leading back to bee hives where Steve keeps the bees who make the honey he sells. I chatted with Steve’s wife a little, who was tending the garden, then the specialties sales representative joined us and I got to hear more about her work.
We reconvened after about a half hour, finishing scooping the curds into moulds and cutting and re-stacking the cheddar. Steve has a pH meter to check that the cheddar’s pH was lowering, but he says such a tool isn’t necessary; one just needs to follow the directions and taste the cheese, which should take on a “tangy” flavor.
Another cheese that requires a similar low pH is Mozzarella. To raise the acidity, one needs to add either citric acid or a lactic starter culture, or a combination of both (using only a lactic starter culture takes a lot longer than using citric acid, or using both). Warm half of the milk to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, add starter culture and let sit for an hour or two. Add citric acid dissolved in water to the other half of milk that was kept cold, then add this to the warmed, cultured milk, and heat to bring the temperature back up to 90 degrees. Add the rennet and allow to set until a clean break is achieved.
While we were waiting for the rennet to set the Mozzarella, Steve showed us how to make butter, which is so surprisingly easy, I can’t believe I haven’t done it before! To make, simply pour cream into a food processor and mix. The cream will whip into a thick froth for about 10 minutes before suddenly, as if by magic, separating from the whey! We scooped the gooey, oily mass from the whey, formed it into balls to get out any extra whey then placed it in a nifty hand-made wooden butter mold. And voila, you have butter! (I even took some of the buttermilk–the expelled liquid–home, which I later used to make Paneer!)
By now, the rennet had set the mozzarella curds and it was time for them to be cut. They were stirred until sinking, then pulled from the whey and divvied out into stainless steel bowls placed in front of each of us, which were filled with hot (175-185 degrees!) water. Now, we could stretch our mozzarella and form it into bite-sized balls; some people even braided theirs. My water, though initially hot to the touch, was cooling rapidly, too quickly for my inexperienced hands. My balls came out looking choppy and weird, not like the perfect round globes you see in supermarkets. Steve explained that mozzarella makers must work fast in order to achieve desired results.
Lastly, we took the whey we’d siphoned from the other cheeses (though the whey from the high acid cheeses such as chèvre could not be used) and started heating it to make Whey Ricotta. This is a great “whey” to use a “waste” product, a substance most typically poured down the drain. Whey is also good for plants in the garden and fed to animals, especially pigs. When the temperature of the whey reaches 190-200 degrees Fahrenheit, simply add citric acid or vinegar, stir, then strain through a mesh bag.
We were all fairly tired from being on our feet all day, and since we had about an hour and a half left before the wine and cheese tasting, we watched a short film about “The Cheese Nun”, Noella Marcellino, who lives in a convent in rural Connecticut where she and some of the other nuns make raise dairy cows and make cheese. Desiring a stronger connection to the modern world, Noella and others pursued degrees from the University of Connecticut, where she eventually obtained her doctorate in Microbiology studying the rinds of cheeses.
The workshop wound to an end as we ventured upstairs to the wine- and cheese-tasting. A table set with a assortment of cheeses from around the world sat in the dining room nestled within a beautiful bow window looking out upon the garden. We ventured around the table, taking turns trying different cheeses from Bries to a 20-year-old cheddar to Steve’s own! We sipped wine and visited before returning to our hotels for the night.
The next morning, my boyfriend and I got up at 5 AM to drive the mile to Lake Michigan to catch the sunrise over the lake, which was phenomenal. We went back to the hotel for a few more hours of sleep before going back to Mequon later that morning to pick up the cheeses I had made and started at the workshop, plus my CHEESE PRESS!!! Let the cheesemaking begin! … or continue.