The simplest goat cheese, which you can make without any special ingredients or equipment, is made by heating the milk to 180 degrees and adding something acidic (such as apple cider vinegar or lemon juice), allowing the curds and whey to separate, and then draining the whey (liquid) off of the curds (solids) in a fine mesh strainer or a colander lined with cheesecloth.
Then you can hang the cheesecloth up to drain for as long as you want - the longer it drains, the drier the cheese. This is the standard "farm cheese" that Christopher used to make with the milk from his goats fifteen years ago in Tennessee, and I learned the recipe from him. I love the tangy taste and crumbly, dense texture of this simple cheese.
The only disadvantage I find with this simple cheese is that it yields a relatively small amount of final product, with a large quantity of whey left over after the cheese is made. So for a gallon of milk, you might end up with something like a cup and a half of cheese. Plus, I love variety, and wanted to try some other fresh cheeses.
So I saved up to order from the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company and on Thursday my "box of bacteria" arrived via UPS.
Mail ordering cheese cultures is a bridge strategy - eventually, I'd like to make my own mother cultures which I can keep on hand for cheesemaking, but I'm a novice and readymade, pre-packaged cheese cultures allow me to try out different methods and recipes and learn the ropes without a tremendous amount of trial and tribulation. "Direct set" cultures are particularly appealing as relative shortcuts to homemade cheese.
The first cheese I tried with storebought cultures was a plain chevre. There are tons of approaches to making chevre (here are a couple from Fias Co Farm) but this time I used Ricki Carroll's basic chevre recipe.
I started with a gallon of fresh goat milk and ended up with enough cheese that I reserved several cups to use as plain chevre and made a 12-ounce batch of experimental fruit and nut cheese with the dried fruit and nuts that I happened to have around the kitchen.
The plain, unadulterated chevre is super-delicious - very different from the "vinegar cheese" that we had been making. It has the smooth, creamy, buttery texture that is typical of chevre and a very mild, neutral taste. With a tiny sprinkling of salt or just alone, it is divine.
The little experimental flavored batch turned out to be kind of over the top, too good to be true. Here's how to make it:
Fig, Apricot, Walnut, and Almond Chevre
You will need:
- 1 gallon fresh goat milk
- Handful of walnuts and almonds, soaked
- Handful of dried figs and apricots
- 1 packet of direct set chevre culture (available here from New England Cheesemaking Supply)
- Heat the milk to 86 degrees. Add the starter culture and stir.
- Cover ant let sit at room temperature (not below 72 degrees) for 12 hours.
- Line a colander with butter muslin (a fine-weave cheesecloth). Gently ladle the curds into the colander. Tie the corners of the muslin into a knot and hang the bat over the sink or a pot to drain for 6-12 hours until the cheese reaches your desired consistency.
- Set aside as much cheese as you like at this point to use as plain chevre. Fill a 12-16 ounce container with the cheese that will become fruit and nut flavored.
- Drain the soaked nuts and chop them in the food processor with the dried fruit. This will make a dry, crumbly paste of figs, apricots, and nuts.
- Mix the fruit and nuts into the cheese and viola! Fancy, gourmet-style cheese that would cost you ten or twelve bucks at the farmers market or posh grocery store cheese department,
I didn't weigh or measure the cheese before I dove in, but Ricki Carroll says this recipe makes 1.5 pounds, and that seems about right. The total yield was much greater using cultures than making my farm/vinegar cheese with the same volume of milk, and the milk was barely heated at all, making this a raw milk cheese.
Making cheese from fresh milk is one of the most ancient food preservation methods. In the days before electricity and UPS, cheese was either aged in environments where the desired microbial life already existed (such as a certain cave that would produce a particularly flavorful cheese), even before people understood the microbiology behind the process, or "mother cultures" were kept alive to inoculate each new batch. Fresh, unpasteurized milk has a relatively short shelf life without refrigeration, not so with cheese.
Fresh (as opposed to aged) cheeses tend to be soft and mild, like chevre. Cheeses requiring aging are typically harder in both senses of the word. It turns out that fresh cheese is a pretty simple kitchen project - certainly easier and less involved (and less sweaty) than canning, for instance. My first forays into cheesemaking have been satisfying, easy, and delicious...so, dear reader, tune in later for further adventures in cheese. Maybe I will even get around to aging some cheese -- but for now we are eating the fresh cheese so fast that it's hard to imagine mustering that kind of patience.