Monday, April 14, 2014

I Can't Do It Myself Experiment #2: Homemade Amish Cottage Cheese

Community. It's been a concept on my mind for the past couple years. In the last several months, as I have realized how much I can't do myself, it's been suffocating me, weaseling its way into nearly every thought. What is community? What is my community? Do I even have a community? Is community defined by geographic location? Or is community defined by ideals and values and shared interests? Or is it both? Can it be both?

Growing up in the wind tunnel prairie town of Watertown, South Dakota, I was obsessed with trees. No, not forests. Those don't actually exist in South Dakota until you run into the Black Hills National Forest (and by then you're almost not in South Dakota anymore). The closest we get to "forests" are these odd looking things called "shelterbelts" or "windbreaks," unnatural looking, eerily linear groups of trees started back in 1934 to protect animals, people and crops from the extreme wind and snow and the extensive soil erosion exacerbating the Dust Bowl.  They rudely punctuate the smooth flowing plains, looking a lot like someone tried to bury a gigantic comb, teeth side up, and quit halfway through.
I was always a bit unnerved by shelterbelts. The trees seemed so...indistinguishable. To my young, restless and recklessly independent mind, they were a metaphor for growing up in big-town South Dakota [FYI: Watertown (population 20,000) was NOT a small town; that was Bonesteel (population 280)]. While I loved growing up in Watertown for so many reasons, I always felt trapped in what I felt was stifling homogeneity.

So maybe it would be more accurate to say that I was obsessed with one tree in particular, a lone, gnarly, impertinently independent tree that somehow managed to grow and thrive in the middle of a wide expanse, open to the extreme elements. It grew just off a gravel road about a mile and a half northeast of my parent's house, surrounded by farmland. In the summers, I would load up my book bag and bike out by the tree to sit and read, write and draw. I loved that tree and it found it's way into my art, stories and poems. It was my metaphor for me. Strong. Quirky. Independent. Self-sufficient. 
The only one not in jeans: my feeble 8th grade attempt at grunge.
(Note the Riverdance shirt paired with cords and hemp necklace)
FYI: These amazing ladies are STILL my friends!
It may surprise you, then, to know that I have had more than a few daydreams about becoming Amish, joining a community often defined by conformity, rules and sameness. I even contemplated calling this blog "Almost Amish." Then, about a month ago, in a whirlwind of events, I met an amazing Amish woman, who I will call Mrs. Sadie Schrock,* who lives by Kalona, just south of Iowa City. I have since realized that I am not even "KindaAmish."

A friend of mine who has a shared interest in DIY projects has been a longtime egg-buying customer of Sadie's. On one of her egg-buying excursions, the topic of cheesemaking came up and Sadie offered to teach her how to make cheese. My friend, who knew I had been trying to make cheese without success, invited me to come. She and I spent 3 fascinating hours at Sadie's home, discussing cheese, yogurt, canning, the rising cost of chicken feed, children, soda, allergies, audiology, Alaska, shampoo, prayer, gardening, birdwatching, kindergarten, and lye. I left with some eggs, a new yogurt recipe (which I will share soon) and cottage cheese, amazed and humbled by how easy it was to make.  For the morning, she invited me to share in the knowledge of her community and, like magic, I could make cheese.

The next time I went to buy some eggs from Sadie, I brought the girls. Nora looked around as we were nearing her house and sighed, "Ahhhhh...this is so cool! I think I want to be a farmer." Two minutes later, upon opening the car door, she screeched, "Ugh! Is that horse poop?!? I am NOT getting out of the car." She did, eventually. And they all loved seeing the cats in the barn, petting the horse and seeing Sadie's strange washing machine.

With each visit, I got to know a little more about Sadie and her Amish life. Her eldest daughter is three days older than me and has four boys, the oldest of whom is exactly Nora's age. She has an uncle who lives in Alaska. They save cream from their cow's milk to make ice cream for the kids in school. Her great-grandmother's name was Lydia. She enjoys helping the little ones learn to read their Bibles in German. She loves an innovative spirit that respects tradition. The families near her farm get together to order supplies in bulk to reduce cost. She loves the smell of clothes when they come in from drying on the line.

I left each short visit refreshed, inspired and a bit envious of the freedom from the constant pressing of "instant" and craved the established, supportive and seemingly fulfilling community she shared.

The last time I visited Sadie was just over a week ago. We were leaving the next day for Watertown for a visit so I drove down to buy some eggs to bring to my parents. Sadie and her family were preparing to host the community church service in a little over a week, which includes feeding 15 Amish families. I expressed, almost in passing, my envy of her community and my quest to figure out how to do community better. "Seems like you have the right model here," I said. She paused a moment, looking almost confused. Then she looked at me with a little smile and said, "Oh, I suppose there are lots of ways to do community. And to do it right."

Celebrating New Year's with the fam
In Watertown, I spent three showerless days sorting through bottomless tubs of pictures, newspaper clippings, old school assignments, notes, cards, school papers and prom dress receipts that captured my life from ages 7 - 21. It was humbling. For all it's annoyances, Watertown certainly gave me an amazing community while growing up. I laughed at ridiculous photo sessions I staged for my siblings and friends. I smirked at my junior high "notebook" I kept with a friend so we could pass notes undetected between classes. I unexpectedly and inexplicably teared up at a picture of my debate friends from Brookings. I felt gratitude that my college friends liked me even though I made strange animal noises. I warmed to read letters that Nick sent me in Costa Rica during our first few months of dating. I was overwhelmed by the notes, cards and letters I got from friends, teachers and coaches that STILL made me feel proud of myself and overwhelmingly loved. I remembered how much I loved New Year's Eve with my family, nannying my cousins, cream puff fights and neighborhood kick the can games in the summer, theater, ballet, interp, debate, show choir, golf, floor hockey, Odyssey of the Mind, arts camp, band, orchestra, building sets and even my classes. I realized how blessed I am that so many of those in my community of growing up continue to support me, decades later.
Yes, I was TweedleDum.
One powerful thing I realized was that each of those people that touched me, did so in person. They were a part of my geographic community, which meant they weren't always people I would have initially chosen to be around. Many of them saw the nasty me, the depressed me, the angry and self-righteous me. I realized in my last post that building a lasting geographic community means being real and it's messy, uncomfortable and absolutely necessary. The ease with which we can set up a virtual community based on shared interests and beliefs is extraordinarily valuable, but it makes it very easy to neglect the messier task of geographic community. Building community is a lot of work and I don't always do it very well.

Yet somehow, I feel like I have a fragile, shifting, but lifesaving community with my people here in Iowa City. People who do things differently, talk differently, enjoy weird things, have a wide range of struggles, ascribe to things that baffle me, and, if I'm honest, really annoy me sometimes. But when I think about it, I'm floored by the depth and breadth of my friendships. They are people that I love and that love me in the realest sense of the word. I feel proud to see that my kids are also getting to experience genuine, palpable community support that helped me become who I am today.
I thought about trees as I drove back to Iowa City listening to the River of Dreams cassette I found in my tubs. I don't think I could find that tree out on the gravel-roaded nothingness northeast of Watertown anymore. I still feel like that tree sometimes, though, independent, odd, seemingly self-sufficient. But the interesting thing I tried to ignore was that at the far edge of the field in which the tree lived, deflecting the strongest and most destructive of the near-constant winds, stood an eerily linear, homogenous shelterbelt.
Properly "gelled" curds, ready to stir.
Amish Cottage Cheese
Printable Recipe

Time to Completion: 2.5 hours (about 30 minutes active)
Yield: One gallon of milk yields a bit more than a pound of cottage cheese.
Cost: The cost of a gallon of milk + up to 1/2 rennet tablet (25¢ - 50¢) + 1/4 cup of cultured buttermilk or yogurt (if using pasteurized milk) (another 25¢).

One gallon of milk
1/4 - 1/2 tablet of rennet (see note below)
1/8 cup of water
1/4 cup cultured buttermilk or yogurt (if using pasteurized milk)
Pot with lid large enough to hold one gallon of milk
Fine mesh sieve
Dairy or meat thermometer (needs to go below 100 degrees)
Plain yogurt (optional - make your own!)
Salt (to taste)
Final curds before draining.

(All information on the science of cheese was taken from the amazing Cook's Illustrated's The Science of Good Cooking  p. 206-207.)
1. Pour milk and culture of choice into appropriate size pot on the stove. Sadie made her cheese with the fresh milk from her family cow, which was unpasteurized. But unless you live somewhere where you can access raw milk, you will likely be adding a bacteria culture (generally cultured buttermilk is recommended, but I have also used plain yogurt, which gave it a great flavor) to replace the indigenous culture killed during pasteurization. Depending on the type of rennet you use, you may be able to get away with using more rennet and avoiding the culture altogether. See note below.
2. Dissolve 1/4 to 1/2 tablet of rennet in 1/8 c of water. 
3. Heat the milk to 103 - 104 degrees (no higher than 106). This usually only takes 8 - 10 minutes. This provides the appropriate temperature for the bacteria to "wake up" and begin to convert the lactose into lactic acid, which allows the milk proteins to start to form a weak gel.
4. Add the rennet to the milk and stir to make sure the rennet is well distributed. The rennet is an enzyme that breaks down only one milk protein (casein) at one specific place, which allows the proteins to bond into curds and separate from the whey. If you were to age the cheese, these enzymes (along with enzymes from the bacteria culture) are what influence the different flavors of aged cheese.
5.  Cover pot and let sit, undisturbed for an hour. 
6. After an hour, if the milk has not set, try adding a/more culture or more rennet. After adding, check back in 20 minute give it a little jiggle and you should see a noticeable difference. If not, then something went wrong with the rennet or culture (too hot? too old?). If you notice it starting to gel, leave it for the remaining 40 minutes.
7. Once your milk has set, give it a few good, gentle stirs to break apart the gelled milk (curds) into smaller pieces, then cover and let sit for 15 minutes.
8. Every 15 minutes for an hour, stir up the curds. You should notice the curds settling at the bottom.
9. At the end of the hour, check the texture of the curds. Although Sadie doesn't do this, I found that if you like the curds a little more firm, you can heat the milk back up slightly (to about 110-115) and maintain it there for 10 minutes. If it gets too hot, you'll have squeaky cheese curds, which are delicious in their own way. :-) Also, note that the curds will get firmer if you leave them at room temperature for 20 - 30 minutes (and will continue to firm up in the fridge).
10. Carefully drain off the whey and, if necessary, pour the curds into a fine mesh sieve to drain more completely. 
11. Pour curds into a bowl and add salt to taste (start with 1 - 2 tsp and work up from there). Mix in with fingers. During this part, the curds will get smaller, more like the size of store cheese. You can determine how big the curds are by how much you squash the curds. 
12. Enjoy! To get the tangier taste of store-bought cottage cheese, Sadie adds plain yogurt to the curds. Sadie recommends eating the cheese within 3 days. Ours is always gone in a day.
Fromase rennet
NOTE: Rennet is a microbial enzyme traditionally harvested from the stomach lining of a very young calf. However, there are vegetable rennets widely available. I have used two different kinds of rennet. Junket, which I believe (but don't know) uses animal rennet, is the brand that is cheapest and most widely available at grocery stores. Fromase is a purely vegetable rennet that is stronger, about twice as expensive and I have only found it on Amazon. You can, in theory, add 1/2 tablet (vs 1/4) of Fromase to pasteurized milk and forgo the culture, but for the first time, I would recommend using a culture. I was unable to get the Junket to coagulate without a culture.

* Not her real name. A name made up from the most popular Amish names in the midwest. 

Oh, and happy 2nd birthday, Lidia! 


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