By Margo True, Sunset Food Editor
How lucky we are that Sue Conley and Peggy Smith, of Cowgirl Creamery, have agreed to be consultants for Team Cheese. They make some of the best cheeses in the country. Not only that, they’ve been mentors to many other cheesemakers, and do all they can to support the growth of good artisan cheese in America.
They’ve also agreed to give us a cheesemaking lesson! This is like Rafael Nadal saying he’ll help you work on your serve.
Cowgirl Creamery’s barn in Pt. Reyes Station, CA.
Sue Conley (left) and Peggy Smith.
Our "Class" at Cowgirl: Fromage Blanc and Cottage Cheese
Bright and early last Monday, Sue Conley and Cowgirl cheesemaker Jonathan White met us at Cowgirl’s Pt. Reyes facility. We started out like any sensible cooks do, by reviewing the recipes.
Together, we review the recipes we’ll make today.
First up: fromage blanc, a soft, mildly tart, spreadable fresh cheese. (It’s great on toast with honey.) Jonathan had already pasteurized the milk the day before, added culture (to help preserve the cheese, create flavor, and develop texture) and rennet (a coagulant; they use chymosin, a microbial rennet), and let the milk sit overnight to ripen.
"With hard cheese, all flavor develops in the aging room," says Sue, wearing her usual adorable French cheesemaker’s cap. "With fresh cheese, flavor develops as it’s coagulating, long and slow."
Now, at 9 a.m., the fromage blanc has finally formed soft curds. Our task: to pour those curds into cheesecloth-lined colanders and let them drain.
Pouring the fromage blanc curds.
Associate Food Editor Elaine Johnson, with fromage blanc curds.
"You can put that colander right over a bucket, too," says Sue. "You get whey, and you can use that to make ricotta."
I’m noticing how much attention is paid to cleanliness around here. All the equipment is sparkling stainless steel. The sink is full of bleach solution for scrubbing equipment and floors. All of us are wearing hairnets, and our shoes are covered with paper booties. Cleanliness is absolutely essential for cheesemaking—almost an ingredient in and of itself—since so much of a cheesemaker’s job consists of controlling bacteria. Let the right microbes thrive, and you have good cheese; let the wrong ones invade, and your cheeses are inedible.
Every now and then, we’ll stir the curds so that they drain evenly (if we don’t do this, the outside will dry out first).
While our fromage blanc drains, we start in on the cottage cheese. Cowgirl’s cottage cheese is a rich, creamy, small-curd type that, amazingly enough, starts with nonfat milk.
"Cottage cheese was a farm cheese you’d make after churning butter," says Jonathan. "Because it was something you could do with skim milk." Aha. So it gets its name from all the nameless cottages in which thrifty rural women have produced this cheese.
As with the fromage blanc, the milk ripens overnight. It gets a sprinkling of culture (in powdered form, from a little packet), to develop the flavor just like a bread starter would, but no rennet. At Cowgirl, this ripening happens in a big steel bath with hollow walls that fill with hot steam, controlling the milk’s temperature.
Now Jonathan slowly raises the temperature of the milk. It takes about half an hour to get it to 90°F. How the heck are we going to do this back at Sunset, without a giant steam-jacketed steel tub? I wonder. "You could try a bain-marie," suggests Sue. Good idea. We will.
At 90°F, the cheese is ready to be cut, using a very large, delicate-looking rake-like object (the cheese harp) to slice the curd into 1/2" squares.
Recipe Editor Amy Machnak rakes cottage cheese curds.
Then it needs to "heal" for 10 minutes. This means that each tiny curd square rapidly forms a protective skin, which will become a plump, distinct morsel of cottage cheese.
The temperature, meanwhile, continues to rise in the vat, to 110, then 130–very, very gently. Every five minutes or so, we stir the curd very gently with a large slotted spoon, to encourage moisture release.
At 130°F., the curds have shrunken quite a bit, and look like bits of pasta floating in lime soup.
Jonathan pumps cold water through the vat’s jacket, rapidly cooling the cheese; at the same time, he turns on an overhead sprinkler to rinse it and reduce the acidity. Then they’re left to drain for an hour or so. In a home kitchen, you’d just rinse the curds with cold water and let them drain in a colander, says Sue.
The Last Steps to Fromage Blanc
We scoop the mostly-drained fromage blanc into perforated tumbler-size plastic molds and sprinkle them with salt.
Me, packing fromage blanc into molds.
They should be filled almost all the way to the top, because the cheese will shrink as it continues to drain.
Some we spray with candida mold, which will give the cheese a soft, downy, delicate white rind. (This is how Cowgirl makes its Inverness cheese.) The rind development will take several days.
The fromage blanc, undergoing its final drain (another few hours).
When finished, it’ll have a wonderfully rich texture, similar to that of cream cheese but lighter.
The Last Steps to Cottage Cheese
Jonathan has moved all those itty bitty curds over into sturdy plastic tubs on tables. All that’s left to do is to salt the curds and then mix in a rich, creamy dressing of half cultured milk and half creme fraiche.
Sue does the final mixing.
The cottage cheese is like nothing we’ve ever tasted from the grocery store. It makes us realize that we’ve only known weary, stale, plasticky cottage cheese…how can we ever go back?
We leave with tubs of fresh cottage cheese, Sue’s promise to send us our finished fromage blanc (both fresh and ripened), and a determination to, yes, try making these at home.
We’ll let you know how it works out.