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Here it is, the product of three months of waiting, my first homemade aged cheese: a waxed gouda. It is still fairly young— I'm planning to age some of this cheese another three to five months— but it has an excellent flavor, already tasting rich, with lots of umami body. It's a little bit on the sharp and dry end, but it does have a definite gouda flavor. I used, once again, a recipe from Home Cheese Making, and materials from Leeners.

Here is the curd, after the milk has been heated, the cultures and rennet added, and the resulting curd sliced into cubes. I love how the clear white curds float under the transparent whey, like cubist clouds. Gouda is a washed-curd cheese, meaning that the whey is partially drained and replaced with water several times, in order to draw out the lactose and produce a less acidic cheese.

After the curds have been washed, they are strained and pressed to form the cheese. The cheese, in the case of gouda, spends most of a day in the press, and is then soaked in a brine to add salt. The cheese must then be air-dried in a cool, ventilated place for several weeks. If I had gotten it together to procure some hardwood sawdust, I could have smoked the gouda at this point, but that will have to wait until next time. Finally, the cheese is coated in wax and aged— you can see the waxing step above. Gouda can be aged anywhere between three and nine months.

Last, and most definitely least, here is a photo of my cheese press:

See how I hid this photo down here at the bottom? Those are dried fruit containers with the bottoms cut out, lined with cheesecloth, placed between dishes, and clamped down with luggage straps. The disadvantage of this system is that there is no way to regulate the pressure applied (which is probably why my gouda is a touch dry), but the advantage of it is that it is FREE.


Practical Considerations

  • How much space does it need?
    Not much, just a cool dry place to age the cheese.
  • How much time does it take?
    The initial time investment is only an hour or two, the cheese can require a fair amount of attention during the aging process.
  • Does it smell?
    No, although I haven't made cheese with mold.
  • Does it look grody?
    No.
  • Does it need special equipment?
    Yes. Like beer, you can do it simply, or you can go all-out. The basics are a big pot for cooking, the necessary cultures, a cheese press of some sort, cheesecloth and wax.
  • Is it worth it to do this by hand?
    Probably not, to be honest. The costs of the cultures and materials add up, as does the time and effort. I'll definitely keep making cheese, and maybe even buy or make a more legitimate press, but I'm pretty sure that I'll never make anything as good as something I can pick up at the local cheese shop for about the same amount of money. The exception is probably fresh mozzarella and ricotta, which are quick, easy, require minimal materials, and definitely taste better than their supermarket cousins.
 

Seeing as our apartment has become home to about six different kinds of fermentation processes, how could we resist a friend's invitation to participate in a homebrew competition?

Since this was our first time making beer, we basically just went down to our local homebrew shop and pointed at a couple recipes. They set us up with all the equipment, bottles, and ingredients we needed. Greg picked a chocolate stout and I went with a Belgian white beer. Unable to resist tinkering, however, I put together my own blend of spices to flavor the white beer. Then we carried our haul over to our friend's kitchen for the brewing, joining another half-dozen aspiring (and/or practicing) homebrewers.

The first step of making beer is actually malting the grain, which is the process of sprouting and then quickly cooking the grains. This step converts starches in the grain into sugars that can be consumed by yeast. Since it is a long and annoying process (which means I'd love to try it some day) most homebrewers use commercially produced malt extracts, and we did the same.

All the recipes employed at the brewing party followed the same basic outline— they began with steeping grains in simmering water, and then adding malt extracts and again simmering for a given time. Over the course of the simmering, hops of different types are added. During this stage the proto-beer is called the wort.

It was around this stage that things started to go awry. Cooking malt is a hot, sticky liquid that acts a little like caramel— bubbling up vigorously when boiled... or, uh, left unattended? Um, yeah. I'll just say that, according to my personal method of beer-making, step number three is getting down on your hands and knees to wipe liquid malt up from behind the fridge. Above, you can see what remained AFTER cleaning.

Greg's beer, on the other hand, proceeded flawlessly through the entire process. Here it is, looking rich and chocolaty already! After the brewing, the wort is transferred to the fermentation container, water is added, and the mixture is allowed to cool. When it's the right temperature, the yeast is added. Finally, the bucket or carboy is closed with an airlock to release gasses produced during the process of fermentation. Fermentation can last anything upwards of 10 days. There is a slim risk of pressure building up and the container popping open explosively, which happened to one of the batches for the competition, subjecting our friend's kitchen to another malty flood. Next time: bottling!

Practical Considerations

  • How much space does it need?
    Room for a five gallon bucket and a couple cases of bottles.
  • How much time does it take?
    A couple hours to brew a batch from malt extracts, however long you want to ferment it for, and then another few hours for bottling.
  • Does it smell?
    No. Or, at least not unless it explodes.
  • Does it look grody?
    No.
  • Does it need special equipment?
    Yup, although there's a wide range of price and degrees of complication in the available equipment— glass or plastic carboys, auto-siphons and bottlers, etc... I liked starting with a kit of equipment, for convenience. The basics are a big pot for brewing, a bucket or carboy with an airlock for fermentation, and some method of bottling.
  • Is it worth it to do this by hand?
    After the initial investment in equipment, making your own beer is pretty economical. You might not make the best beer in the world to start, but in my experience it's great for the price. It's fun and doesn't take too much time, but it's enough of an effort to put it in the category of hobby rather than routine kitchen activity.
 

Even though the crisp days of fall are well upon us, I have a couple summer projects that I haven't yet had a chance to post. One was delayed because of the vagaries of ordering supplies online, and another simply never made it on the posting schedule.


The latter is a neat BBQ tip that our friend Mike shared with us. Perfect BBQ firestarters, for use with chimneys or just charcoal alone, can be made using nothing more than a cardboard egg carton, some old candles or other wax, and dryer lint. I happened to have a couple ugly old purple candles hanging about, but if you're the type who doesn't keep a junk drawer full of cruft like that, you can also buy candle wax in craft stores.


Simply stuff a little dryer lint into each egg cup, and then melt the wax in a double boiler and pour it in to fill. When the wax has hardened, you can tear the cups off one at a time as needed. Simply light a corner and toss it in under your chimney or pyramid, and you've got a nice, guaranteed light. No need for spraying that lighter fluid all over! (Seriously, we used to look like something out of a comic strip when we lit our Webster— you could practically see the all-caps comic sans "FWOOMP!" as the pillar of flame spewed up past our eyebrows. Our eyebrows are pretty happy that we switched to these firestarters.)


My second summer leftover was a long time coming. I ordered a bottle of quinine powder about two and a half months ago, thinking that I would have my tonic water made in plenty of time to refresh us on those hot August evenings. When did the quinine arrive? About a week ago, after multiple unanswered customer service inquiries. I feel a little bad calling out a supplier, but I try to run honest blog here, so folks, while I highly recommend making your own tonic water, I cannot say the same for buying quinine from ZooScape.


Homemade tonic water actually takes the form of a syrup, which you add to carbonated water. This is great, because not only can you make a big batch of syrup all at once and not worry about it going flat, but you can also mix your tonic water to taste. When serving some gin and tonics with this stuff, I definitely noticed that people had different preferences. To make the syrup, water, sugar, quinine powder and seasonings are boiled together— I adapted a recipe from this Washington Post article by adding just a dash of Chinese five spice powder. Notice that homemade tonic water is not clear, but brownish, because the kind of quinine available to you and I actually comes undistilled, in the form of ground cinchona bark.


I loved the sweet and spicy flavor of my tonic, so much richer and deeper than a storebought tonic, and its many-faceted character, with the hint of five spice, had me thinking of not just cooling gin and tonics, but tempting champagne cocktails, warming spiced whiskeys, and a myriad of other cocktail possibilities. It also made me think of the wide variety of simple syrups that you can make using roughly the same technique. For example, last year I made a syrup of sugar with a spoonful of lavender that also made a delicious cocktail with gin. Quinine is what sets tonic apart, however, and as delicious as this tonic was, I found that the sweetness overwhelmed the bitter bite (of course, it could be that my quinine powder is a little wimpy). Next time I make this, I'll definitely dial up the quinine, and leave the simply sweet syrups for other cocktails.

 

Kefir is a kind of cultured milk, akin to yogurt. It is tart and effervescent, and, in my opinion, best enjoyed with a liberal drizzle of honey. Perhaps the most interesting thing about kefir is that, unlike yogurt, where the live cultures are completely integrated into the end product, the culture that creates kefir forms little grains that are strained off before consumption. Also, since kefir culture includes some yeast in addition to bacterial cultures, the process creates a small amount of alcohol. In order to make kefir, you simply add the grains to some milk and let it sit at room temperature until the flavor is to your taste, usually 24 hours. There are a number of more detailed instructions available online.

In my childhood, we used to buy quarts of sweetened and flavored kefir, a thick, tartly cloying, and faintly bubbly concoction that I absolutely loved. Rice crispies with creamy strawberry kefir was practically puddingy, a sweet breakfast treat. I recently tried to buy commercial fruit kefir at Trader Joes, only to be heartbroken by the limp sugar-yogurt water, nothing like my childhood memory.

So when I heard that a few patrons of my local dairy were sharing kefir grains, I was immediately intrigued. I got ahold of some grains (as you make kefir, more grains are produced, so they encourage generosity) and have now been making kefir at home for a few weeks. I've been experimenting with different fermenting times and temperatures, and in general, the kefir I've produced is thinner than that of my memory, but tart, delicious and fizzy. I'm still playing around with my system to perfect it—Greg is not a fan, and since kefir grains need to be fed pretty regularly, it is hard to find the right balance of grains to milk to produce only enough kefir for one person. Kefir is a bit brass about declaring its fermented origins, which means some people will find kefir a little... funky. If you don't like plain yogurt, you definitely won't like this.


Practical Considerations

  • How much space does it need?
    Just the container you make it in.
  • How much time does it take?
    A few minutes to mix the grains and milk, and then occasional shaking or stirring. Fermentation takes about a day on the counter or a week in the fridge, but will vary based on your taste.
  • Does it smell?
    No.
  • Does it look grody?
    No.
  • Does it need special equipment?
    You do need to find someone in your area who has spare grains to give you, or order them. Check the internet, local dairy buying clubs and the like.
  • Is it worth it to do this by hand?
    Since the stuff in the store is swill, it's a must if you like kefir.
 

After the success of my homemade sauerkraut (I am still enjoying it regularly, and we ate it last night with a Czech braised pork and gravy - delish!) I have been itching to lacto-ferment more veggies. Last week, our CSA share included a bunch of dill, and I knew the moment had come. I am particularly eager to try making dill pickles, but cucumbers are not yet in season - my own cucumber plants are only a few inches high, although our CSA may have them soon - so I had to improvise. I had some embarrassingly aged beets in the fridge, two too many bunches of radishes, and a bag full of newly-arrived CSA turnips - together, they sounded like a plausible pickling combo. I peeled the beets and sliced everything into manageable toothpicks, then added a handful of fresh dill and peeled garlic cloves and mixed it all together in my crock. Then I covered it all with brine (~.75 Tbs salt per cup of H2O, per Katz), weighted it with a smaller container to keep everything under the brine.

Now, just under a week later, the beets, turnips and radishes are all nicely pickled. They range from tender to crisp, and from sweet to mildly biting, but they all have a nice bright dill and garlic pickle flavor. I am thinking they would make a delightful cool summer soup, tart and sweet and salty. I am also going to try to can these, since I sincerely doubt Greg and I will be able to make it through 12 cups of pickles in any sort of reasonable fridge storage time frame.

This project was noticeably different from the sauerkraut in a couple ways. Firstly, smell: the dill and garlic conspired, over the course of a couple days, to turn the pickle crock into a sort of inverse air-freshener. If my kitchen were a Gl*de commercial (which, wow, is actually my worst nightmare), right now there would be heads of garlic and vinegar bottles floating through the room on a beet-red breeze. I think that the canning process will bring this to a head, but as soon as that's done, I'll be tempted to bake a pie to chase the smell out. The second less-pleasant quality is the beet-infused brine, which is definitely a stain risk. Lastly, because of the size of the pieces, I was unable to keep all of the pickles under the surface of the brine, and a couple at the surface developed little moldy patches. I picked those pieces out, and it should be fine, especially since everything is cooked in the canning process. None of these things are deal breakers for me, but I can't really imagine doing this more than a couple times a year in my small kitchen (not that we would go through more pickles than that anyways!)

Practical Considerations

  • How much space does it need?
    Variable. You could probably do this in a quart or half-gallon jar, but a sizeable crock or food-grade bucket is probably better. You can keep it anywhere, however, as long as it isn't sweltering hot, like under a table or in a cabinet.
  • How much time does it take?
    About 20 minutes, depending on how you chop the veggies, plus a few days of fermenting.
  • Does it smell?
    Yes, at least if you use strongly-scented seasonings like dill and garlic.
  • Does it look grody?
    A little. Mold can form on the surface of the water, especially if you let anything float on the surface. You can skim this off, but it's not the prettiest.
  • Does it need special equipment?
    No
  • Is it worth it to do this by hand?
    If you can put up with the smell for a week, sure!
 

OK, I'm in the middle of a seventy-hour week at work right now, so the kitchen has been pretty quiet. One thing I did have time to do was put together a couple of fruit fly traps. The little buggers started popping up last week despite the fact that we've had no actual fruit outside the fridge for ages. They seem fond of the sourdough starter, even though it is covered by both a lid and a cloth.

I followed these instructions on Instructables for both a soap bubble trap and an inverted cone trap. I put them out last night and this evening there are several dozen flies in there, mostly in the inverted cone trap. Several dozen. Where did they come from? I can see why classical thinkers believed in spontaneous generation - except my theory would have to be the fruit flies arise from the smell of sourdough starter alone.

 

Once you've decided to raise composting worms, the container to keep them in is the next issue. Worms need good drainage, a little fresh air, and whether you are keeping them inside or out, they need containment. The worms used for composting are not native in all areas, and if they get out in the wild they can disrupt local worm populations, so it is best not to let the little guys roam free.

There are two basic choices, homemade or premade. A homemade box is cheap, but it can be harder to maintain and harvest dirt from. A commercially produced box looks good and is easy to use, but is also remarkably spendy. The more time and effort put into the construction of a homemade bin, the more it will mimic the ease of use of the commercial bin.



While the simplest homemade boxes generally have one large area for the worms and compost, commercial bins have several layers, allowing the worms to move up and down. You can change the order of the layers, making worms travel through the compost material several times, processing it as they go, and creating much better soil (or so the marketing people tell me). Removing finished dirt is also much easier, as you can convince the worms to migrate to another layer, leaving the worms in your bin while the dirt goes in your garden. In single-layer bins, you can encourage the worms to migrate to one end of the box instead. (Note, because red wrigglers are not native in all areas, all dirt should be spread in the sun to dry and kill any worms or worm eggs before use.)

There are many plans for multi-layer worm bins available online. They are not hard to make, and as long as they provide containment, drainage and ventilation, the worms will be happy.

However, I knew that my bin would not be in a private yard or shed - it would either be in my kitchen or in the basement or patio that we share with our house's other occupants. I already subject people who share my living space to curing meat and fermenting pickles, I think a scrappy rubbermaid tub full of worms might cross some sort of line. When it comes to worms, appearances matter - worms in a fancy box look cleaner and more contained. So, I went with the commercial box, and I am glad I did. It looks at home in my kitchen, keeps everything tidy, and so far seems to suit the worms needs as well as mine.

 


About a month ago, I started making my own yogurt. I usually eat yogurt every day, on granola or fruit for breakfast or dessert, and since making yogurt is not terribly labor-intensive, it seemed like something I could do on a regular basis.

To make yogurt, you need milk and live yogurt cultures. Yogurt cultures include Streptococcus salivarius; Lactobacillales (that's plural for Lactobacillus!) delbrueckii, acidophilus, and casei; and Bifidobacterium. Live, active, probiotic cultures are not the exclusive corporate property of Danon, thank goodness, and can be found in any non-pasteurized yogurt. To start yogurt at home, you can buy dry mixes of cultures, or just use plain, unsweetened yogurt with live cultures and no additives.

Heat your milk to just below boiling, in the neighborhood of 180 - 200 degrees, and then let is cool down to 110 degrees. The cultures, particularly Streptococcus, do best around this temperature, so the goal is to add the cultures and then keep everything at 110 degrees until it becomes yogurt. This is an annoying process that my mom used to do using the oven, a thermometer, and a lot of patience. Luckily, today you can buy an electric device that is both inexpensive and a lot more energy-efficient than your oven. You can also use an insulated container or water-bath, but considering that yogurt can take upwards of six hours to become firm, I recommend the appliance!

My yogurt maker holds four cups, and I use about a quarter-cup of yogurt as a starter. To add the starter, I gently mix about a half cup of the warm milk with it, and then combine it with the rest of the milk. Then I pour it all into the yogurt maker, and have fresh, tart yogurt ready for my breakfast the next day. I do this about once a week, and so far it's been great, except for one batch that turned out a little more like curds than yogurt, which I have since learned was probably from too much time in the yogurt-maker. Perfecting the process to be sure of not repeating that might take a little more practice, but the stakes for experimentation are not terribly high.

Practical Considerations

  • How much space does it need?
    A yogurt-maker is quite small, but doing this in a cooler could take quite a lot of space.
  • How much time does it take?
    About 30 minutes to heat and cool the milk and add the cultures, then 4-8 hours of inactive time.
  • Does it smell?
    No.
  • Does it look grody?
    It's lumpier than commercial yogurt, but otherwise, no.
  • Does it need special equipment?
    No, but it helps a lot. Luckily, the equipment is small and cheap.
  • Is it worth it to do this by hand?
    Maybe. It is easy and delicious, but it is not necessarily cheaper than grocery-store yogurt.

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