Wednesday, August 6, 2008

An 'Ah-ha' moment....well, sort of

Last week as happens on most Wednesdays we made Sandy Creek. I really enjoy making this cheese. Not only is it a unique creation of GLD, it is very tasty and quite pretty. Here is the finished product. It consists of two halves - 336 moulds in twelve trays. It takes 16 gallons of milk to fill three trays with curd.

Once all the trays are filled with curd and have drained for a bit I ash 168 of them then take the remaining 168 halves and place them on top of the ashed bottoms. The ash is a traditional French cheese making ash (though ours comes from Canada) consisting of grape vines. It is incredibly fine and gets everywhere when you sprinkle it on the cheese as you would powdered sugar. Here is what the Sandy Creek looks like on day 3 once the two halves have knit together, the cheese salted and I have ashed the top, bottom and sides.

Given 5-7 days to age on ripening racks in the 54 degree cooler/cave and turned every other day, the cheese look like this. They continue to mature, becoming entirely white with penicillium growth. They are wrapped and placed in a 42 degree cooler for several more weeks until they are ready to sell.

The process of making this cheese is what I've been learning for the past 3 months. The preparation, pasteurization of the milk, culturing, the transfer to the vats, renneting, cuttings, mixing, preparing the moulds, scooping the curd into the moulds, putting the two halves together, salting, ashing, turning, etc. It is to some degree mechanical at first...every detail needs to be adhered to in order to obtain a reasonably consistent product. Even so, the size varies somewhat, the degree of ripening also varies as does the final flavor. But for the most part, the end result is always recognizable as Sandy Creek due to its unique ash rind.

Last week the curd was rather heavy. A lot of whey was given off in the vat and after cutting the curd sank way to the bottom. When I mixed it (which is always done by hand, and arm in the vat) I noticed the heavy dense quality of the curd. But I mixed away anyway already knowing that the pH was really dropping quickly, more so than all the prior makes I'd done. The result was a curd that had lost so much whey that scooping it into the moulds was a challenge just to get all of them filled sufficiently. By the time the curd had drained the two halves put together the cheese was small, quite firm and dry for this early on in the process. The next day pH was a bit higher than usual, a sign that the culture had pretty much exhausted itself before it should have.

Today I did the same make. What I paid attention to was the curd. "Read the curd" is one of the first things Steve told me to learn when starting to work here. Once I cultured the milk and checked the pH, instead of waiting for move movement (at least a 0.1 drop in pH), I went ahead and started the make quickly to get the milk set before the pH dropped too much. Once renneted the milk set for 1 hour and is cut. That all stayed the same but this time I was a bit more gentle with the curd and didn't stir as much in an effort to keep it from expelling any more whey than necessary. We scooped and the moulds filled nicely with soft curd and drained nicely. The pH at the end of the day was lower than usual but higher than last week meaning that there was more moisture in the curd it would continue to produce acid and probably come out just where we want it to in the morning. The "Ah-ha' was getting past just the mechanics of moving the milk from here to there and putting the right ingredients in at the right time in the right amount, but really paying attention to what was happening and making slight adjustments to the process to manage the final outcome better. I'm beginning to appreciate what years of experience and doing this over and over gives to a cheese maker. The next step is to begin to integrate all the scientific/technical aspects of what is going on to drive the process in the direction you want from the beginning.