Foodie Underground: Fresh Cheese 101

ColumnTurns out, making your own cheese is easier than you can imagine.

Before you start reading the rest of this column, maybe I should clarify what kind of foodie I am.

Yes, I like to cook. Yes, I like to throw dinner parties. Yes, I spend a large part of my budget on food. Yes, I pretentiously pronounce any French culinary item with a French accent. But when it comes down to it, in the kitchen, I am incredibly low maintenance.

I rarely follow recipes, I don’t measure and I have never cooked anything that requires a thermometer. I only made clarified butter for the first time last year. If it’s too complicated I won’t touch it, because in my mind, food should be approachable; able to be enjoyed by everyone.

This could be why I’ve never taken an official cooking class. There was that time in Thailand where I learned how to make curry and pad thai in a balmy open air kitchen of Chang Mai, but that’s just what you do in Thailand. Culinary classes on home turf? Never.

Fortunately I have a good friend Sarah who knows what I want better than I do.

“I found this new culinary school. I really want to take a class.”

She proceeded with a long list of very tempting options.

“Ok, Fresh Cheese 101 it is,” I responded, not totally sure what I was getting myself into.

And that’s how I came to find myself in Portland’s Culinary Workshop (PCW) on Friday night with a cooking thermometer in my hand.

PCW opened earlier this year and is the brainchild of two food-loving women, Melinda Casady and Susana Holloway. Tired of working the professional circuit of culinary schools, the women wanted a place that was open, fun and educational. It’s all about getting their students to learn about good food, the kind of philosophy that anyone with a love of good food can get behind.

My visions of an intimidating chef hovering over my shoulder as I shakily held my thermometer in boiling milk soon disappeared, and by the time Susana had put a glass of wine in my hand and a Fresh Cheese 101 print out in front of me, I realized that I felt surprisingly at home. Cooking with fresh ingredients with glass of wine in hand? If I’m perfectly honest, it’s sort of my ideal Friday night.

Susana walked us through our first concoction, lemon cheese, a simple combination of milk and lemon. Had I known cheese was this easy, I would have started making it long ago.

To quickly summarize: heat milk to a certain level, add in an acid (lemon, vinegar, rennet, etc.) to separate the protein from the water, drain in cheesecloth and then salt and flavor. Here I had visions of complex, elaborate cooking methods and really the most difficult part was choosing what herbs you wanted to throw in the farmer’s cheese. It comes as no surprise then that fresh cheese making has taken off in the underworld of foodies.

So we made our way through lemon cheese, farmer’s cheese, yogurt cheese (like cheese for dummies – if you have a fear of cheesemaking, start with this one, you can’t go wrong), queso fresco and even a batch of mozarella, with Susana encouraging us the entire way.

We talked extensively about the necessity of fresh ingredients – PCW’s herb mixture comes straight from Susana’s garden – and where to track down harder to find items, like cheese salt, flakier than sea salt and easily obtained at urbancheesecraft.com. If you’re a self-proclaimed “cheese whore” watch out, this site will suck you in.

I learned that although you could probably spend a month experimenting with whole cow’s milk cheese and variations on the theme, goat’s milk is a totally different endeavor, as the goat’s milk found in most grocery stores is heavily pasteurized and therefore does not do well in the cheese making process. If you want your own chèvre, you better get the milk directly from the source.

At the end of the evening I had a paper shopping bag filled with a multitude of containers carrying enough cheese to last me for an entire week; like gold to a foodie. I was smart and took it all home to my parents when I went and visited, which certainly upped the daughter points.

End result of my first culinary class venture? New cooking obsession, and one that doesn’t entail a whole lot of work and is still going to impress at dinner parties. Just think of your foodie image potential:

“May I interest you in some fresh lemon cheese with oregano?”

Your guests won’t know what to do with themselves.

As for my cooking class fear, in my three hours spent mixing cheeses in a professionally outfitted kitchen I was reminded of one thing: now matter how much measuring I refuse to do, I am in fact a total food addict.

I’ll be back. But this time with my own thermometer.

Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s weekly column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground, discovering what’s new and different in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to the culinary avant garde.

Images: Anna Brones

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