Thursday, 29 May 2014

Keeping Things Cool in the 19th Century Pt. 3: Making Cheese, Please!

Cheese making was not a laborious or intricate procedure for the early Pennsylvania Germans who settled in 19th Century Waterloo County. Indeed, dairying is not something that particularly defined this culture group although it certainly was commonplace--at least on a smaller scale than we see today. Known more as a pork-based food culture, cheeses that were produced by these people locally were usually soft cheeses and not aged, hard cheeses like cheddar. Dialect names such as Ballekase, Hofkase and Schmierkase represent a few of these proliferous cheeses that accompanied many a loaf of home-made Roggenbrot (Rye Bread) on the Pennsylvania-German table in early Waterloo County. More often than not, butter was sold as a commodity to make some extra cash for the thrifty hausfrau and so one would find its ready replacement-Schmierkase- along with a small bowl of delicious apple butter on the table. What is apple butter? Similar to an apple jam or concentrated applesauce that is spreadable or spoonable onto a slice of bread. Like their Pennsylvania relatives, local Pa. Germans planted apple trees in record number, eventually harvesting the fruit in a variety of ways that have and often still do predominate many a local dinner table.

For more information on apple harvesting history see: 

Incidentally, we also have a well-known local festival that takes place every September. For more information on the Wellesley Apple Butter and Cheese Festival:

And finally, to make apple butter for yourself in a slow cooker, a great little recipe:

But I digress--back to my cheese making. Here I am making Schmierkase. On the wood stove, two litres of buttermilk (and that's it!) stirred once then left to sit on a back burner, simmering, until a good curd begins to form. If you look closely you will see the yellowy line running through the milk. This is the curd separating from the whey.
 The key here is to not bring it to a boil and don't stir it. Just let it sit, at a simmer, until it is clearly separated.

 At that point, pour your mixture of curds and whey into a sieve that has been lined with cheesecloth (historically they would have used linen cloth). As you can see by the photo, I also have the sieve sitting in a larger bowl so that I can catch the liquid that drains off of the curd. I upturned a smaller bowl and set the sieve on top of it to create a level of drainage space. Once you have poured the curd into the cheesecloth, tie it off and onto a wooden dowel (I just used a wooden spoon) to make a little pouch of sorts. Let it drain this way overnight--do not refrigerate it.

Sometimes, the sieve is a formed sieve like the one below in the foreground. This one is in the shape of a heart. If you use a shaped sieve, make sure to press the curd down into all of the shape so that the final dried curd will conform to it when you remove it. Historically, some of the cheeses made were special seasonal treats that included ingredients that were plentiful at that time and in season (the original Eat Local, Eat Fresh). One such recipe was for Easter Cheese which was an egg cheese (see below at bottom of blogpost for a recipe). Chickens normally slow down (virtually stop) egg laying production in the winter months yet will start producing again once spring comes (along with increasing daylight hours). Today, with the addition of modern lighting techniques this can be changed:
(see: )

Historically speaking, the increased production of egg laying was a welcome change to the rather bland winter diet for most farmers in early days. Since this also occurred on or near the Easter season, a traditional food that reflected this was to make cheese that included sugar and the addition of newly plentiful eggs. This type of cheese was also well-known throughout Europe.

For the Schmierkase, once you pour the curds into the sieve leave it to drain. And so the overnight draining begins..... Notice the butter bowl and butter stamps on the table.
The next morning, carefully unwrap the curds from the cheesecloth and set it on a plate. With the tines of a fork, mash the curds to a fine consistency. Sprinkle some salt over the mashed curds to taste. Finally, pour enough table cream into and onto the mashed curds carefully working it through the curds with the fork. Add as much as is needed, carefully, in order to achieve a consistency that can be spread onto a slice of bread. The finished product with not be satin smooth but should still be relatively creamy when finished.
A nice local touch is to serve these soft cheeses with a drizzle of locally made maple syrup! Delicious! And so, we share with our guests......

Recipe for Easter (or Egg) Cheese
 NOTE: this cheese you stir while you are making it!

12 eggs
1 litre of whole milk
1 cup of white sugar
1/2 tsp fresh ground nutmeg (more or less according to taste)
1 tsp vanilla (optional)
In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs until light and fluffy. Stir in milk, sugar, vanilla and nutmeg. Cook over medium heat for about 30 minutes. Stir periodically to prevent the bottom of the pan to from scorching. When the mixture looks like cooked scrambled eggs, pour it carefully into a cheesecloth-lined sieve. Carefully gather the ends of the cheesecloth and pull them together until the cheese curds form into a ball. Tie the cheesecloth tightly a top of the ball and tie ends over a wooden spoon, suspending it over a bowl. Let drip overnight. (Alternately, you can press the curds in the cheesecloth into a shaped sieve and let drain overnight. Still you will need a bowl to catch the whey that is draining. When drained, untie the cheesecloth (or remove from sieve gently) and wrap in plastic wrap before refrigerating. Will keep for about a week. Slice and serve with maple syrup for a traditional local treat!

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