Homemade Spring Herb Chevre

dairy, fermentation, homesteading

In the spirit of welcoming spring, chevre is a perfect companion. It’s creamy, yet sour notes describe the thawing and waking of the world around us. It’s also a cheese I refer to as a lazy cheese. It’s the perfect gateway for anyone wanting to get into cheesemaking, with several steps that run the pattern of- “do one thing, then forget about it for a day or so.” To make it even more special it begs to compliment the first herbs that rise from the ground, or even if you’re in need of using them up, perhaps the last of last year’s dried herbs. It can be made from any mammal’s milk really, so why not pick some herbs on your walk to the milk store?

Start with good milk. It’s best to use the most minimally processed milk you can get your hands on, but definitely non-homogenized milk. Often this is called cream-top. The process of homogenization destroys the milk’s ability to turn into the cheese we want.

Next you’ll need rennet. Rennet is the coagulator that will give us our curd. Traditionally it originates from enzymes in the stomach of a calf, however there are now all sorts of options from plant-based rennet to weird laboratory synthetic ones. Check out Cultures for Health for a full line up that’s great for home use.

Lastly you’ll need some kind of inoculant if you’re not using raw milk, which provides it’s own cultures. Dairy kefir grains work great.

Process

If using a half gallon of milk, pour off a cup with your kefir grain to culture for 1-2 days at room temperature. A jar with a loose fitting lid works great. No need to be super precise if you don’t want to.

Once your kefir has generally ripened, take the reminder of your milk to the stove and heat to a pleasantly warm 90 degrees. Turn off heat and add your kefir (straining out the grain for future use). Stir and incubate the milk for at least an hour.

Next measure out your rennet according to the manufacturer’s instructions of the particular kind you have. We are using just 1/4th of a dose. I dilute mine in a small splash of water before pouring it in the milk. Stir the milk gently for 20 seconds making sure to touch every part- top, bottom, and every side. Put a lid on and let it rest.

In fact let it rest for 24 hours. I’m convinced this cheese was invented by someone who just flat forgot about it. Regardless, the curd will set within a half hour, and will then slowly ferment in the whey building up lactic acid bacteria. The results of this 24 hours time vary upon environment. Best to taste it if you’re particular. The warmer the room temperature/ the longer it goes, the more sour tasting it will become.

After 24 hours, or so, set up a cheesecloth straining system. Sometimes when I can’t find a cheesecloth I opt for a white teeshirt. Tie it up around a spoon and suspend it over a pot or bowl to drain out. Straining should take another 12-24 hours, or you can check periodically for your desired consistency.

Next open up your beautifully strained curd and place in a bowl for mashing and mixing. Add salt to taste, perhaps a teaspoon at a time until it is just right for you. Then the fun part- add whatever spring herbs you have around whether they be ramps, nettles, redbud flowers, dandelions, etc. Whatever flavors excite your imagination.

I think it’s essential to celebrate the new flavors that come up with every new stroke of the season’s wandering melody. Not everyone can stroll over to a ramp patch any time so consider dehydrating some to call upon for stoking some excitement for the flavors close at hand. Ramps and fresh chevre taste like spring to me.

Enjoy.

Ryazhenka – baked & yogurted milk

dairy, fermentation, homesteading

Since we are in oven season here is a recipe that you can’t miss to help warm your house and your spirits. It seems likely that this technique was developed by making full use of woodheated ovens. After a day of baking, a crock of milk was tossed in the residual heat, with the oven cover sealed, and left to slowly caramelize. The milk changes to a bronze-ish hue with brown caramel-y flavors as the sugars in the milk does its Malliard reaction thing. The baked milk is then inoculated with a lactic-acid culture and fermented into a delicious beverage.

The possibilities of this technique are great. I love the flavor of the baked milk and can be inoculated with everything from kefir, to sour cream. In this example I use yogurt as it’s my preference. The cultured product can then be drunken as is, perhaps spruced up with some maple syrup and cinnamon, or strained into a thick Greek-style yogurt. The choice is up to the maker.

But stay keen on the hidden treat of the crispy surface that develops on the milk as it bakes. That crispy, fatty, creamy cap deserves to rest on a slice of freshly baked bread and get eaten immediately.

Start with delicious milk.

Then bake it uncovered in the oven at 225 degrees for 6-8 hours or until it has reached a nice carmelized-ish hue, with a superbly crispy layer on top. The color of the milk can vary but you can determine its done-ness by a dark, crispy surface layer.

Quick snack break

Grab a freshly baked bread slice, scoop off the hot crispy top layer, add a sprinkle of salt. Swoon.

Making the yogurt

Let the baked milk cool. If you have a thermometer cool it to 120 degrees, if you’re low tech, test it by dipping a finger. When the temperature on your finger is hot but still comfortable you’re good to go.

Set up your jars or containers to ferment in. Basically anything with a lid. You can inoculate with a dollop of your favorite store bought live-culture yogurt or follow the instructions on purchased cultures. For this montage, I just put a dollop of already made yogurt into my quart mason jars.

Pour in the warm, baked milk, and stir everything up to incorporate the starter culture.

Incubation

My preferred yogurt incubator is a small cooler and hot water. I incubate at 120 degrees for 4 hours, and the little Playmate cooler handles the job smashingly.

I take my inoculated milk jars and place them in the cooler. It’s a good idea to pre-warm my cooler by filling it with hot water while the milk was cooling. Next fill the cooler with a new refresh of 120 degree hot water and fill it up to the height of the milk in the jars. My taps run at 120 degrees at their hottest making this an easy task. Otherwise you can heat up water on the stove.

Close the cooler lid and give it 4 hours of solitude.

Then pop the yogurt into the fridge to cool and firm up.

Straining Yogurt

There are a couple directions to go here. You can leave it as is. Ryazhenka is a cultured beverage so you can drink your yogurt as is, use it as yogurt, or strain it into something thicker. I like thick yogurt so I opt for a strain.

Using a clean, wet, and wrung out cloth, line a colander with a catch basin beneath for the whey that runs off. Since it’s winter I just throw this outside to avoid taking up too much refrigerator space. When it reaches a thickness you like it’s done. Greek yogurt perhaps? A thick dollop for my bigos?

A Beverage?

It also makes a delicious beverage with nothing more than a generous shake to distribute the thickness. Sometimes I’d add a dash of maple syrup and a pinch of salt for a wonderful treat. Cinnamon and ginger also suit it well.