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DIY Cheese

Barbara Kingsolver learns that making a pound of mozzarella at home is even faster than baking a cobbler, but speed is not the only reason to try it

Years ago, when I was young and still sure of my own power over boring routines, I studied a map one weekend and found a new, faster route back home from the city where I'd recently moved. I described my clever navigations to my grandfather, boasting that I'd saved 37 minutes. "Thirty-seven," he mused. "And you just used up 15 telling me all about it. What will you do with the other 22?"

Time-saving, the modern credo that sends us zipping from microwave dinners to the fast lane, can blur the truth that life is a zero-sum equation. Every minute saved will get used up on something else, possibly an activity no more sublime than watching TV. Ever since my grandfather's rebuke, I've tried to bear in mind that taking time with the quotidian might make it satisfying enough to be the goal, rather than the obstacle. Cooking dinner, especially, is a pleasure to stretch out over the day's end when work is done and family members trail home. A quick recipe can turn slow because of the experiments we hazard. We make things from scratch for the fun of it. We grow a garden. We bake bread. We make cheese.

Okay, I know. You were with me right up to that last one. I'm not sure why, since it takes less time to make a pound of mozzarella than to bake a cobbler, but most people find cheesemaking a preposterous idea. If friends happen over just as I'm draining a freshly made Neufchâtel, they act like they've caught me at witchcraft.

In our family it began with experiments. We missed certain things, soft cheeses especially, that my daughter and I often don't eat because of our mild lactose intolerance. A little knowledge of biochemistry (and a love for learning about interesting food processes) led us to think we might feel comfortable eating cheeses again if we made them ourselves, culturing out a lot of the lactose and draining it off with the whey—and this turns out to be true. Making a great soft cheese is as simple as warming some milk, stirring in a special bacterial culture that imparts a particular flavor, allowing it to curdle overnight, then draining off the whey. Our chèvre and fromage blanc were so delicious, we were inspired to try hard cheeses, which are often heated gently in the curd stage, then pressed and aged in a cool cellar or in the crisper drawer of the fridge. Our successes keep us trying. We've even converted some of our friends. You could be next.

I know, you don't have time. Who does? To calm the great American subservience to hurry, to convince us that an hour or two spent rendering up cheese in our own kitchens could be worth the trouble—what would that take? A motivational speaker, an artist, a devotee, a pal who builds your confidence? A Cheese Queen, maybe?

The answer is yes, all of the above, and she exists. Her name is Ricki Carroll. Since 1978, when she started New England Cheesemaking Supply Company and began holding workshops in her western Massachusetts kitchen, she has taught some 7,500 people how to make cheese. That's not even counting those of us who ordered her supplies online and worked our way through her book, Cheesemaking Made Easy, which has sold over 100,000 copies (the new edition has been renamed Home Cheese Making). She's inspired artisans from the Loire to Las Vegas. Partly to hone my own skills, but largely out of curiosity, I sought out the woman whose Web site really does identify her as the Cheese Queen.

Her reign began even before the Sunday morning last spring when my family and several of our cheesemaking friends stepped onto the porch of a colorful Queen Anne with lupines and lilies blooming around the stoop. We walked through the door and fell through the looking glass into a place where cheesemaking antiques mix in with handmade dolls and African masks, unusual musical instruments and crazy quilts.

Ricki waved us into the big kitchen as she hastily pinned up her curly hair with a parrot-shaped barrette. She'd generously invited our group to sit in as her guests at an ordinary one-day workshop for beginners. We sat at long tables and introduced ourselves to the 20 other students. For several men this was a Father's Day gift. Others described practical goals: a chef hoped to broaden her culinary range; mothers desired healthier diets for their families. Martha, from Texas, owned water buffalo and dreamed of great mozzarella. Our common wish was to understand a food we felt passionate about.

As we examined the stainless steel bowls, thermometers and culture packets assembled before us, Ricki introduced us to her world. Fundamentally, cheesemaking is a way to store milk, which goes bad quickly without refrigeration but keeps indefinitely—improves, even—in the form of cheese. "Artisanal cheesemakers combine science and art. All over the world, without scientific instruments, people make cheeses the way their grandparents did," Ricki said. In the Republic of Georgia she watched cheesemakers stir their cheese pot with a twig and then swaddle it in a kitty-print sweater, a baby blanket and a cape.

She promised we would make queso blanco, whole-milk ricotta, mascarpone, mozzarella and even farmhouse cheddar. Yes, us, right here, today. We looked on in utter doubt as she led us into our first cheese, explaining that we'd make all this with ordinary milk from the grocery store. Raw milk from a farm is better, creamline milk is great, but any milk will do, unless it is labeled "ultra-pasteurized" for long-distance shipping.

Ultrahigh-temperature pasteurization denatures proteins and destroys the curd necessary for firm cheese. The closer to home your source, the better it is for you and your cheesemaking. And, Ricki pointed out, buying raw or creamline milk will help local farmers at the same time.

While waxing poetic in praise of slowness, Ricki moves quickly. By the time we'd warmed our milk and added bacterial cultures to begin setting our cheddar, she was on to the next cheese. With a mirror propped over the stove so we could see into the pot, she curdled queso blanco by stirring in vinegar, laughing as she guessed the quantity. There's no perfect formula, she insisted, only some basic principles and the confidence to try. As we inhaled the lemony-sweet scent of simmering whey, the steamy heat of the kitchen curled our hair, and new textures and flavors began to rise before us as possibilities: mascarpone, fromagina (Ricki's cross between fromage blanc and mascarpone), mozzarella. Even so, to a roomful of novices, turning ordinary milk into such extravagances seemed unlikely.

At lunch break I noticed, in the wildly colorful powder room, a quote from Alice in Wonderland painted above the sink:

"'There's no use trying,' Alice said. 'One can't believe impossible things.'

'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'"

We really did make all those cheeses. Most of them we ate for lunch, a spread that included sliced tomatoes with mozzarella, fromagina on wheat bread, stir-fried vegetables with queso blanco and mascarpone-filled dates.

In the afternoon, as we put our farmhouse cheddar into a simple mechanical press to squeeze moisture out of the curd, Ricki talked about the process of aging and waxing our cheeses as if these really lay ahead of us—as if we were going home to make cheeses. I'd be willing to bet we all did.

Why? It's a kick. Some of us are refining exquisite products while others like myself are just shooting for edible, but we all catch our breath together in the moment of alchemy when the milk divides into clear whey and white curd, or the mozzarella stretches in our hands to a glossy golden skein. We're connecting with food artisans across geography and time. We're recalling our own best memories infused with scents, parental love and ordinary routines of childhood. We're hoping our kids' memories won't all smell like carpool exhaust.

Soon after the workshop, my husband's mother came for a long visit. We spent our best times in the kitchen, my daughters and me listening to stories about her mother, who came over from Italy as a teenager and made ricotta, routinely, to the end of her life. We felt that great-grandmother smiling on us, the Saturday we made mozzarella together: three more generations joined in the place where science touches art and carries on.

Ricki Carroll's New England Cheesemaking Supply Company in Ashfield, MA, offers one-day beginner classes and two-day advanced ones. For more information, call 413-628-3808 or go to cheesemaking.com.

Barbara Kingsolver's books include novels, essays, poetry and the upcoming Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about local food economies.

Published May 2006
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