Thursday, June 27, 2013

How to knead a quarter droplet with naught but an egg white and the whisker of a cat.

"Why do so many brewers have beards?" was the question posed a few months ago on a certain Facebook page of a certain brew and cheese making store. To which I was pleased to be able to respond: "Beards add flavour, like cat hair". As I recall, they agreed with the broad thrust of my argument but caviled with the inclusion of cat hair.

Splitting cat hairs aside, the question of ingredients and proportions and ratios and recipes for beer and cheese is endlessly fascinating. Bugger the dispute over metric vs imperial, pounds and litres and gallons and quarts and oddities such as 'The Vanishing Australian Tablespoon', what we really need to worry about is quarter-droplets and walnuts and nickels and the balancing of eggs and how to knead with spoons.

 Blurry out-of-focus cheese to be eaten by blurry out-of-focus hipster.

Directions in slightly recondite culinary procedures like brewing and cheese making can be irritatingly imprecise. When I first started making full mash beer I was driven crazy by the direction 'add yeast' in recipes. 'Add yeast? How much?' Brewers, apparently, used to just skim yeast off the top of their beers once brewed, (or took the yeast from the bottom once the rest had been drained away); placed in a new cask of unfermented ale the yeast would remultiply and go to work again. These days you can just go to the store and get yeast (it comes in a little square packet that sits comfortably in the palm of your hand), but this tiny packet is for a 5 gallon, 23 litre batch of beer. I still don't have all  the material to do a full 23 litre batch; all my beers have been little 1 gallon/5 litre runs. So one afternoon I found myself opening up one of those yeast packets, pouring out all the yeast, weighing it, working out roughly how many teaspoons it was, and pouring it all back into the packet. Then again, yeast is completely puzzling: when you add it to beer, you expect it to multiply anyway. It's an ingredient that grows! And then, equally mysteriously, at some point it will just collapse and waste away.

Cheese culture is just as puzzling; it's the bacteria that curdles milk, lives in the stuff, but dies off after a few days if you don't preserve or propagate it. I've had some culture in my freezer for months, and repropagate it every few weeks - though each time, it comes out slightly different. It was traditionally kept going by just taking a bit from the curds every time you made some cheese, setting it aside, and then re-adding it to milk when you wanted to make more cheese.

Cheese making books and recipes can sometimes sound completely fey and whimsical. My Rikki Carroll book Home Cheese Making is perfectly splendid in many ways, but it also contains some notable eccentricities. 'Break the curds into walnut-sized pieces' reads one recipe. 'Break into nickel-sized pieces', says another, which last direction seems to combine the question of size and shape with that of international finances. 'Cut the cubes [of curds] into rice-sized pieces' specifies a third, which is really getting ridiculous. Other recipes inform you that the curds when treated should have a consistency 'like cooked chicken flesh' , or 'custard'; on page 140, I even found 'The curds should now be about the size of a grain of rice, and they will squeak when chewed'. There are plenty of directions like 'stir curds gently', 'stir occasionally to prevent the curds from matting', which are lovely - though they are completely contrary to a direction I found in a recipe in the back of one of Kerry Greenwood's books: 'Punch the dough about for a bit'. Crikey. No wonder she's a crime novelist.

One recipe for Chevre I downloaded from the internet somehow manages to combine extreme whimsy with utter precision in the direction '1/8 of a drop of rennet' - rennet, of course, being the enzyme you add to many cheeses to encourage the formation of curds and the separation of the whey. It's difficult to imagine letting one drop of rennet run out of your bottle and then dividing that drop up (with - what, tweezers?) before adding the correct portion to the mix. Actually, I'm told the trick is to put the drop into two cups of non-chlorinated water, mix, and then divide that water into eight portions. I'm generally too lazy to do all that, but occasionally, when I make cream cheese, I do keep a jar of rennet in the fridge for several runs. It's easy:

Ingredients: 200 mils milk
200 mils pure cream
A tablespoon mesophilic culture (don't ask me how much this is from the packet, I don't know)
1/8 drop rennet mixed in 1/4 cup non-chlorinated water (ie, a splash from the jar)
Method: Heat the milk and cream gently to just over 20 degrees celsius, pour into a jar, mix in culture, add rennet, shake it up, and leave it in a room at 25 degrees celsius for a day and night. The kitchen will do, or, if you live at my place, the study, where  I often have the heater on. When the curds have separated from the whey (the whey will be the greenish liquid at the bottom), pour it into a cheesecloth bag over a bowl, tie the cheesecloth bag up and hang it up to dry for a day. Ta da! What you will have is a delicious cream cheese that nobody but you will want to eat because everybody is on a diet or doesn't like cream or suddenly seems to like their cat biscuits and which therefore you will be able to have all to yourself.
Cream cheese sausage: three of my favourite things. 

Anyway. Where was I?

So, while cheese recipes generally seem to have a 'bung it all in and see how it goes' approach, beer brewers can be rather pedantic, verging on completely obsessive about their directions, to the point of including tables and percentages and weighing up the chemical content in different types of hops and specifying the precise temperature at which barley malt should be mashed at and the fine details about which sort of malt to buy and whether you are stirring the malt with a spoon made from a rhinoceros tusk or the wood of a Nubian oak sprung from virgin soil that has been well watered with ox blood and I just made that last bit up but you get the picture. If you google a few full mash recipes you'll soon see that some brewers set out their recipes more like directions for chemical equations than anything else, which level of precision infuriated me just as much as the complete lack of precision in the direction 'Add yeast'. My beloved Laurie Strachan book, The Complete Guide to Beer and Brewing, is the exception here because it actually sets out the list of ingredients as in a recipe, and follows up with a method. (And following that link now, I discover another bizarre recipe direction, courtesy of Steve: when making sake, you apparently have to polish the fatty bit off each rice grain).

Old brew books, and old recipe books in general, have the same mixture of fastidious exactitude and imprecision. Checking out the online version of Digby, who collected a whole heap of mead recipes just because he could, you find that eggs feature heavily in recipes for the honey-based drink:
put in a New-laid-egg; if the Liquor beareth the Egg, that you see the breadth of a groat upon the Egg dry, you may set it over the fire.
Egg white is used as a clarifying agent -
let it boil gently, till you have skimed it very clean, and clarified it, as you would do Suggar, with the whites of three New-laid-eggs.
Plenty of other recipes have similar directions - 'it is to bear an Egge boyant', 'a New-laid-egg swims upon it', etc. (I wonder if the addition of eggs might also give the yeast nutrients (which they need to eat in their initial stages of growth); one old recipe for cider calls for you to drop a steak into the drink before it begins fermenting, which may have performed the same function.  Another old American brewing book I found in a Thornbury bookstore has several directions like 'spread the yeast on toast before adding to the liquid'.)

Other directions include 'Take one part of honey, to eight parts Rain or River-water', 'Take Spring-water', 'take six handfuls of Sweet-bryar'; there are instructions to not mix mead 'in a wooden vessel, for wood drinketh up the honey', and the singularly non-specific but nonetheless helpful and encouraging instruction 'Take of all sorts of herbs, that you think are good and wholesome'.

Old recipes for cheese, some of which I have in my under-used copy of Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery, are similarly intuitive:
To a cheese of 2 gallons of new milke, take 10 quarts of stroakings & 2 quarts of cream. put to it 4 spoonfuls of rennit, set it together as hot as you cam from ye Cow...

Or I vaguely recall directions in other old recipes - possibly that I found on Gode Cokery - to 'set the cheese' so far from the fire, so it is the right temperature. (Actually, that reminds me, once I carried some cheese culture around with me for a day trying to warm it with my own body temperature, but it didn't set well - the culture was the sort that liked temperature to be around 25 degrees, room temperature; my body temp was the usual 37 degrees*.)

Those are about all the recipe eccentricities I can think of at the moment. But before I forget, I should tell you, I think I've finally worked out how, when you're making mozzarella, to 'knead with spoons': don't. See, what you have to do is wad the mozzarella curds together with a ball before dipping them several times in hot whey and kneading them. You can use the spoons to hold the curds under the whey, and press them on the curds to give them shape, but in between you do the kneading with your hands (covered in gloves). You just moosh them together to make them join up while squeezing out the whey. See? Now aren't you glad you rhetorically asked me? Don't rhetorically answer that. It could, rhetorically, get very heated indeed.

*(UPDATE! - This footnote is an update.) In Buffy, as everyone knows, vampires are actually room temperature. So theoretically you could culture milk by a simple method: 1) CATCH VAMPIRE 2) DON'T STAKE VAMPIRE 3) DON'T GET BITTEN BY VAMPIRE 4) STRAP CULTURE TO VAMPIRE 5) LEAVE FOR 8 TO 12 HOURS. There, you see, completely safe.


Steve said...

That was an entertaining post.

If you enjoy reading old and odd recipes, you could do worse than read The Old Foodie blog, which has a link at my blog but here is:

It's not exactly compulsive reading every day (in fact, I haven't looked at for many weeks til tody), but it has its moments.

TimT said...

Thanks for the link Steve!

Yes, I guess I have become very interested in old recipes lately. Partly because they give you a bigger and better perspective on the art of cheesemaking and brewing. That said, they're also fascinating as literature, and for their intersections with the writing of Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, etc.

Email: timhtrain - at -

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