Thursday, August 13, 2009

Coming and Going Home

I have made some decisions in my life which preclude me from having a lot of people to visit. I worked too hard, had a child too young, and broke a few too many hearts. All of my people whom I would visit tend to still be right here near us.

I moved out at 16 and bounced around quite a bit. I was juggling working to live and school to survive, leaving a place for "home" out of the question. There was a lot of being tired, couch hopping, and living wherever. The first place that would even qualify as a "home" was a 16x9 Skittles-lime-green van. It was the first place I completely owned and could do what I wanted with. It was lived in for almost two years, filled with crazy college adventures and eventually parked in front of my college apartment which was filled with even more crazy, nostalgic adventures.

So here I am now, we're creating our own little home. It isn't an apartment, it isn't a rental, it is our own house to do with as we like and make a peaceful family. Having never really been in such a place, I didn't realize how exhausting it is to go away for over two weeks at a time and visit Jules' people. Before, going away to stay with other people was pretty much the same as being where I lived.

It is odd the things that you find yourself missing. I missed hanging our laundry outside. I missed the quiet of no television. I missed being able to take a long, ridiculously, hot bath. I missed watering the garden late and night and early in the morning. But most of all I missed the cottage cheese.

A while ago we switched over to me making all of our cottage cheese. There are a few food choices we have made that there is just plain no going back. The cottage cheese is one of them. It isn't runny, it is creamy. The taste has the definite tang of cultured product and a distinctive balance to the sweet, crunchy, or savory topping to which you eat it with. Best of all, you feel as though you are really eating something because it has a real substance to it.

When I first began reading up on making cottage cheese, the most important part was the price break. Could it be done economically? One gallon of milk, makes one quart of cottage cheese. Could I have been reading this right?! Only one quart?! We would need to buy like five gallons of milk to make the adequate amount of cottage cheese for the month. That just wouldn't work out.

Then there were more questions. A lot of discussion about enjoying it dry or creamed. What did that mean? Wasn't cottage cheese, cottage cheese? And rennet; so many needed rennet. I didn't know where to buy it, I didn't even know what it was. It was looking a bit like cottage cheese was out of the question. Then I discovered this simple article from Mother Earth News. All it required was a gallon of milk, some cultured buttermilk, and a double boiler. We have all that on a regular basis! This was my kinda recipe.

There was some tweaking involved, but after a couple of times we had our cottage cheese recipe and it was still simple as ever.

1 gallon of milk (whole, skim, 1%, 2%, whatever)
1/2 cup of cultured buttermilk
whipping or heavy cream
salt and pepper to taste

Pour the entire gallon of milk into a pot. Heat the milk till it is approximately 90 degrees (you can hold your finger in it and it feels warm, but not too hot). This is so that the culture can grow rapidly, but not die from being overheated.

Remove the milk from the heat and stir in the cultured buttermilk. It has to be cultured buttermilk not just regular buttermilk or the buttermilk left over from making butter. It is the culture which is important.

Now set it up and don't touch it. Stirring kills the culture once it has started growing. We put ours on top of the refrigerator. Don't worry it won't smell or anything.

Wait until the milk begins to thicken (this is called clabbering). It will become the consistency of custard or pudding. The first time, this is really weird feeling and a bit strange to look at. Waiting for the milk to clabber could take a day or two. If it is warm outside, it will happen sooner. Just check it about ever 6-12 hours or so. You will get a feel for how long it takes in your climate area.
Once it is Jello-Milk (you can literally push on it with your finger and it is spongy), slice a knife through it making 1 inch cubes and pour it into a large metal bowl. Create a double boiler by placing a pot of water on the stove to begin boiling. Once the pot of water is boiling, put the pot of clabbered milk on top. This keeps the milk from direct heat, but allows it to slowly heat up. Cook over low heat until the curds begin to separate. Stir occasionally so that the milk doesn't scald, and the thickened milk doesn't stick to the bottom. Once the curds begin to separate they will float up.

This is the part which is a preference and a learning curve. Once the curds separate you want to continue to cook them. The liquid will begin clear and then turn a yellowish color. The longer you cook your curds, the firmer they become. The curds also gain in tartness as they cook. In our family, we don't like them really firm or really tart. I cook them until they don't yield to gentle pressure. The curds begin to smash together and give a bit, but not crush into goo. They also will smush up to the side of the container and stick there. The best way to test them is to take a curd or two out with your spoon and use your fingers to feel the firmness. Be careful, the curds are really hot.

Once they have cooked for the desired time, you need to strain them for drying. Place a strainer or colander over a large bowl. Line the strainer with a flour sack towel (under 10 dollars for a package of three at the supermarket) and slowly pour the separated curds and whey. You can just put the colander in the sink and line it there, but you won't be able to save the whey. Whey is a great protein source, can be used to make ricotta cheese, or be useful in cooking of sauces, soups, salad dressing, or gravy. We freeze our whey for later use and always have a container in the fridge. I use it instead of milk when we make our bread.

Once the curds are strained, pull up the edges of the towel around the curds and squeeze out any left over moisture. It is helpful to twist the towel around the bundle of curds and wring them out. Hang the towel containing the curds either outside on your clothes line or inside over a sink. This allows the curds to air dry for an extended time before you put them in the fridge. We do ours over the sink due to Guadalupe and her amazing attempts at getting food.

Once the curds have dried overnight (12-18 hours) they are ready for the fridge. We smush ours into a old, glass, mason-style jar and they keep for at least 2 weeks. The dryer they are when they go in the fridge the longer they last. When you are ready to eat them, just pour a little cream over the top and salt/pepper them to taste.

It is so good you won't believe it!

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