Category Archives: Cheese

How to make cream cheese

How to Make Cream Cheese

How to make cream cheese

Edible Books, our new twitter-based book club, has been reading Make the Bread, Buy the Butter, by Jennifer Reese.

As soon as I read the section on homemade cream cheese, I was hooked.  I skimmed the recipe and found nothing that seemed beyond my rudimentary cheese making abilities.  The book promised that the cream cheese would be less than half the cost of Philadelphia cream cheese.  It promised tangy.  I daydreamed of Saturday morning bagels spread thickly with luscious cream cheese.  I threw a cheering crowd into the picture for good measure.

I made my shopping list: liquid rennet, mesophilic culture, half-and-half.

I had to wait until Friday to make a trip to the home brew store, my local source for cheese-making supplies, to pick up the rennet and culture.  The homebrew store is a warren of delightful tubes, bottles, packets, and other mysterious stuff.  I quickly found my supplies in the refrigerator case.

The supplies rung up at $14.90.  It’s not like you can just buy three drops of rennet, after all.  Not until this moment had I really considered the front-end costs of this project, the fact that I actually rarely eat cream cheese and thus will be unlikely to recoup the cost of said supplies any time soon, nor the slight problem that I was soon going to have at least a pound of perishable cream cheese on my hands.

I quickly dismissed the $15.00 from my mind.  I’d make something eventually with the rest of the supplies.  Maybe everyone will be getting cream cheese for Christmas!  In fact, maybe a few select friends will be getting cream cheese this weekend.

At the grocery store, I put two quarts of organic half-and-half in my cart.  $4.39 each.  I glanced across the aisle at the 8-oz boxes of Philadelphia Cream Cheese: $2.79. Organic Valley Cream Cheese: $3.45.  Hmm.

Back home, I gathered my copy of Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll, lined a colander with cheese cloth, laid out my supplies, and placed a stockpot on the stove.  Then I read through the recipe, stopping at “let sit at room temperature for 12 hours”.  I glanced at the clock: It was 1:56 pm.  We would not be having bagels and cream cheese for breakfast.  I put the half-and-half in the refrigerator.

Later that evening, around 9:00 pm: I heated my cream to a precise 86 degrees, stirred in the starter and rennet, covered the pot, and set it aside.

Saturday morning, 10:00 am: I lifted the lid.  The cream had set into one solid curd, and smelled delicious and fresh—rather like cream cheese in fact.  I scooped the curd into a cheesecloth lined colander and let it drip during breakfast.  Then I tied the cheesecloth into a bag, suspended it over the pot, and left it for the day.

How to make cream cheese

Saturday evening, 9:00 pm: The cheese had stopped dripping whey, and was reduced in volume.  I untied the bag, and turned the cream cheese into a bowl.

The cheese was light and creamy.  I spread some on a cracker.  It tasted fresh, a little tangy, and much, much better than store bought cream cheese.

Sunday morning: we spread cream cheese lavishly on our bagels and enjoyed every bite.

How to make cream cheese

Here’s the breakdown:

Liquid Rennet: $7.95

Mesophilic Culture: $6.95

2 quarts Organic Half & Half: $8.78

Total: $23.68

1-8 oz package of Organic Valley Cream Cheese: $3.45.

It took very little active time to make the cream cheese, but the considerable waiting time pretty much mandates that this be a weekend activity.  And it’s hardly cost effective.

But an objective analysis misses all the intangible reasons that it is still worthwhile to make your own cream cheese, at least once.  There is the fun of a trip to a specialty store.  The silkiness and the scent of warm cream as you stir it.  The magic of cream becoming curd while you sleep.  The plink, plink of whey dripping throughout the day, like a metronome or a heartbeat.  The single-focus zen approach that cheese making requires—multitask at your peril.

And perhaps most importantly, which kind of person do you want to be?  The kind who always analyzes before deciding?  Or the kind of person who tries new things with enthusiasm and a willingness to enjoy the process, succeed or fail?

I’d rather be the person who makes the cream cheese.

Cream Cheese

(adapted from Home Cheese Making and Make the Bread, Buy the Butter)

  • 2 quarts pasteurized half-and-half
  • 1 packet direct set mesophilic starter
  • 3 drops liquid rennet, diluted in 1/3 cup unchlorinated water
  • 1 tsp kosher salt

Heat the cream to 86F.  Add the starter and mix thoroughly.  Add 1 tsp of the diluted rennet and stir gently with an up-and-down motion.  Cover the pot and let sit at room temperature for about 12 hours.  A solid curd will form.

Pour the curd into a colander lined with cheesecloth.  Tie the corners of the cheesecloth into a knot and hang the bag to drain for up to 12 hours, or until the cheese is thickened and no longer dripping.

Stir in salt.  Scoop into a container and store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator.  Use within 1-2 weeks.

Yield: about 1 pound.

There have been picnics

There have been picnics, but not enough.

There was an afternoon at the beach with the setting sun unfurling a spangled ribbon across Puget Sound, and lazy Sundays watching the sailboats on Lake Union, and time spent lying on a blanket staring up into the fluttering leaves of summer trees.  We ate on restaurant patios every chance we got.

But I haven’t gotten full use out of the hammock for this year, and we haven’t grilled enough, and frankly, I am not ready for fall just yet.

I need just a few more weeks of sunshine.

At the farmer’s market this Saturday, it was obvious that we are teetering on a razor’s edge between summer and fall.  The sunshine warmed the top of my head.  There were still berries, but more apples and pears.  Boxes of gourds cozied up next to piles of sweet corn.

This is the time of year when tomatoes come into their own in Seattle.  After a long, cool summer, we finally have tomatoes of every color, heavy and fragrant, filled with warmth and sunlight.

These juicy heirloom tomatoes are fragile.

The utmost care is needed to get them home without splitting, and they will not tolerate long storage.  The simplest preparation is the best way to enjoy the range of heirloom tomato flavors—some tart, others sweet or mild.

These tartines are made with only a few ingredients, so don’t skimp on the quality of the bread and mozzarella.  And hurry before tomato season is over.

Late Summer Tartine

  • Close grained French bread, sliced
  • Sliced Heirloom Tomatoes
  • Fresh Mozzarella
  • Basil leaves
  • 3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • salt
  • freshly ground pepper

Run bread under the broiler to toast lightly on the top side only.  Layer slices of tomatoes, thinly sliced mozzarella cheese, and basil leaves.  Stir oil and vinegar together, then drizzle lightly over tartines.  Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper.

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The True Alchemy

Last week I attended an event that was so unexpected and interesting that I want to tell you all about it.  It started with an email promoting some upcoming Penthouse Symposium events at the Sorrento Hotel in Seattle.  One of these was an author event, billed as follows:

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, author of Harlem is Nowwhere. April 20th. 7pm.

In conversation with Nick Licata, Charles Mudede, and Sandra Jackson-Dumont.

Topic: Sharifa’s new book: Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America.

$40/person, includes a hearty stew and a copy of Harlem is Nowhere.


 Although I wasn’t familiar with the author, it sounded interesting.  So off we went–me and my friend Kay, who is always up for an adventure.  We really didn’t have any clear expectations for this event.  The Sorrento is pleasantly old school, we like book readings–oh, and there would be stew?

After some preparatory cocktails and a cheese plate in the Fireside Room, we made our way up to the penthouse.

Long tables were set for dinner, there was a bar in the corner, and large windows framed sunset city views.

The room filled with an eclectic crowd, and the noise level quickly increased to an astonishing level.  Conversation, laughter, clinking glasses, the space crackled with a contagious electricity.

Finally the chef, Michael Hebb, stepped forward and gave a game plan for the evening.  He talked about bringing people together around the table.  He told us that he had decided at the last minute to change the promised bowl of stew into an entire meal.

Platters of spicy garbanzo beans, an endive salad, matzo bread, and chunks of tender lamb circulated family style.  Conversation crescendoed again over dinner.  We were seated next to a couple who had recently travelled through China, and were planning a trip to Bhutan.  Another tablemate shared anecdotes from her career as a private investigator.  I caught snatches of conversation over my shoulder, from a dapper elderly gentleman who expressed his admiration for Angelina Jolie’s lips.

Fatal Lucciauno, a local Hip Hop artist, got up and gave a quick a cappella performance, full of poetry and shining with simple authenticity.

Then the author, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, read from her book, Harlem is Nowhere.

Her posture as easy and polished as her elegant voice, she read to us and it was lyrical, musical, hypnotic.  When she finished there was a hush, then applause.

As we nibbled on pastries and chocolates, the panel discussion commenced, not the ping-pong of a debate, but a more leisurely game of verbal croquet, each member examining the lay of the conversational ball and taking a swing at it from their own unique angle.

There was a sparkle to the entire evening, a magic created from a diverse crowd, intellectual curiosity, good conversation, and a beautiful setting.  But I think the true alchemy was from bringing people together around a table.  The exquisite comfort of good food and the connection of passing dishes from hand to hand opened and eased and made way for an almost palpable sense of connection in the room.

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Solvitur Ambulando

Solvitur ambulando–the solution comes through walking.  This is the motto that we adopted for our five day, 50 mile walking trip through the Cotswolds.  Whether writing a story, climbing a rock wall, putting the garden in, or dealing with life’s inevitable challenges and heartbreaks–sometimes there isn’t much else one can do.  Just put one foot in front of the other.  Keep going, one step at a time.  You don’t need to see the finish line, you just need to show up, then pick one foot up and put it down again.

And that’s what we did.  No multitasking, no rushing, no traffic, nothing but walking.  We walked through meadows alight with butterflies, fields of sheep and cows, shimmery green forests where Robin Hood surely waited just around every bend, along endless dry stone walls and hedgerows, up billygoat tracks and down shady country roads.

Everywhere, the villages were made of the local honey-colored stone.  We investigated gardens and barrows, Roman ruins and castles.  We talked, and we were silent.  We stopped to stare, and take pictures, and apply bug spray while whirling and flapping our hands at black flies, and to have a rest and some water.  Sometimes we puffed up hills like ailing funiculars.  Sometimes we strode like we owned the world.  The only objective: find the next way mark.  The finish line: a dot on the map where we would have our next meal, a hot shower and a real ale and a bed at the end of the day.

As lunch or dinnertime approached, we would crest a hill and catch sight of a church spire and we knew that we were within reach of a meal that we had fairly earned with miles of steady walking.  It was good to enter the local pub, drop our packs and wash our hands, to look around at the dark wood paneled walls and the dart board and many-paned windows.  We would go up to the counter and order our meals and then sink wearily into chairs.

I went to England with a long list of things I wanted to experience.  A Ploughman’s Lunch was high on that list.

The Ploughman was present on every pub menu, and the essentials were: bread, cheese, and pickle.  Simple, but delicious.  The details varied a bit from place to place however–stilton or cheddar or brie, salad or coleslaw, milder or sharper pickles, mustard, maybe chutney.  Oh, the glorious cheeses!  Fuel for a ploughman, fuel for a long walk.

And when your day has been honed down to the essentials, and when the cheeses are not an afterthought or an appetizer, but the star of the meal, and when you are really truly hot and tired and hungry, coated with sunscreen and bug spray and dirt, and completely relaxed and a little euphoric from sunshine and fresh air, nothing, nothing could be better than a Ploughman’s lunch washed down with a half-pint of local ale.

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The Cheese Humidor

I’m worried.  Worried about the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, to be exact.  It starts, as these things do, innocently enough.  I’m reading a book called The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.  The book is a fascinating look at what would happen to the planet Earth if all of the humans suddenly disappeared.  How long it would take for manmade structures to crumble, how the vegetation would change, what animal populations would do.  Projections of the incredible lengths of time required for many toxins to be broken down are sobering.  

But things get worse from there.   The author tells the story of Captain Charles Moore of Longbeach, CA, who sailed into the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a high pressure vortex of swirling currents between Hawaii and California, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  It took him a week to sail across, plowing his way through floating garbage, overwhelmingly composed of plastic: fishing nets, plastic pellets from manufacturing, plastic wrap, but mostly plastic bags. 

And it just continues to get worse.  Not only is the plastic there, it is sponging up toxins like DDT and PCBs in wildly concentrated doses, which are then being ingested by sea animals.  By 2005, the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre measured 10 million square miles–nearly the size of Africa.  There are also 6 other ocean gyres. 

By this time, I’m feeling a depressing sense of personal responsibility.  I recycle, but most plastic bags aren’t readily recyclable.  And I do use plastic bags—in the freezer, to carry fruit to work, but especially for my cheese.  I typically buy three or four kinds of cheese at once, and eat them gradually over the course of a week or two.  Individual Ziploc bags seem to provide the best storage for cheese, preventing absorption of odors from other foods, and keeping the cheese from drying out or molding before it is eaten. 

I don’t really want to stop using plastic bags for my cheese.  Nor do I want to wash and re-use the bags like a frugal drudge.  But I start to picture myself in a lifeboat, gobbling cheese and laughing wildly while throwing Ziploc bags over the side into a sea of garbage.  And here’s the problem with liberal guilt.  Frankly, it’s a lot cooler to have the guilt than to do anything about it.  The guilt reassures me that I’m a good person.  Starting a plastic bag crusade feels like I may be going a little too far, taking things a bit too seriously, becoming one of those people who monopolize dinner conversations and preach on their blogs…

Sigh.  I resolve to consider alternative storage solutions for my cheese, but I don’t actually do anything about it. 

Until a few nights later, when I’m watching the Colbert Report, and Captain Charles Moore makes an appearance to talk about the plastic filling up our oceans.  He’s an earnest middle-aged sea captain in a dress uniform complete with gold braid and epaulets.  He’s no dreadlocked hippy droning on about the environment.  This salty clean-cut sailor probably entertains his grandkids with stories of great whales and tropical storms and pirate’s gold.  He pulls out a dish of beach sand that is riddled with bits of brightly colored plastic, and says he just scooped this sand off a beach in Hawaii. 

He is clearly passionate about this topic.  I watch him fiddle with his hands as he talks, maybe a little nervous, but determined to get his point across.  I really like Captain Moore.  And what’s more, I believe him.  Something does need to be done to stop the flow of trash into the ocean.  And it’s apparent to me that the most immediate thing I can do to help is to reduce the amount of non-recyclable plastics I’m throwing away. 

What I need is a mini-cheese cave, like a cheese humidor, I decide.  Unsure whether there is such a thing, I take to the internet and find that there really is a product being marketed as a cheese humidor.  However, on closer inspection, this “humidor” turns out to be a large plastic food storage container with a smaller plastic storage container inside of it.  The smaller container has holes drilled in it, and a sponge inside.  The directions say to fill the small container with water and a drop of dish soap to retard mold growth.  Full stop. 

I just bought a lovely Basque Argental, a raw sheep’s milk cheese that I was smelling thoughtfully when the cheese counter guy at the Central Market offered to unwrap it and give me a taste.  He cut a sliver for himself too, and we stood companionably savoring and smiling at each other.  “It has a nice  finish, doesn’t it?”  he asked.  “Yeah, a bit of lanolin aroma,” I replied.  I am not storing that cheese in a container with a moldy sponge, and I certainly do not intend to let it absorb eau d’ dish soap either. 

There are plenty of Ziplocs left in the box.  Frankly, I’ve got time to come up with an answer.  But I’m ready to stop buying four sizes of Ziplocs and experiment with alternative storage solutions.  Wax paper?  Tiny little Tupperware containers?  Heaven knows I have plenty of those…

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