Cheese Week

You are not a cheesemaker. Or a cheesemonger. Or an affineur. (That's the person who ages the cheese, and please feel free to drop that bit of knowledge at your next cocktail party.) If you do hold any of these titles, please back me up on this: It's entirely possibly to make cheese at home. It's also pretty darned fun, which is the primary reason for making it, along with the opportunity to casually say to a guest, "Oh this cheese? I made it myself. No big whoop." But if you're harboring fantasies of aging a nice Pont-l'Évêque or Shropshire Blue in your spare closet, well, have fun with that. Making a cheese of that complexity takes all kinds of know-how, molds, cultures, patience, and tolerance for weird smells. 

You want fresh, homemade cheese, and you want it now-ish, with minimal hubbub. So let's take a few tips from days of yore. The November 20, 1915 edition of The Country Gentleman ran a story called "Fancy Cheese from the Farm: A Good Side Line for the Farmer's Wife" with notions for maximizing the cash flow from milk production. Take the word fancy with a grain of salt; I'm not talking about making leaf-wrapped, ash-dusted anything. The wackiest you'll get is employing rennet—an enzyme that separates milk into curds and whey—which you can pick up in the gelatin or dairy section of your grocery or homebrew store, or online.

It was taken for granted that the titular farmer's wife would be working with whole milk, and you should, too. Pretty much any milk except for ultra-pasteurized will work, but why not treat yourself and go with the most fulsome version you can lay your hands upon, or even cream? 

From here, it's pretty easy to make a simple cream cheese. "No particular experience or skill is called for," assures the article's author, Mogens R. Tolstrup, who also wrote for Farmers Elevator Co.'s American Co-operative Journal and taught at Iowa State college. Take that century-old assurance to heart and assemble your other ingredients—a starter of either buttermilk or clabbered milk, and some salt—as well as your equipment. That'd be a pot in which to heat the cream, a bowl, cheesecloth or a wire strainer, and a spoon. 

Oh hurrah, you have cream cheese now.

For every gallon of cream (heated to 85°F), stir in two tablespoons of starter, and 20 drops of rennet or the equivalent of that in tablet form—diluted in cold water. Cover it, keep it at 85°F, and let it sit for two or three hours until a soft curd has formed. Lay the cheesecloth or screen over a bowl, scoop the curd onto it, and let it drain for a while. Then take the corners of the cloth and tie that up, or just grab the strainer, and let it hang up for 12 to 24 hours, taking care not to over-handle the curd (basically resist the urge to squeeze it, though it will be so very tempting). Next, add salt to the cheese—trust your taste, says Tolstrup—and wrap it in cloth or a clean towel and press it for a few hours between some boards. Plates will likely suffice. Oh hurrah, you have cream cheese now.

That, Tolstrop says, was the preferred method in Canada and Great Britain, but in the States it was more common to go through that whole process just using whole or skim milk and mixing the cream in later. 

Wanna get all pinky up? He offers a few variations, including mixing olives or pimentos into the cheese using a meat grinder, but most intriguing of all is sandwich nut cheese. Several publications of the time—including circulars from the South Carolina Agricultural Experiment Station at Clemson, the Vermont Agricultural Extension Service at the state's College of Agriculture, the Iowa Agriculture and Home Economics Experiment Station, and the book Fancy Cheese in America—note the tremendous popularity of sandwich nut cheese, which was originally developed by the Department of Dairy Industry at the New York State College of Agriculture. To make this sandwich nut cheese, steam the skins from one ounce of nuts—ideally English walnuts and almonds, though any nut will do—for each pound of cheese, grind them, and mix them thoroughly into the cheese.

Boop—you are a cheesemaker. You have made cheese. "Fancy" cheese. Now isn't that nuts?