Many Little Steps to an Award

IMG_9009So many moments of learning, creativity and serendipity come into the creation of a cheese.

Take the Idyll Gris, aka Grand Gris, aka Layered Ash Cake as an example. FYI the version with Provence Style Black Olive Tapenade  won 3rd place in the All Milks Flavor Added category at the American Cheese Society 2014 annual conference awards in Sacramento, CA. This is a big field — think of all the flavored Goudas out there! – so we are super proud and beaming at this honor.IMG_1587

In its first incarnation it was a large lactic cheese made on a whim and aged with a creamy white rind. At that time, beautiful and runny and delicious as it was, I offered it to a favorite local chef for his restaurant, (Chef Myles at Trattoria Stella here in Traverse City) and we baptized it the Grand Blanc.

Along the way, Hélène Tormo advised me on how to work with our molds (designed for hard cheese) when using lactic curd, so that the curd drained properly and smoothly.

I then started experimenting with ash, and took this relatively short but large and runny cheese the next step, aging it to a silvery perfection. Thus, the Grand Gris.

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Many in the cheese world have seen the lovely Humboldt Fog from Cypress Groves – a lactic goat cheese with a perfect black line of ash in its middle. I chose to do something similar, but in a very artisanal, imperfect and artsy way. The result was a lovely bright white curd with a silvery, gray rind, and a dramatic bleeding black center – unevenly spread across the middle.

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I made one or so of these cheeses every two weeks, and they became a regular item on the chef’s cheese menu. Occasionally I would experiment with how I handled the curd, how large/high I made the cheese. It ages completely differently depending on size and depth. So this was fun for the palate.

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And then I got to thinking of possible variations on this theme. Back when I lived in Provence my children’s father would make a marvelous black olive tapenade. This became a house staple, somewhat like mustard or ketchup in another’s house.

Isabelle Laguitton, my much adored early “all things goat” mentor, used to make a number of little stuffed cheeses for restaurants, and one in particular she would stuff with tapenade. She did it very carefully, smoothing the rind so that nothing spilled out, and the rind grew over the cut edge, hiding the evidence of the hidden savory layer inside. She told me that these two flavors (tart lactic goat cheese and black olive tapenade) went so well together as they are both fermented, and something happens when you marry them, they meld into an elegant unit, each supporting the other, but neither dominating.

Happily, my fellow culinary spirit Rose Hollander makes superb tapenade.

Hence, the next and final step was clearly before me – putting a layer of tapenade rather than a simple layer of ash between my two layers of lactic cheese. The first one went out to restaurants – and rather surprised Chef Myles as he’d been expecting our classic Black and White version. (In those early experimenting days, I didn’t always label each lovely silvery round). The response was positive and encouraging. Onward.

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Thus, last fall, as I mulled with my assistant Melissa over which cheeses we would submit to American Cheese Society competition, I kept coming back to this combination, and the elegant presentation of the layer cake. Yes, many others have done something that had a similar presentation (another colleague had won an award a preceding year for a layer of paprika through the middle, quite lovely). But after all, how many ways can you incorporate outside flavors into a cheese? It’s either mixed in, or on the surface rind, or in the middle.

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In this photo you see the 3 variations we’ve been making this year: Sundried Tomato Pesto, Wild Leek Pesto and Black Olive Tapenade. Together with Melissa, I worked towards this goal – making this cheese weekly, in double and triple batches so that we’d have a perfect one, perfectly ripened to send off for the competition. I wrapped this fragile round carefully and lovingly, sent it off, and… the night of the awards I received that glorious text “we’ve won! 3rd Place for Idyll Gris! And a photo of the ribbon. Yeah!!!

The most sensual of cheeses

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Making cheese is sensual. No doubt that’s why I’ve fallen in love with this ancient craft. All my senses are needed and used as I follow the rhythms of a cheese make. Though you may find recipes with careful and precise instructions to follow, the best cheese makers know that there is no one recipe for cheese: There is knowledge and experience, awareness of daily and seasonal shifts in milk quality, and the ability to adjust, trouble-shoot, and adapt. Rather than follow a set of absolutes, the cheese maker is attuned to each cheese’s temperature(s), texture(s), and timing.

Take Camembert, perhaps the king of sensuality (if not the king of cheeses, the crown of which belongs — depending on the person in question — to Roquefort or Cantal). We start this cheese at a deliciously warm temperature, and to hold and nurture this warmth, we bring the room up to a toasty 80F.

The milk comes gushing out of the pasteurizer (yes, this being the United States, we pasteurize), warm and sweet. We add tart and acidic whey from our lactic cheese-make of the day before, and either yogurt or thermophile cultures, along with the surface cultures to develop that classic white rind.

And then we wait. This is the period called “maturation”. The milk is acidifying, slowly or quickly, and cooling to our ideal temperature to add the rennet. This is a delicate moment that must be attended to. If it cools too quickly, it won’t acidify correctly and we’ll have problems. If it stays too hot it could acidify too fast and we’ll lose control of the cheese make. Stringy and over-acidified curd could be the result, which then leads to inconsistent cheese sizing, and difficult ladling and, well, not what you want.

So I check the pH and I check the temperature, and, having made this cheese many, many times now, I work off my experience and take a coffee break, check in on the caves, clean up the lactic processing room, and of course scrub down and rinse the pasteurizing vat. Camembert takes time. More time than hard cheeses, less time than lactic. It has its laws that we must follow.

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Patience and care pay off. The milk acidifies perfectly and at the perfect temperature we add the rennet.

Rennet is the naturally produced enzyme which breaks down milk. We obtain it from baby ruminants before they are weaned from drinking milk (think calves, kid, lambs).

I love the tale that Mario Battali told in one of his articles (which one?) on the origins of cheese. The hypothesis is that a long, long time ago a hunter roasted a whole young ruminant (kid, faun? lamb?) and discovered a lovely gelled milk product in the intestines. In fact, when I met Mario the other day he described a classic Italian peasant dish called (????) that serves up inch long pieces of lamb (or kid) intestines filled with curdled milk (quite similar to ricotta) and simmered in sauce like small ravioli. He promised that we might make this dish together one day (can I hold him to that promise? Wouldn’t that be grand!).

Add the rennet. Wait. Check for the Floculation point. Pay attention. Calculate. Wait. Observe. Get ready. Cut. Move around. Cut. Remove whey. Wait. Cut. Move around. Remove Whey. Wait. Check for texture. Observe. Ready? Ladle. Wait. Flip. Wait. Flip. Go home to rest and come back the next day. Flip. Salt. Wait. Flip. Salt. Wait. Observe. Is the rind beginning? Is it beginning to look a bit fuzzy? Time for the caves. Do I wrap them before or after they head to the caves? Hmmmm.

Camembert belongs to the family of “pâtes molles” – soft paste, or more prosaically, runny cheese. As I’ve learned, many factors contribute to that uniquely gooey texture of a ripened camembert. And slowly, I’m gaining the skills to manage and predict this most wonderful behavior that comes from the gentle breakdown of the proteins and fat in the cheese encouraged by that most white of rinds.

To help make these decisions we test the milk solids before cheese make – protein and fat content – are they high? Are they consistent with the past few weeks? What is the ratio of one to the other? Colleagues who’ve been making cheese for decades simply taste the milk, feel it in their fingers and on their tongue, and they just know. Their senses speak to them, but they are also aided by their knowledge of the seasons and the pastures their herds feast upon. All contribute to milk quality. I am learning the variations of milk quality and how they coincide with time on pasture, rainy days, post-kidding wearies and more.

I never expected to make camemberts when I first made goat cheese in Provence. When you tell a French friend that you’re interested in goats, this is the last cheese that will come to mind. And frequently I’ve encountered doubtful and surprised friends and colleagues. Truly? a goat camembert? Yes, gooey and delicate. Reminiscent, if also very different from its French cousin. Time to make some of my favorite multi-grain bread to go with it.

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Ready for those kids to come

This time last year was many things : a time of hurriedly getting our kidding supplies ordered, testing out our new milking stand with hugely pregnant goats (recommended by many books, but not particularly easy to accomplish when you’ve humongously pregnant goats more akin to young cows than “goat size”); pushing the many workmen still on site to please!!!! get the creamery ready for the milk to come, ditto the caves; the snow fell thick and deep through to the end of March, but somehow nothing like this year.

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