Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Cheese Fell Down . . . Went Boom!

It turns out that success in the water-bath cooking portion of cheese making is crucial in getting the curds to hold together. After 24 hours of pressing--that's 12 hours on one side, flip and 12 hours on the other--when we removed the curds from the mold and attempted to peel away the cheesecloth, the curds crumbled to bits.
So we're back to square one. Buy two more gallons of whole milk and begin again. But that's okay. This is how you learn. Sad to say, but usually your own mistakes will teach you more than the mistakes of others. That's not so bad when you're talking about mistakes in the kitchen, but devastating if you're talking about something like, say, war!

The good news is, that mass of pressed curd tastes yummy. In a scant 24 hours, it has already gained the sharpness of a good cheddar. So we'll enjoy it, crumbled into omelettes and over frittatas. And right off the board, eaten with our fingers.

How many of life's mistakes are this good?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Blessed Are the Cheese Makers

Andy and I bought a cheese making kit yesterday and spent this evening fashioning our inaugural cheese, a farmhouse cheddar.

As we worked, Cosmo and Blaze both danced around under our feet and paraded about the kitchen, meowing their admiration for shared milk and milk products. They got samples all along, just like we did.

As the curds cooked slowly in their water bath--which is pretty tricky for a beginner to manipulate properly--Andy gently broke them up so they didn't turn into an unruly mass. (In case you're wondering, the apron says, "Don't make me poison your food." We don't tend to wear that one when we have company over for dinner.)

Ladling the curds into the cheesecloth for draining. After all these years of using cheesecloth, it's cool finally getting the chance to use it for the purpose for which it was originally created!

Draining the curds to get rid of the extra whey--which we will use to make ricotta. It's great getting a second cheese from this enterprise.

Mixing fine salt into the curds. If you're a seasoned cheese maker, you'll note that these curds are too small. Beginner's mistake--we let the water bath get too warm too fast. We'll see if this affects either flavor or texture in the long run.

The curds in their mold rest under 20 pounds of pressure--actually, a little more. Yes, those are hand weights and a can of tomatoes. It's smart to use what you have on hand before investing in a proper cheese press, just in case you discover you really don't enjoy making cheese.

While the future-cheddar did its initial draining, we simmered the remaining whey, skimmed the second batch of curds and made ricotta from that. The first taste told us it would be great for breakfast, so we mixed in some sugar seasoned with vanilla, cinnamon and cardamom and popped it into the fridge.

Of course, we dirtied up every implement in the kitchen and got in each other's way and probably did at least a dozen things in the least efficient way possible, but that's okay. This is our foray into cheese making. The more you do anything, the better you get at it. And we both feel like this is something we'll want to do again and again and again . . . So eventually, we'll streamline the operation and--we hope--begin producing cheese like pros.

As the mass of curds sits beneath its homemade press overnight, we keep sneaking peeks at it, resting securely in the laundry room, so the cats can't get at it. It's
like a first time bread baker admiring the dough as it rises.

Ah, there's such wisdom to be gleaned from The Life of Brian. Andy and I do feel blessed to be trying something new, that promises to yield a tasty and rewarding product in the end. And we feel blessed to be having a good time working on this project together. Yes indeed, blessed are the cheese makers!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Getting Autumn the Best Way We Can

Here in Southern California we don't get much change in the leaves until AFTER Christmas. And seeing nature's orange, red and gold confetti in January sits a little oddly--it's like seeing Christmas decorations in April or lots of American flags at Halloween. (Of course, with the general election falling just four days after Halloween this year, I guess we will be experiencing the orange & black/red, white & blue eyeball disconnect soon.)

This past weekend, Andy and I cruised up the coast to enjoy a change of scenery and celebrate our anniversary away from the crush of LA busy-ness. Along the way we stopped at Underwood's, our favorite place to pick up fresh produce when we're making a jaunt to the country.

They do a good job this time of year of making you think it's actually autumn, or at least the kind of autumn people get in other parts of the country. The kind of autumn I really miss. So stopping here was necessary, even if we didn't need to buy anything (of course, we brought a cooler and packed it with fruits and veggies).

The place was covered in pumpkins, Indian corn (do they call it Native American corn now?) and gourds of all types, including some quite peculiar ones, the likes of which I've never seen.

I just had to bring some of them home. These two look rather like birds nesting in my bumble bee bowl. They're curious enough that I might have to keep them around even after the harvest season has passed. Maybe I'll make tiny Santa hats for them to wear . . .

This trip was one of those we occasionally indulge in with a full tank and an empty agenda. Only after we started our drive did we decide to do some wine tasting in Los Olivos, in Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley. This hamlet has a number of tasting rooms to choose from, so we stopped at the one with the sleeping cat on the porch. To my mind, that's a better indicator of a good place to sip wine than simply picking one with any mention of the movie Sideways posted outside. (Yes, there are still people who visit the area looking for a tasting room that will allow them to recreate the film's infamous spit bucket scene for their camera-wielding friends.)

Of course, tasting led to buying, which led to planning meals with which to enjoy the wines we selected. The syrah we'll pull out next time we put pork ribs into the smoker. That should happen soon, now that the evenings are getting cool, and smoky rich flavors beckon. The riesling was a surprise purchase, because neither of us are fans of sweet wines. This one is unusual, though, because it's sweet and yet minerally. We're eager to see what kinds of foods it will pair well with. I'm betting it will be pretty versatile. And the port, well, we went back and forth with the port. I leaned toward the tawny, which would pair well with salty cheeses, and Andy leaned toward the ruby, with its chocolate-loving potential. Finally we settled on the ruby, since we knew we had some tawny left at home.

One of Los Olivos' galleries has an outdoor sculpture gallery, which includes this fine lass in all her whisk-haired splendor. I don't think L'Oreal can help her, even if she IS worth it.

After prowling the business district with its abundance of galleries, we went for dinner, which finished the job of putting us in the mood for fall. Andy's pumpkin papardelle with duck confit, toasted walnuts, dried mission figs and sage beurre noisette helped us bid goodbye to summer's light salady fare. The heft of the duck, pasta and figs and the richness of their flavors paired well with the warm syrah in his glass and the cool stirring of the autumn air around our table out on the restaurant porch.

Mushrooms always remind me of cool weather, so the portobello layered with pecan caviar and gruyerre, baked in a crust and served on a bed of wilted spinach with a port jus, was just what I required--sweet, salty and earthy with a slight kick from the jus and a grating of lemon peel. And it looked so amazing that I heard each diner who passed behind me ask their server, "What IS that!?"

It was a good meal, a good drive, a good day and a great way to spend time with my favorite person. Autumn excursions always seem to be the best. We tend to luxuriate in the golden light and linger over wine and conversation, talking about trips past and things we'd like to do--or do again. The walks seem more leisurely and the times, somehow more special. I don't know what it is about autumn that makes these things so, but it does, at least for me.