By Tammie Painter
My Precious. My Precious.
Like a modern day version of Tolkien’s Gollum, I lurk in the basement stroking my Precious, turning it to make sure it’s happy, and angrily lashing out at anyone who dares to touch it.
But this isn’t a magic ring I’m guarding. It’s my cheese.
That I made myself. Yes, on purpose, not by some refrigeration malfunction.
What sane person makes their own cheese when nearly every grocery store these days carries an amazing selection of artisan cheeses?
It started with wanting to make my own beer. My hometown, Portland, Oregon, is a mecca for microbrews and home brewers. It’s the antidote to our buzzing caffeine frenzy. If a corner in Portland doesn’t have a coffee shop or cart, it has a microbrewery. We’re junkies. And we like to experiment with our own recipes. The problem with making home brew is that so much can go wrong leaving you stuck with gallons of lame beer. And since my husband would rather drink seawater than beer (I know, what’s wrong with him?) I would be left drinking bad beer for a long, long time. Even I don’t like beer that much.
But, like a nerdy kid dreaming of a chemistry set for Christmas, I wanted to concoct some type of unique creation in my kitchen.
While wistfully scanning through a home brew website I discovered a link to cheese making. I was bewildered and intrigued. It’s a true testament to our modern culture that I had no idea people could make cheese at home. Yes, I knew the blocks of delicious goodness came from cows and goats and other cute farm critters. But I’d been going to visit the Tillamook Cheese Factory since I could remember, and a giant gleaming factory was where I believed all cheese came from. As I read more about the process, the do-it-yourselfer in me thought, “I could totally do that.” And since my husband gladly eats cheese, I figured any mistakes I made could be shared.
I sent away for the kit that day.
My first attempt at cheese making was a mozzarella “anyone can make in 30 minutes.” Result? Complete failure. I got it right the next time, but this “simple” recipe continues to be my cheese nemesis with about half the batches failing. I figured simple was too remedial for my biology and chemistry training and flipped the pages in the recipe book directly to the intermediate cheeses.
Let me describe the final results of my cheese labors to explain why I suffer the torture of cheese making. I’m not normally one to brag, but any store-bought Parmesan you eat is complete poo compared to the stuff I make. Mine is cheese heaven – same with the Gouda, the pepper jack and the Romano. My homemade cream cheese and ricotta are so divine I never buy them in the store anymore.
The downside of this creamy deliciousness? It takes freaking forever. You can’t imagine how damn long it takes to heat two gallons of milk at a low setting. Due to the necessary chemistry of the milk, and the workings of the ingredients added, you can’t heat the milk quickly, and it can take almost an hour to get to the proper temperature. An hour! And that’s just the first step. The sanity saver after this hour is a 45-minute break while the cheese sets, but then, the real work begins. You cut, you heat again, you stir, you stir, and you keep stirring or puppies and kittens will die. With certain cheeses, you can be stuck at the stove for four hours. I find a bottle of wine helps immensely with the boredom.
Then there’s more waiting as the cheese is pressed. I don’t have a true cheese press and instead stack our collection of hand weights like a cheesy Tower of Babel. And, not having a proper draining board, this process of squeezing the cheese juice out ends up being a chaotic mess. Luckily the dog is an expert at cleaning cheese juice off the floor.
Do I get to relax as the cheese air-dries? Nope. This step involves a full on battle to keep the cats from licking my precious hunk of hardened milk. Finally, the day comes when I get to slap a coat of wax over the cheese and send it down to the basement to age. My husband hates this step. After seeing me in the kitchen for days he has the ridiculous notion that he is going to get something fabulous on his plate. Wrong. Instead, he gets a dirty look and a command to go order some pizza because I’m too sick of the kitchen to cook a damn thing for the next week.
My cheeses have to age from 3 to 12 months. That’s 3 to 12 months of family asking me if the cheese is ready yet, and 3 to 12 months of checking my Precious for cracks in the wax and turning it weekly to ensure the moisture settles properly. During this time, no one is allowed to move my cheese, or even look at my cheese the wrong way. It’s my Precious, after all.
After months of being slave to the cheese, there’s a thrill when I finally get to open the wax to reveal my Precious to the world. A small slice is cut off, and my husband and I tentatively take a nibble – even after doing this for years we still fear food poisoning from leaving a dairy product on the pantry shelf for a year. The nibble becomes a bite and the worried looks turn into nods of pleasure as we both cut off another chunk. The Precious is a success. And pretty damn delicious.