Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Long Day in the Dairy

Sunday began bright and early with a quick post-coffee cleanup of the kitchen. Without pause or interruption, we proceeded directly into the first of a long series of interwoven projects: I delabeled the last few wine bottles we needed for the oft-postponed bottling of the Cabernet, and Mary brought in three gallons of milk from the outside refrigerator so it could slowly come to room temperature. She then skimmed the many quarts of milk on hand, gathering six pints of cream. As the milk and cream tempered, Mary packaged up an earlier batch of butter.

Then began the making of the new batch of butter. No homely churn for this task; the blender is a fine and expeditious helpmeet. In relatively short order, the butter was churned and the extravagant buttermilk set aside as a treat for the poultry. The scrubbed wine bottles were ready for a thorough washing. On to the next project—about five pounds of pure white fresh cheese, made the previous Sunday, waiting to be salted, divided and improvised upon.

The greatest measure of this cheese was simply salted and frozen as an ingredient for later. For the balance, we decided to take two tacks—Mary would make savory cheeses, I would make sweet. So together we crafted several flavors of soft, spreadable cheeses (including a savory Boursin clone and a brandied five-spice sweet cheese) which joined the butter in the freezer for enjoyment over the long dark winter.

By now the large pot of milk was ready to begin its magical transformation. We spent the bulk of the afternoon and well into the evening transforming three gallons of fresh milk into a small wheel of cheddar cheese through a process of strictly regulated heating, enzymatic action and physical manipulation that made mashing and brewing an all-grain beer look like fixing a glass of lemonade.

I would have to say there are a handful of magical transformations in the realm of the cooking arts. Mashing is one, where suddenly thick, starchy porridge becomes a sea of grains suspended in a clear, golden wort; another is the nixtamal reaction, where thick cooked corn is transformed in a different way, releasing the smell of fresh sweet corn where a moment earlier there was nothing; and cheese making, where in an instant, milk polarizes into clear liquid and a snowstorm of curds.

Did I mention that somewhere in there, we also started roasting one of our turkeys, to have for dinner?

So, by sometime after dinner, the cheddar was ready to be set aside to drain for a bit. But we're not quite done yet—still one more dairy project to take care of.

The three gallons of whey from the cheddar is heated, and to it we add a pint of whole milk. Somehow, from this meager beginning, we manage to produce over a pound of fresh ricotta! That is the most amazing step, because it really gives the appearance of getting something from nothing. (In reality, the cheddar extracts most of the casein protein from the milk with the help of the enzyme action of rennet; ricotta uses a near-boil heat and mild acidity, provided through the addition of a small quantity of cider vinegar, to capture the remaining albumin proteins from the whey). After this final magical transform, the last iteration of whey—stripped of protein but still vitamin and mineral rich—will be fed to the poultry as a supplement.

It is bedtime when we are finally done. The cheddar is undergoing its first pressing; the ricotta and butter are in the refrigerator chilling. The turkey carcass has been picked apart and the leftovers are put away. For all intents and purposes, we have spent the entire day on our feet, in the kitchen, by the stove or around the island, working together on these interwoven projects. It is all we can do to tie up the loose ends of the day, to make sure what needs to be closed up is closed up and what needs to be secured is secured. We are as sore and exhausted as had we been working in the garden or in the woods for as long a day.

And still the cabernet sits, unbottled.

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