Blessed are the Cheese-makers

By Julia Hayden

We’ve always been do it-yourselfers when it came to . . . well, a lot of things. Mom made all of our clothes, for instance: all of hers, mine and my sister’s dresses, for ordinary and for special occasions. My Dad practically built his and Mom’s retirement home himself – the first iteration, anyway. When it burned down, and had to be rebuilt Mom and Dad were fifteen years older and took the easy way out. He had always done all the maintenance on the family cars – in fact, he was still working on cars, almost to the last day that he was fit and well enough to . . . which led to some awkward moments when Mom donated the car that he had been working on to the local PBS station this spring, and the tow truck came to pick it up. It seemed that Dad had removed one of the wheels, in order to work on the brake pad, or something, and put all the nuts in the upturned hubcap, as was his habit . . . and he never got back to work on that car, and in the interim a ground squirrel came and stole three of the nuts . . . anyway – DIY; long tradition in the family, as well as a certain bent for improvising.

Anyway, my daughter and I have branched out to making home-made cheese. We like cheese, we cook with it a lot, and it’s getting expensive. And what better way to get in touch, as a writer of historical fiction, with how women used to put food on the table, translating the bounty of the fields, vegetable patch and dairy – than to do it yourself. We’ve already run through making bread from scratch, making pickles, jam, fruit-based wine and cordials, and beef jerky, so on to the challenge of coagulated milk in all it’s delicious forms.

There isn’t much in the way of special supplies or equipment needed: we bought a huge metal bowl, of the sort used in restaurants for preparation of food in bulk, and use the spoons and strainers I had on hand already. I did have to buy a 4-pound plastic cheese mold, and my daughter came up with a cheese-making kit that contained the necessary supplies for simple cheeses like mozzarella. Everything else – rennet tablets, cheese salt, and a couple of specialty ingredients were to be found at either a local supply house, which deals mostly with home-brewers, and a couple of specialty websites dealing with cheese-making supplies. Everything else – the milk and the distilled water – came from the HEB.

Everything that is, except a cheese press – a means of pressing the curds, to compact them and allow the whey to drain out. For the first round of cheddar, we balanced a large chunk of limestone, and some exercise weights on a large platter on top of the mold – but that would not do for long. And a cheese-press such as is for sale at specialty websites is just to darned expensive. So . . . and this is where the old DIY-improvised solution kicks in. Take $10 dollars worth of threaded 5/16-in rods, four locking nuts, four wingnuts and as many metal washers. Cut two fifteen-inch long lengths of 12-inch plank – drill a 1/4th inch hole about in inch in from each corner of the plank, and there you go: cheese press. The next batch of cheddar will be ready in oh . . . about two months.