Three Days of Cheese-making

This past two weeks I have been running trials for Sunday’s Farmstead Cheese class. And if I have learned one thing from all this trial and error, it’s that cheese is not magic. Now I know from teaching other cheese-making classes that I’m not the only one to suffer from cheese failure, so for all you home cheese-makers out there, I present to you Three Days of Cheese-making, and how it all pulled together.

Part I: On the First Day of Cheese-making…

It seemed easy enough: follow the recipes, configure the timing, presto! cheese. Imagine my surprise (and foot-stamping frustration) when all three of my cheeses failed. All three cheeses failed. Even fool-proof paneer. It was maddening.

frustrated kid

Even more maddening was the lack of definitive answers. I wanted someone to tell me, “THIS is why your basket cheese never coagulated, and THIS is why your cottage cheese turned into gritty goo, and THIS is why your paneer took twice as much vinegar to curdle.” I turned to head cheesemaker Paul, and through our conversation started to grasp that there are a lot (and I mean a lot) of variables that factor into whether a cheese succeeds or fails (newsflash: even professionals don’t succeed 100% of the time), and if I was going to successfully and simultaneously execute these cheeses with a class of students, I would have to Dick Tracy the situation.

Cottage Cheese
Of the three, this cheese takes the longest to make, so I started it first: heating the milk, adding the culture and rennet, letting it rest. When I returned hours later, I still had milk – the cheese didn’t coagulate. I did exactly what Paul told me was the one thing I shouldn’t do, and added more rennet. When I heated the resulting curds, they seized into a gritty, squeaky, stretchy mass – not cottage cheese.

Basket Cheese
This cheese requires only rennet in order to coagulate, and I found myself with the same problem as with the cottage cheese: the milk didn’t coagulate.

The easiest of the three, paneer requires a simple acid to separate the milk into curds. Not able to find any apple cider vinegar (I swore I had some somewhere…), I used the only acid I had on hand: a homemade wine vinegar from a corked bottle of expensive French red. After nearly a cup, the milk still hadn’t curdled.

Now I remember from high school science class that the key to troubleshooting any experiment is only changing one variable at a time. Change multiple and you won’t know which caused the original problem. I knew my paneer problems had to do with the vinegar I used: there wasn’t enough acidity in the homemade vinegar to cause the milk to curdle. Change the acid, and the cheese should succeed.

It was also fairly obvious with both my cottage and basket cheeses that the rennet was too weak to coagulate the milk, so I started looking for a local place to buy rennet. I ended up with Junket Rennet from Whole Foods, a standard custard and dessert rennet that’s been used by our mothers and grandmothers for decades. New England Cheesemaking Supply frowns on using this for home cheesemaking (in fact, they deny that it even can be used successfully), but I’m a chef, and believe food rules were made to be broken. Naturally, I plowed ahead anyway.

To Be Continued…

Did I make the right adjustments? Does Junket work to make cheese? Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post: A Tale of Two Cheeses

What exactly is “farmstead cheese”?

The folks over at New England CheeseMaking Supply Company like to think of it as the cheese that our Grandmothers made on the back of the stove; “a simple and to-the-point means of preserving milk during the peak of the season when there was a bit of extra milk.”

People are intimidated by cheese. It requires science and math and a heck-of-a-lot of
patience. The end result seems so magical that for the moment its farmstead roots can be set aside and forgotten – that pot of milk set in a warm place, natural bacteria in the milk working on separating the curds (solids) from the whey (liquid).

Modern cheese-making (and modern health practices) no longer allow us to just leave the milk out overnight. We add specific bacteria to get a specific result. We adjust the temperature up or down to produce one cheese over another, but no matter how many subtle shifts in the process, each cheese is still born of milk. Ah, the fascination…

farmers cheesesOur ricotta-mozzarella class focuses on the easiest cheese to make at home: ricotta. We affectionately refer to it as the “gateway” to cheese-making, requiring milk and lemon juice as its sole ingredients. On December 20 we’ll graduate to working with cultures and rennet, paying homage to the grandmothers of yesteryear with hands-on instruction in cottage cheese, basket cheese, and paneer. This “Farmstead Cheese” class will be a grand ole look into the history of cheese, and a reminder of how simple home cheese-making really is.
Join us.

An Edible Autumn

September gave us beautiful weekend weather, but that last weekend felt glorious.
Maybe it was the company; we hosted an autumn foraging class with guerrilla chef Ben Walmer.

The weather was clear with overlapping hints of summer and autumn that made us tipsy with anticipation to get out into the fields. Ben had everything set up so that when the foragers arrived, we could grab our sacks and clippers and set off down the mulberry lane into the pastures. Starting on the cow path, we talked about wild edibles and their many uses. Just along the fence line we found wild chicory, red clover, crab apples, and rose hips.

Ben gave all sorts of culinary information, while farm staff shared general native horticultural details. We walked along the hedgerows scouting for wild grapes, goldenrod, and young dandelion. Through the pasture around the pond, we picked up windfall black walnuts, while offering our guests some insights into the farm topography and the riparian buffer along the Shippetaukin Creek.

Turning down the main lane, we wandered past shagbark hickory, young pokeweed, chokecherries, and native persimmon, until we got to the rise where we watched our heritage turkeys, ghost white in the field, foraging in pasture with the black Berkshire hogs. Turning into in the lower woodland, we hunted for spiceberries, examining exactly how the berries grew along the stem, to better distinguish them from the myriad other red berries in the woods.

Our pockets bulging with edible flowers, tannic grapes, red berries, and assorted greens, we set off for the cottage yard where Ben served a 4 course small bites tasting of Cherry Grove Farm cheeses and meats with locally foraged edibles. Visit our facebook page for the photo album and menu details!


heirloom-tomatoes-istoc39e1_6-16-14When I was a child I wouldn’t eat tomatoes. My mom would snack on cartons of cherry tomatoes while we rode in the car, eating them until the acid made her mouth hurt. Oh, not me. Ketchup? On a hot dog, maybe…Sauce? Okay, once in awhile – but never touching my buttered spaghetti. And raw tomatoes…nope, never.

I don’t recall exactly when I changed my mind about tomatoes, but it was a slow, gradual shift. It started with a slice on a sandwich, then salsa fresca. Then I learned about heirlooms…and fried green tomatoes…and tomato jam, and chutney and, and, and…Finally, three years ago I ate my weight in fresh garden tomatoes, quartered and sprinkled with salt, drizzled with emerald green Italian olive oil – a friendly gift from a garden that kept on giving.

If Adult Me could go back and have a sit-down with Child Me, one of the pieces of wisdom I would offer is about the vast sweet deliciousness of a perfectly ripe tomato. The satisfaction of the taut skin of a cherry tomato bursting between your teeth. The warm earthy scent that wafts from tomatoes clinging to the vine in the hot summer sun. I would ask that little girl to close her eyes and inhale the scent, take a little bite and give it just the tiniest chance. I would sit in anticipation while she scrunched up her face and moved the fruit around in her mouth, trying to decide whether she liked this new thing, or she didn’t. But even if Child Me turned up her nose, I could still be satisfied that at some point in her life, she did change her mind. And Adult Me is enjoying every bite.

Extend your tomato season: join us at Jammin’ Crepes on September 16, for a class all about preserving the tomato. Tickets available here.

Our Farm-to-Table Community

Author and Chef, Rachel Weston

Author and Chef, Rachel Weston

Being a part of the community has always been a big part of what defines Cherry Grove Farm. As the farm grows and expands its meat, cheese, and class offerings, we’re also expanding our reach into the community, teaming up with some very skilled, passionate locals.

Rachel Weston is one such local. A talented writer and culinarian, Rachel is the voice behind “The Gutsy Gourmet,” a column for The Star-Ledger, celebrating the people and places that make New Jersey’s food culture so vibrant. Her cookbook, “Jersey Fresh”, was released in May of this year. The collection of recipes and tips for cooking over fifty types of seasonal New Jersey produce is a testament to Rachel’s knowledge of the multitude of thriving farms, CSAs, and local farmers markets that pepper the Garden State.

We’re excited that Rachel is bringing some of that flavor to Cherry Grove Farm with two upcoming interactive farm dinners: Farm Fiesta, on August 29th, and Moroccan Feast, on September 26th. Both BYO dinners will feature demonstrations by Rachel, and hands-on cooking activities, all-in-all a night of friends, family, and food.

To reserve a seat for our Mexican “Farm Fiesta”, click here.
Tickets for the Moroccan Feast can be purchased here.

1902 - Family purchased farm

1910 - Leased land to dairy farmer

1987 - Hamill Brothers inherit farm

2002 - Started as a family business

2003 - Started a beef herd, laying hens, and pigs

2004 - Added sheep and attained organic certification of pasture land

2005 - Added dairy herd and began making fresh cheeses like mozzarella

2006 - Built aging caves and began making aged cheeses

2012 - Grid Magazine’s Cheese of the Month (Nov – Full Nettle Jack); Finalist at the Good Food Awards (Toma)

2013 - Won 2 blue ribbons from the American Cheese Society(for Buttercup Brie and Lawrenceville Jack Reserve); Added second cheesemaker

2014 - Broke ground on additional aging space and began process of getting AWA certification for our chickens