You know how when you start learning how to do something new, you feel completely inept at the beginning? Despite your best intentions, you still find yourself flailing around, flinging whey all over the place and hoping that you haven't contaminated anything, because if you have, you won't find out about it for another couple of months at least, and it would really be awful if you spent all this time and milk for nothing. Or your carefully but precariously constructed "cheese press" thing slips off-balance and crashes to the floor. Twice. But then…somehow…when you are going through all of this insanity again, suddenly things seem to be working better, and you almost feel worried that that's a BAD sign, because maybe it means that the next glitch will be even BIGGER.
That's about the stage I'm at.
Only, so far (knock wood, fingers crossed, etc.) this third batch of cheddar has been my best experience yet.
The process is the same as the Stirred-Curd Cheddar I made the week before, with the additional bit of work done to prepare the jalapeno peppers.
The Jalapeno version calls for anywhere from 1/2 to 4 tablespoons of chopped halapenos. I bought the three nicest-looking peppers at the store, not sure how many I'd need to make an even 4 tablespoons. Actually, I chopped up the largest pepper, and Bill had taste of one little bit of it, and declared it very hot (yay!), and that pepper gave me 3 tablespoons of peppers, so I went with that, rather than chopping up part of another one.
So then, you put your chopped peppers in a little pot with about half a cup of water and bring to a boil. And then you let it boil for fifteen minutes.
And let me do you a favor right now and advise that if you're going to do this, you might want to open a bunch of windows BEFORE you get that pot of water and peppers boiling, because the fumes will ATTACK you. Really. Bill started coughing first, and I just thought it was dust, you know, because I'm such a terrible housekeeper, and he's taller, so he's inhaling up there where most of the dust accumulates. But no. A few minutes later, I was coughing, too, and not stopping. And then the penny dropped, and we realized it was the peppers. So Bill went back to weeding the gardens or whatever he had been doing before he came in and was assaulted by jalapeno gases, and I opened every window and put the exhaust fan above the stove on, and then went outside for a few minutes to breathe some fresh, friendly air.
You might need to add a bit of water to the peppers during the boiling process, just to keep them barely covered, so check on them a couple of times so they don't burn or dry out. Wear a gas mask if you need to.
Once that fifteen minutes is up, pour the peppers and water through a fine mesh strainer and save the liquid. Let everything cool to room temperature.
Now you can proceed with the rest of the cheesemaking process. First – add the strained jalapeno boiling liquid to your 2 gallons of whole, pasteurized milk in a big sterilized pot. Bring the temp up to between 88 and 90 degrees F, and then add the packet of mesophilic starter (or 4 oz of prepared mesophilic starter, if you have some. Stir well, cover the pot and let the whole thing sit and ripen for about 45 minutes.
Next, make sure the milk is at 90 degrees F (warm it up if necessary) and add the rennet – either 1/2 tsp liquid or 1/2 tablet dissolved in 1/4 cup of cool, non-cholrinated water. If you're using the tablet, it will take a bit longer to dissolve (naturally) than the liquid rennet, so plan ahead. Stir the rennet with a spoon in an up-and-down motion – dipping the spoon into and out of the milk, rather than stirring round and round – for a minute. Then cover the pot again and let it sit for another 45 minutes or longer, until the milk has set up like soft gelatin and you get a clean break, like this:
(In the picture above, my finger already has little bits of gelled curd on it because I did the test once before, and then, since everything was a go, I did the "clean break" test again and took pictures.)
Next, we cut the curds into 1/4" cubes. I used the curd knife/large straight metal to slice the a checkerboard pattern first – all the way to the bottom of the pot….
And then, even though the recipe suggest using a wire whisk to make the curds smaller (1/4" size), I just sliced the checkerboard pattern into smaller bits with the curd knife. For some reason, I don't like using the whisk. I worry that the curds are then too small.
Anyway, after I sliced the curds, I let them set for about fifteen minutes. Then I partially filled the sink with hot water and started slowwwwwwwwwly raising the temperature of the curds from just under 90 to 100 degrees F, working at a rate of about 2 degrees every five minutes, stirring gently and taking the pot out of the water when the curds seemed to be getting too hot, or adding more hot water to the sink if the temp of the curds wasn't budging.
Eventually I got to 100. Then I held the curds at 100 degrees F for 30 minutes, stirring gently all the while. And when that time was up, I took the pot out of the water and let the whole thing sit for five minutes.
Then it was time to separate the curds from the whey. After that five minute rest period, most of the curds settle down to the bottom of the pot, so it's relatively easy to ladle off a lot of the whey without navigating around the curds. Eventually, though, you'll get to a point where you either pour the remaining curds and whey out into a muslin-lined collander or ladle the curds out into the collander. Either way (or "whey" haha) you want to get rid of as much of the whey as possible.
Next, pour the drained curds back in the pot and break them up (or mill them) with your fingers.
And then add in 2 tablespoons of cheese salt or Kosher salt AND your chopped, cooled Jalapeno peppers (seeds and all). Stir everything together gently. Don't squeeze or press the curds, just mix everything around together.
Next I half-filled the sink with 100 degree F water and set the pot of curds in it. I set my oven timer for an hour, and set my little mini timer for five minutes. Five minutes over and over and over, stirring the curds each time it went off to break up the curds and keep them from matting, or clumping together. Once the hour was up, I could finally do two things: put the curds in the mold, and relax. Sort of.
Anyway, here are my jalapeno-flecked cheese curds, in their cheesecloth-lined mold.
Oh – and I learned something. Remember how I ended up with kind of a lumpy side on the first batch of stirred-curd cheddar, and I ended up slicing it off so it wouldn't be all…well…lumpy? The lumps were there because the cheesecloth, where I'd tried to fold it neatly on the curds, wasn't flat no matter how nicely I'd layered it, and that resulted in the folded areas pushing into the curds and leaving the rough terrain.
This time, I laid a second piece of cheesecloth over the top of the curds – totally flat and nice – and put the follower on top of that before adding the weight. I'd seen that method in an illustration in the book, Home Cheese Making, and figured it was worth a shot.
So, time to press. First, it's fifteen pounds for ten minutes. Easy enough. Then unwrap, flip the cheese over, rewrap it, and put it back in the mold….
Then it was 30 lbs of pressure for another ten minutes. Actually, it was more likely 31 or 32 lbs, if you take into account the weight of the pot that holds some of the weights AND the fact that the big weight you can't see inside that pot is 11 lbs. Bill used to use it as an anchor for his canoe.
Next, it was about 40 lbs (give or take a pound) for 2 hours. And finally, after that, 50 lbs for 24 hours. That picture would have included two 5-lb hand weights, but had put the camera away by then.
I'm happy to report that nothing fell this time. I was extremely obsessive about how level the weights looked on top of the cheese, and if anything started to tip in one direction, I adjusted the weights to place more pressure on the opposite edge of the cheese. I was even doing this at about 2:30 in the morning. Didn't wake up with that in mind, but since I was up, I figured it wouldn't hurt to check on things.
And, finally, the next evening it was time to dismantle my odd sculpture and check on my cheese.
I gently rubbed the whole surface of the cheese with a vinegar-dampened cloth, then set the cheese in the fridge for about three hours to dry. And then I waxed it and stuck a label on and added it to my growing collection in the chest freezer cave in our basement.
And after this? Well, I still need to make my mesophilic starter culture – can't make any more cheddar until I get that done. After that? Maybe a traditional cheddar. But I'm also itching to branch out into other hard cheeses. Gouda would be nice. Smoked gouda would be even nicer, I'm thinking.
Haven't decided yet, though.
I'll let you know when I do.