02. July 2012 · Comments Off on D-I-Y · Categories: Uncategorized

Right off the top, about the first thing we learned – and learned it the hard way – about making your own cheese is that ultra-pasteurized milk is no good for cheese-making, even if it is the high-end and expansive organic milk. The ‘ultra-pasteurized’ notation was in such small print on the cartons that we overlooked it entirely. Ah, well – chalk that up to experience. The good-enough HEB standard whole milk works well enough.

So, when did we get off on this whole do-it-yourself kick, regarding things? Partly, we’ve always been on it: I grew up sewing my own clothes, following Mom’s example. I made just about every garment my daughter wore, between the time she outgrew the baby-shower bounty and when she began to shop for and purchase her own. Owning a sewing-machine, and possessing a modicum of skill means never having to settle for what ready-made offers. So – the mind-set is already there, encouraged along by the subtle realization that a lot of the staple foods that we like are expensive.

It’s the natural outcome of having champagne tastes and a beer budget, for which there are three solutions: learn to like beer, drink water six nights and champagne on the seventh, or learn to make champagne. The first two are unappealing – hence, learning to make good stuff yourself. We have experimented with brewing beer, by the way. This is not hard – just follow the recipe.

After clothes – we progressed to bread, although my daughter is keener on that than I am. I just throw the ingredients in the bread-maker, and rejoice that I am not paying $3 and up for the all-grain seeded loaves. The homemade version is much more substantial than the mass-market version, too. But we are still lamenting the fact that Sam’s Club doesn’t stock the 25-lb sacks of high-gluten flour any more – that made good bread.

When we lived in Utah, I went through a round of canning jams and jellies; either it was something in the water, or I couldn’t stand letting the fruit go to waste, with a back-yard full of apricots. Had fun with it, but for the life of me, I couldn’t taste much difference one way or the other between what I did, and jams and jelly off the supermarket shelf. Well, the Concord grape jelly was a cut above the supermarket brand; three or four bunches, picked at once and into the kettle before the dew was off them – that made sublime grape jelly, even if I didn’t really like grape jelly. (Overdose of PB&J in school lunches as a child.) And I came away from Utah with a stand-alone freezer and a food dehydrator, items which have proved intermittently useful.

So – on to cheeses: two cheese molds, a stock of industrial-strength rennet tablets and a length of butter muslin. We got good at mozzarella, and it looks like the farmhouse cheddar will shape up nicely, even though my current cheese-press is a chunk of limestone and four exercise weights. The cheese presses from the supply houses cost a bomb, and it’s kind of an esoteric hobby, so we probably won’t see one at a yard-sale soon. I think I can whip one together, though – from two pieces of wood or two or three long threaded bolts and wing-nuts. Two gallons of milk make two pounds of cheese . . . and if I can line up a source for fresh goat milk, we can really branch out.

There is another reason for DIY foodstuffs – that being the actual experience of making it pays off when I write about the 19th century. Practically the whole of a frontier farm woman’s life was spent (between doing laundry and raising children) in processing food for the daily meals or to be put away for the winter – vegetables from the garden, fruit from an orchard or gathered in the wild, from the milk of the cows, from corn and wheat flour grown in her family’s fields and ground in a local mill . . . pickled, dried, preserved with sugar, smoked over a smoldering fire – that work never ended for a frontier woman. Pottering around with making cheese, bread, sausage and beer and the like brings me something of a sense of what it was like for them, although I’m certainly not hard-core enough o do it all over a wood fire.

Still, though . . . I’d like to learn more about the process of parting out a pig, for hams and sausages and all that. I found some accounts on line, but nothing is like actually watching it being done . . .

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