The Art of Cheese-Making

Cheese Making must be an art, because it needs more than exacting conditions – it needs artistry. (At least that is what I tell myself as another hard cheese is waxed and placed to age in our cheese cellar; my fingers crossed – yet they feel all thumbs.)

Count me as doubtful, but it’s difficult to think that the cheese I make will rival that of the fresh dairy beautifully-aged cheeses.

But this blog isn’t for the faint of heart, nor is it written by the fearful. So, I will record the history of our cheese-making experience.

Family Milk Cow - Holstein - 3.5 years old

Daisey Mae

As true to our homesteading passion, our cheese is produced from milk that is obtained by the family cow: Daisy Mae. As I write this, Daisy Mae is a year older than photographed here. She is a real trouper. We purchased her as a young four-month-old calf. (We tied her legs and tossed her into the back of a Yukon, since we don’t have a truck. She rode home with her head in my lap.)

I haltered her and walked her up and down our mountain trails, poked her, lifted her legs, and bugged her enough to desensitize her to most anything. Now, at almost five-years-old, she stands for the 80 school children as they try their hand at milking and learn where butter comes from. She is happy for their company and all the attention.

Daisy Mae is a Holstein cow. The breed produce a lot of milk – up to 8 gallons a day – with only about 10% cream. We separate her from her calf for the evening. I milk her in the morning and turn them loose together during the day. (This way I can collect enough cheese without having to milk her twice a day.)

Six Gallons of Milk

Heating Milk

Once I collect six gallons, it’s time to make cheese. (On the farm it didn’t take long to realize that a six-gallon pot was required.) This pot is full with fresh milk on the slow rise to 100 degrees to make Cheddar Cheese.

Cutting the Curds - For Cheese Making

Cutting the Curds

When the cheese reaches the correct temperature, the culture is added and left to mature. (This time can vary based on the type of cheese desired.) In this case, the culture matures for an hour before the rennant is added. The rennant is an enzyme that sets the cheese into a semi-hard state. It’s not quite as firm as Jello, but cuts in a hard break.

Curds and Whey

Curds separated from the Whey

The cheese is cut into 1/2 inch squares by cutting in an X fashion, then diagonally through the curd. It is then left to rest as the cheese separates from the whey. Here’s where recipes can diverge, but always the whey is pour off and reserved for future bread recipes. (More on bread later)

Pressing Cheese

Cheese Pressed on our Homemade Press

The curds are then placed in cheese cloth and pressed for fifteen minutes, removed, re-wrapped, pressed again for thirty minutes. One last time the cheese, which has now become a solid block of curd, is removed, re-wrapped, and pressed over-night at 50 pounds. It air dries for three days, then is waxed to age from seven months to one year.

Waxed Cheese Ready for Aging

Gouda and Cheddar Waxed and Anging

We’ve had the pleasure of tasting our smoked Gouda, which turned out nicely. We also make Ricotta, yogurt, buttermilk, and more. Next week I’ll try my hand on Brie (my favorite!).

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Winter Work

During our previous life before homesteading when we were doe-eyed and innocent, I thought that life on the farm would be idyllic and relaxing. “Sure” I thought, “A farm is a lot of work, but when the harvesting is done I’ll just hang up my work gloves for the year.”

I could not have been more mistaken.
Tree Falling.  Clearing for growth

    Here the trees are thinned to allow others to grow.

    The garlic has to be planted in the Autumn for next year’s harvest.

Winter-planted Garlic

We once live in the corporate world with deadlines and quotas. Sometimes the stress built up and it impacted relationships, sleep and general quality of life.

But here, the stress is a slow tide that builds with the seasons. If we miss a deadline, we could lose a crop. So the months of preparations, the money and time invested could just get ruined. We’ve lost plum crops, corn crops, and have almost lost hay crops. (That would be 88 tons of hay lost!)

Harvesting Hay

There are always jobs to do. So anything that is not crop related usually ends up getting done in the winter. (Our most relaxing time of year.) This past winter we worked on falling and thinning our fir trees. This increases the value of a future lumber crop; allows sunlight to reach the grass and provide more feed for the cattle, and works as a fire break, protecting both the trees and nearby buildings from a wildfire. We also cut down trees that are too close to each other allowing the remaining trees to receive more sunlight to reach their maximum growth potential.

Trimming Douglas Fir Trees

The problem is that we have 90 acres of trees. So between falling, thinning and clearing underbrush – our winters look pretty booked for the next, say … 10 years.

My winter motto: Have Axe, will Travel.

And with all the work, I still wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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Winter Blues

When winter hits and the cold weather closes in, sometimes I wonder if our move to the country was worth it. It’s the little things that really get me down. I’m not talking about the hour drive to Eugene to get to the theater or enjoy some clothes shopping.  It’s just …

As I tromp in my mud boots to feed the animals, I miss sidewalks.

As I loose purchase on the clay-based mud and land on my backside, I miss non-slip surfaces.

As the storm clouds open and the fields get flooded, I miss city drainage.

Shivering, as I rush out to the woodpile and refresh the stove, I miss adjusting a thermostat.

Mostly I miss friends drop-ins, and sharing a cup of coffee and conversation.

Yes, I miss that the most.

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Wine Making Family-Style

Pinot Noir Grapes on the Vine

Pinot Noir Grapes on the Vine

We were fortunate enough to move to a farm with five well-established grape vines.  And, of course, we have planted a considerable amount of our own in the past five years.  But the grapes that afford us the best wine is the Pinot Noir vines.

Most Americans, myself included, always looked at wine and beer as an adult-only commodity.  Which by our laws, still is.  But in many European countries, youth also consume the fermented fare.  But what about making the wine?  Certainly kids enjoy crushed grapes and grape juice, don’t they?  We give a resounding “Yes!”

Crushing Grapes

Crushing Grapes

So with little hesitation, we corralled our kids to join us in the makings of some great home-made wine and grape juice.  This batch was crushed in the fall of 2009, so as I enjoy a soft, slightly sweet Pinot Noir I thought I’d write this blog.  Below is a little video of the grape crush. (forgive the music, but enjoy the video.)

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Recipe – Dried Garden Fresh Tomatoes in Olive Oil

Tired of saucing or freezing your extra tomatoes?  Here’s a simply delicious way to store your garden fresh tomatoes:

  1. Slice tomatoes into wedges.  Load tomato wedges onto a dehydrator, filling up all available space.  Dry.  (Optional: Add spices to taste. )
  2. Pour distilled vinegar into a bowl.  Screen by screen, gather dried tomatoes, lightly toss in vinegar before placing them into your storage jar. (note: Jar will not be processed.)
  3. Once jar is full, add oil to cover.  Store in a cool, dry place.  Tomatoes will soften over time and become tantalizingly good.
  4. Enjoy!

Ingredients:

  • Tomatoes
  • Vinegar
  • Oil
  • Spices: minced Garlic, Fresh Basil, Pepper (optional)
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Honey and the Honeybee – part 1

Early hives

Early hives

With the American honey bee becoming more endangered, its decline threatening crop production and food shortages, we thought it was good practice to include honeybees on the farm. (Not to mention the promise and  sweet temptation of their product: Honey.)

We started with four hives and are slowly building up as our knowledge and skills increase.  Luckily we have a small leg up in realm of honeybees in the welcome shape of a friend named Erwin.  Erwin has been raising bees for almost 40 years.  He makes all of his 60 hives in which his bees happily reside.

Immediately we upgraded our store-bought designs to reflect his vast knowledge, placing one screen on top and one screen on bottom of the hive, both sandwiched in-between the lid and the newly-built sliding base.

Collecting

Collecting

The top screen acts sort of as a one-way window.  We can open the top to view the health and activities of the hive through the screen, but the bees stay put and don’t fly up and out to investigate us.

The bottom screen and sliding base is more important as the screen is large enough to allow any death mites (either Tracheal mites or Varroa mites) to drop through onto the sliding base.  The sliding base is coated with a light spray of oil, trapping the tiny mites, killing them.  This way we can simply slide out the oiled base to see if there are any of these blood-sucking creatures in the hive and take appropriate action immediately.

Through the past four years we have gained another eight hives, but lost four due to weakness either of hive or queen (3) and foul brood (1).  We have had our share of mites that luckily we could rid, but they require diligence.  Another good way to keep the Varroa mites out of the hive is to dust the bees with powdered sugar.  As the bees clean off  the sugar from themselves and other hive-mates, they also clean off the mites.  I’m happy to say that our remaining eight hives, three of which are the original hives, remain strong and produce a wonderful supply of honey.

rich honey

rich honey comb

Extracting the honey will be the next item we tackle.  Mmm-Mm-Yum!

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Saucing Garden Tomatoes

Tomatoes: Fruit or Vegetable?  I’ve heard it called both.  Either way, I love them fresh from the vine, dried with spices in oil, sauced,  or pasted.  Nothing tastes like summer more than a sun-ripened tomato.  So needless to say, tomatoes are a big deal around the farm.

By March seeds were planted and kept indoors by our south-facing window.  In April, with snow still on the ground,  the seedlings were taken out to our make-shift hot house.

April Seedlings

As the weather warms up, they are transplanted into the greenhouse and spend the next few months rooting well and growing.  We enjoyed June tomatoes, which usually come a month before they arrive at the local farmer’s market.

Greenhouse tomatoes

Greenhouse tomatoes

We make sure to experiment with different types of tomatoes, saving the seeds from our favorite plants to enjoy the following year.

Speed is a requirement

Speed is a requirement

One hundred tomato plants produce anywhere from 30 to 60 pounds of fresh tomatoes daily.  Picking, washing, sorting and cutting this many tomatoes (and still having time to enjoy life), requires a lot of speed.  (And preferably extra hands.)  We’ve learned that the sauce thickens better with the skin still on.

The extra tomato cuttings go to feed the pigs.

Saucing Process

Saucing Process

The cooked tomatoes are run through a saucing mill. (Sauce Master costs under $20) The pulp and juice pour into the bowl, then is transferred into another pot.  The seeds and skin are collected at the end of the saucing mill and then given to the chickens.

Tomato Sauce

Tomato Sauce

Tomato Paste

Tomato Paste

Sauce or paste depends on the time it cooks.  Since we process such large quantities, we use a large propane burner outside as a cook top.

Please note that glass stove tops do not hold up well to canning.  Our new glass cook top has small chips actually burned out of them where the canning pot sat overnight.

The next step is to can either straight from the pot or after adding fried onions, garlic, bell peppers and spices.

If you live in a climate like the Pacific Northwest, make sure to add some acid to the tomatoes in the form of lemon or lime juice, or citric acid to your jars.  1/4 tsp. of ascorbic acid keeps the acid content up preventing spoilage.

Canned Tomato Sauce

Canned Tomato Sauce

When canning sauce the ratio between the tomatoes and added vegetables are measured in the raw. So 30 pounds of tomatoes, safely holds an additional two and a half cups of other vegetables such as onions and peppers.  Even if the sauce is brought down to two cups of thick paste, you can still add the 2-1/2 cups of veggies and remain confident of the quality and safety.

My favorite recipe:

Spaghetti Sauce
Makes about 4 quarts.

  • 30 pounds whole tomatoes (1 lug)
  • 8 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup chopped onions
  • 1 cup green bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 tbls. oregano
  • 4 tbls. fresh parsley, minced
  • 2 tsp. black pepper
  • 4 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp sugar to brighten the vegetable taste
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil

Enjoy!

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