Interview: David Bleckmann, co-author of The Cheesemaker's Apprentice

Cheesemaker's Apprentice The Cheesemaker's Apprentice: An Insider's Guide to the Art and Craft of Homemade Artisan Cheese is a new book that represents a meeting of three great minds: Sasha Davies, author of The Guide to West Coast Cheese; David Bleckmann, avid (he would say "obsessed") home cheesemaker and keeper of the blog The Joy of Home Cheesemaking; and Portland, Oregon based photographer Leela Cyd. Together, they have created an informative, gorgeously photographed book that will inspire you to take your home cheesemaking to the next level...or make a great gift for someone who enjoys experimenting in the kitchen.

At the heart of the book are recipes for a range of cheeses ranging from fresh ricotta to more challenging cheeses such as gouda and cheddar. The recipes are interspersed with inspiring interviews by a range of cheese professionals including Allison Hooper of Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery, Mateo Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm and French affineur Herve Mons. David Bleckmann, who created the cheese recipes featured in the book, was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk the ins and outs of home cheese making and the process of writing the recipes for the book. Warning: his enthusiasm is infectious!

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First, tell us how you got into making cheese in the first place?

I have always been fascinated by how food is made and love to take on the challenge of making something from scratch that one would normally buy at the grocery store Some of my past endeavors include making marshmallows, bacon, and birthday candles shaped a roman numeral ‘X’ for my wife’s thirtieth birthday. Over the years I worked my way through numerous culinary crafts such as brewing beer, preserving fruit, curing bacon, and roasting coffee. In 2009 my wife Caroline surprised me with a cheesemaking class, and I was hooked. Turning milk into cheese seems a magic process when you see it take place, and behind that magic is a lot of really interesting food science. I was compelled to learn all about the process. My goal was to write about home cheesemaking to try to explain what is going on in the milk and cheese when cheesemakers practice their art.

What was it like writing the recipes for this book? You must have been making cheese for months!

Creating and writing the recipes were a big challenge. In the span of four months I had to develop 16 recipes and make the cheeses enough times that we could photograph all of the stages of the make process, including aging which in most cases took nearly three months. It involved weekends preparing cheese at home followed by full days of photography. I am proud to say that nearly all of the photographs that accompany recipes were of cheese that I made for the project (we did have to use commercial cheese a few times). It would not have been possible without the support of my wife, Caroline, who put up with our kitchen being taken over weekend after weekend with vats of coagulating milk and curds draining in the sink.

A lot of people think making “real” cheese at home is beyond their capabilities. Are they wrong?

It is extremely easy to make fresh cheese at home like cream cheese, mascarpone, or fresh chèvre. You simply ripen the milk until it is thick like yogurt and drain it in cheesecloth until it is thick. Creating aged cheese like cheddar, gouda or gruyère is more challenging, and the new home cheesemaker should be prepared to have a few failures while they are learning. In fact due to variables that are difficult to control in the home kitchen, even if you follow recipes perfectly it is likely you will not get the cheese you were trying for over 50% of the time. This is part of the process, and with practice your success rate will improve. I have learned to embrace the inconsistencies. If I make a gouda-style cheese that turns out a bit too acidic and perhaps has caught a bit of blue mold from a neighbor in the aging cave, I might rename it a “blue cheddar” and enjoy it anyway. So I would say it is very easy to make real cheese at home (especially fresh cheese), but it takes some practice, patience and luck to make good aged cheese.

You cover a lot in this book,  with recipes from fresh cheeses to blue cheese to bloomy rinded cheese. Where should a newbie begin?

I recommend people start with fresh cheese. Even if you only make fresh cheese, it is delicious and you can impress friends with your culinary skill when you serve it with pride. The first recipe in our book is for cream cheese and requires only one or two items that may not already be in your kitchen. The same recipe also can be used to make chèvre, mascarpone and fromage blanc, whose recipes immediately follow.

Many people think they can’t make good cheese at home because they don’t have an aging cave like the pros. How do you solve that problem? And does it really work?

An aging cave is an environment with a controlled humidity and temperature. Depending on the style of cheese, the temperature is between 45°F and 60°F (8°C and 16°C) and the relative humidity is between 70% and 95%. Wine refrigerators maintain the temperature in the perfect range, but unfortunately they often have circulation fans that dry out cheese if it is not sealed in wax or plastic. A much better solution is to obtain a second hand dorm style mini refrigerator and attach an external thermostat (available online and at homebrewing suppliers) to maintain the proper temperature. These refrigerators often have no circulation fans and by placing a pan of water or damp towel inside the proper humidity can be achieved. I wrote an article on my blog at joyofcheesemaking.com that outlines the process of retro-fitting a refrigerator (see that article here). And yes they do work. The cheeses shown in our book were all aged in one of my three caves in my basement!

Do you think it’s helpful for people to learn about the various cheese styles, (fresh, bloomy rinded, aged, etc.) before making their own cheese at home?

I think it works the opposite way. By making cheese at home you learn what makes each of the various cheese styles different. You can explain how the cooked curd process contributes to the texture of gruyere or emmental to someone, but I think it is much easier to understand how the “cooked curd” process differs from any other process when you have gone through the steps of cheesemaking yourself.

How do home-made cheeses typically compare to their [commercial] counterparts? For example, how would your home produced blue stack up to familiar brands like Maytag Blue or Oregon Blue?

As I mentioned previously, there are a lot of variables that are hard to control in the home kitchen and it is a challenge to get every wheel of aged cheese to turn out perfect. That said, the first blue cheese I ever made was a stilton style from raw cow milk. The final cheese had a distinct yellow paste and was riddled with internal air spaces that had filled with blue mold. It had a strong mushroom flavor but also had rich, smooth mouth feel. I would have proudly put it up against any commercial blue. Unfortunately, though I have made many delicious blues since that first one, none have really matched that success. But I am still trying to figure out exactly what I did right that first time to get those results, and I am having fun trying.

I am also fond of pointing out that I enjoy cheese much more now that I make it myself, and I am willing to pay $30-$40 per pound for a product I now know requires great craftsmanship to make well consistently. I know cheese made in my kitchen and aged in a homemade cave in my basement won’t always be as good as the cheese I can buy, but when it is I feel pretty proud of myself.

What cheese have you made at home that you are most proud ?

It is a tie between the stilton style blue I mentioned above, and the muenster I made for The Cheesemaker’s Apprentice that appears on the cover. Muenster is a washed rind cheese, which is the most difficult style to master. When the rind turned bright orange and the center was soft and pudgy, I knew I had a winner.

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The Cheesemaker's Apprentice: An Insider's Guide to the Art and Craft of Homemade Artisan Cheese, Taught by the Masters by Sasha Davies, recipes by David Bleckmann photos by Leela Cyd Quarry Press  176 pages   $24.99 paperback