Thursday, October 24, 2013

Day 165 - Learning How to Make Cheese

I have never learned how to make cheese. As a person that has called the State of Wisconsin my home for more than 30 years, I always maintained a curiosity about the process used to create one of the celebrated staples of “the Dairy State.” Despite that fact, I never took time to pursue lessons on making cheese at any point in my life. In fact, I never even did research on how the cheese making process worked. As far as I was concerned, cheese makers took milk and bacteria and used delicious dairy magic to produce one of the best foods on the planet. Basically, I was ignorant as to where cheese came from, but I was more than happy to enjoy it whenever I possibly could.

Of course, as an inquisitive and curious person the idea of learning how to make cheese has always remained an item on my to-do list. Although I didn’t know how or when I would learn at first, I eventually found my “I have never...” year provided the perfect opportunity to finally pursue my long-term goal of learning how to make cheese. Luckily, I became aware of some cheese classes offered by a local business, Get Culture, which happens to be a business owned by Dave Potter, the father of my new Sister-in-law, Missy. With knowledge of my “I have never...” journey, Dave, Missy, and other members of the Potter family would encourage me to take a class on and off in the months since my “I have never...” year began. Although I reassured them I would sign up for a class eventually, I knew the experience would finally come when I encountered the perfect opportunity.

That opportunity came when I recently received notice of a Get Culture Cheese Making 101 class occurring toward the end of this week. Realizing it would fit perfectly into what has quickly become an “I have never...”week of celebrating food, wine, beer and Wisconsin, I tossed around the idea of dropping into the class as it approached. All I needed was a little encouragement to pull the trigger on the event, which came in abundance from the Get Culture crew when I ran into them at the Isthmus Food and Wine Show. As a result, I signed up for the class and prepared to learn another new craft this Thursday at the local Hyvee Club Room.

Dave starting the class
With the night of the class upon me, I found my way to the Hyvee club room after work today. Upon arriving, I was quick to notice a group of familiar faces among the crowd of people gathering around nearby tables. When I entered the room, Missy’s sister Katie happily met me with a smile, Dave gave me an enthusiastic greeting and a handshake between conversations with other students, and Valerie from the Get Culture crew struck up a conversation as she prepared for the night’s events. Moments later, Dave’s wife Cathy and their grandson Kieran walked into the club room and immediately called me out for a quick hello as they took a seat near the back of the room. As always, the Potters and their wonderful employees set the tone with their omnipresent warmth and amiable nature. To say I felt welcomed would be the biggest understatement. I was among good people with an unrivaled depth of knowledge in the art of cheese making, and as far as I was concerned, I couldn’t have found a better group to help me learn something new.

Moments after settling into my chair at one of the student’s tables, Dave took to the front of the room and began the class. Starting with a brief explanation of cheese making fundamentals, he worked through the basic ingredients needed to make milk into cheese. Describing their independent purposes, Dave explained the underlying science behind the cheese making actions and reactions caused by the ingredients at our tables. His delivery was concise but complete, and it helped explain the technical aspects of cheese making in a way that made simple sense. As someone completely unfamiliar with the process of making cheese, I found the information incredibly helpful, which gave me a boost of confidence as we moved closer to the hands-on portion of the class. I was still unaware of the finer details of the process, but I was developing a working knowledge that I knew we guide me through the process. As Dave wrapped up his introduction, I took a quick look over the class. The consistent looks of certainty and periodic head nods I observed among the crowd made it clear I wasn’t alone. As a class, we were ready to make some cheese.

The demo
With that, Dave moved to a small table at the back of the room, which contained a set of supplies identical to those on each of the student tables. As he continued his explanation of the cheese making process, Dave provided a demonstration of the first steps in separating milk into curds and whey. Indicating the perfect balance of heat, milk fat, and rennet were critical to gaining the appropriate consistency in the curd, Dave called on Kieran for some helping hands as he carefully mixed milk, buttermilk, rennet, and calcium chloride. As the duo worked, Dave advised us the curd would need time to set, which gave us an opportunity to start our own mixtures at our table.

With the other students already paired, I decided to start the process on my own. Realizing there was an opportunity to assist Kieran eagerly offered his help as I worked through the process. Happy to accept his offer, I offered him a seat and the two of us began reviewing our first steps. As directed, we carefully measured our milk and buttermilk and stirred the mix. With Kieran monitoring temperature, I proceeded to adding the rennet and calcium chloride to the mix, which almost immediately caused a change in the texture and consistency of the milk. Amazed, I sat back as the milk mixture smoothed and congealed into a glossy surface. In response to our progress, Dave passively reminded me to let it set untouched for a few minutes as he passed by our table on his way back to the front of the room. Thankful for the reminder, I turned my attention back to the demonstration table where Dave was preparing to walk the class through the next steps in the cheese making process.

Getting the assist from class helper Kieran
After asking the group to gather around his table, Dave proceeded to demonstrate how to test the consistency of the curd. In turn, he carefully cut into the surface of the curd and shifted his knife to test the break on the smooth white surface. Satisfied with the texture and thickness of his mixture, he then walked the class through the process of cutting the curd in preparation for its transition to cheese. The class watched on as he demonstrated a variety of cutting techniques with various tools, offering tips on how to get the best results with each technique. Confident I could follow his direction I returned to my table with Kieran and repeated the steps to test the curd. With Kieran’s excited approval of our results, I proceeded to cut the curd using the slicing techniques demonstrated by Dave. Periodic pointers from Katie, Valerie, and Dave helped guide me as I worked through the process, which resulted in a finely cut mixture of curds and whey. By all accounts, it appeared I was doing well with my first attempt at cheese making. All that was left to do was to cook the curd and press it into cheese.

Curds and whey
Another quick demonstration from Dave provided the insight we needed to work through the final phases of our cheese making process. Following his direction, the class gathered hot water for our independent cheese making efforts and returned to our tables to cook the cheese. Over the next 15 minutes we worked to raise the temperature of our mixtures to 115 degrees, which Dave advised us would firm the curd into a workable product. With Kieran offering me a helping hand, we slowly filled our mixing container with hot water, filtered out diluted whey, and added more hot water to advance the process. Eventually, our mixture hit the desired temperature, which spurred Kieran to enthusiastically announce we had to let it sit for ten minutes before we could get to the final step of forming the curd into cheese. With a nod of approval from Dave, I heeded Kieran’s words and took a step back from our mixing container. With my eyes fixed on the clock, I waited for the final opportunity to test the results of my first attempt at cheese making, hopeful I would walk away with some tasty results.

The class in the cooking process

Oh, my curds!

A short time later Dave let the class know we could proceed with the final process of draining our mixtures, condensing our curds, and cutting the product into cheese slices. Doing my best to ensure the best possible results, I carefully removed the curds from the remaining whey and placed them in draining baskets. Eventually, my effort proved successful, which moved me to the process of preparing an empty vessel for the curds to drain as they were pressed. After removing the remaining whey, I placed the baskets of curds in the empty mixing container and watched them slowly drain. Following Dave’s guidance, I cycled the baskets of curds in a stacked column and gently pressed them together. In a matter of minutes the curds compressed into two white discs maintaining the familiar appearance of cheese. Satisfied I had achieved my objective, I carefully removed the discs from their baskets and stacked them to be cut. Moments later, I had small rectangular chunks of cheese sitting on a plate before me ready to be consumed. The ease with which the final steps of the process came together caught me off guard in a way, but the results were undeniable... I had just made cheese.

Packed curds ready to cut

Kieran giving my salting technique a quick check

In celebration of our efforts, Kieran and I each grabbed a piece of the cheese and prepared to sample the outcome of our work. Without hesitation, I lifted the cheese and took a bite. The familiar creamy taste of high moisture cheese filled my mouth instantly, which caused me to nod my head in approval. In response, I offered Katie a slice as she passed. Happy to take me up on the offer, Katie took a small piece of the cheese and gave it a quick taste test. With a brief remark and a thumbs up, she gave me the Potter seal of approval, which was enough to make me deem my first attempt at making cheese a success.

Almost done

The finished product!
To wrap up our cheese making class, Dave and the Get Culture crew offered the class small seasoning samples to use on our cheese. Over the next few minutes we sampled the various flavors, which led me to load up my leftover pieces with some dill seasoning and some dried tomato and basil seasoning. After thanking Dave and the rest of the crew for an awesome experience, I grabbed my remaining cheese slices and head for the door. My persistent nibbling on the remaining slices of cheese on my drive home made it hard to define this “I have never...” event as anything but a terrific experience. When it was all said and done, I walked away from today’s class with a lot of new knowledge, the confidence to make cheese again in the future, and some delicious snacks for the coming week. I can’t ask for much more from an “I have never...” experience, and I have Dave and the Get Culture crew to thank for that. I guess it pays to know some awesomely cheesy people...

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