Rumpelstiltskin spun straw into gold, a trick the alchemists tried for centuries to master. But that’s just the kind of magic gardeners and cooks and artists do every day.
Take some powdery flour, eggs, some sugar and butter and you can turn it into cake or cookies or bread. Take some paints or pencils and you can put a dream onto a piece of paper.
Plant a little dried-out seed and it will sprout, grow large, flower, fruit and make more seeds. One sunflower seed grows an 8-foot tall sunflower, with half a dozen flowers, each with hundreds of seeds. Drop a slice of potato in the ground and an entire plant will come up, and when you dig it up a few months later, there are half a dozen full-sized potatoes. Plant a row of bean seeds and you’ll be harvesting beans by the basket, with five or six beans in every pod.
If that’s not alchemy, I don’t know what is. It’s a kind of magic I’ve mastered, though.
We’ve been working a different kind of magic in our kitchen: turning goat’s milk into cheese. I’ve been making simple cheeses — ricotta and paneer — for a couple of years, but I’m finally moving on to cultured cheeses made with rennet. It’s a longer process, and I’m new enough at it that I’m thrilled when milk I heated and inoculated with buttermilk or yogurt culture after dinner has turned into sliceable curd by morning. Or when, after draining out the whey, it has magically achieved a spreadable consistency.
But sometimes I feel like a wizard-in-training who hasn’t quite mastered the spells. So far everything I’ve made has been delicious, but sometimes the cheese surprises me by turning out entirely different from what I thought I was making.
I thought my first batch of chèvre was pretty much perfect. It was tangy and sharp, had the consistency of cream cheese. Others liked it too and it didn’t last long. No problem, we’ve got two goats milking right now and are getting half a gallon a day.
So I started another batch. Chèvre uses a buttermilk culture, and in the morning the curd looked so perfect I took photos to send to my daughter. I poured it through jelly bags to drain, and I started heating another gallon of milk to make feta, which uses yogurt culture as a starter.
But when I drained this chèvre it didn’t look like cream cheese at all. The curd was drier, maybe because I had heated it too much so it set too fast. So I pressed it overnight and decided to try to make it into feta. Next morning I cut it into chunks, put it into a wide-mouth quart mason jar and filled the jar with brine. I figured we could do a feta taste test, comparing it to the properly made, yogurt culture feta that was draining at that point.
I pressed what I thought would be proper feta overnight, but the next day instead of being hard and dry, it was basically cream cheese. Maybe you could call it mild chèvre or goat Neufchatel, although both the Neufchatel and chèvre recipes call for the buttermilk culture and this was cultured with yogurt.
Whatever. I have three containers of something like cream cheese and a jar of what could be turning into feta in the fridge right now, plus ricotta and paneer.
It’s all good cheese, and all part of the magic that happens when your goats give you milk and the milk turns into real food.
My husband keeps urging me to start making cheddar and Parmesan and other aged cheeses that will store well and offer us long-term protein. That’s my goal, too, but first I kind of want to figure out how not to be surprised by the cheese.
I need a lot more practice to master this magic. Luckily, my friends are happy to taste-test my efforts for me. And I presume that if I keep practicing, one day making a proper feta will be as predictable as growing a radish from a radish seed.
Then maybe I’ll start on cheddar.
Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on June 10. Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.