I haven’t cracked the code, so the sarabclever fromagerie is not open for business just yet. However, thanks to some help, I think I might be closer. Hence, the explanation point in the title!
After much annoyance that I had not heard back from “the cheese tech” at New England Cheesemaking, I checked my spam filter. Among a multitude of other messages, also not spam, I had actually received a response (a while back, so I was lucky it had not been automatically deleted!). Oops. We’ve since gone back and forth and the tech’s suggestion was that I need to stir much more vigorously while adding the milk to the citric acid (and to be sure to add milk to the citric acid dilution and not vice versa). Essentially the acid may not have been properly distributed through the milk, which would cause the cheese to curdle prematurely. Considering I’ve had the same problem with all the milk brands that I’ve tried, it could stand to reason it was a technique at fault on my part. (Made me think I should have asked for the deluxe cheesemaking kit for mother’s day: it comes with a video and book. At the time, however, I distinctly remember thinking ‘why do I need a video’? Ahem.)
I decided to only make a half recipe. In part because I was eager to try this out and that was how much milk we had on hand when the spirit moved me, and in part because I didn’t want to “deal with” failure with yet another gallon, and in part because the quantity of cheese a gallon of milk produces is really overwhelming when you are the only one eating it. (My husband for some reason won’t eat it. He refused a piece, in fact, while eating some Domino’s pizza. I don’t even know what to say about that).
I added the milk as slowly as possible and stirred as vigorously as I could. I was even splashing myself to some extent! The milk heated up really quickly so it was soon time to add the rennet. I accidentally forgot to halve the quantity of rennet so this may be the explanation for what happened next: before the 30 seconds of stirring was up it had already clumped together into that ricotta-like mass. Yet is did look a little different: the curds were more like cottage cheese than ricotta, if that makes any sense: so I left it to sit, as prescribed by the recipe. When I checked back, while it did not form the lovely solid curd (which would have been miraculous considering it had already clumped up), the crumbly curds that had formed were quite firm and distinct from they whey: so much so that I was able to drain the curds in a colander, no cheesecloth required! I was quite excited by this and was sure it was a good sign.
As I said, the problem this time could have been over-doing it on the rennet. In addition, I may have stirred too enthusiastically on adding the rennet–you are specifically instructed to stir gently, but I perhaps had gotten a little too into it when mixing the milk and citric acid and couldn’t shut it off when it came to the rennet. (Besides ultra-pasteurized milk, over-stirring after adding rennet is a cause of a ricotta-like curd, this time because you are essentially cutting up the curd before it has a chance to set). Also, as I had halved the recipe, it’s possible I should have reduced the amount of time I stirred after adding the rennet–obviously in a smaller quantity of milk, the rennet would get distributed more quickly. Finally, I used distilled water so who knows if this had an impact. (Not the best controlled experiment here as perhaps a few too many variables were changed–on the other hand it’s easy enough to have a jug of distilled water around, especially given how little you use for each batch of cheese).
All in all, it’s progress. And may I just add, I am so pleased not to have to scrape little bits of cheese curd off the butter muslin cloth.