It takes 32 minutes to bake a loaf of sourdough bread to a hollow knock, with a crackling russet brown crust. I know this because as the former owner-operator of Small Oven Bakery in Easthampton, I’ve mixed, folded, shaped, and baked hundreds of thousands of loaves of bread. Perhaps more important to understand is exactly what can be accomplished inside that delicate envelope of time. Twenty-fours lender baguettes can be shaped and laid to proof. A quick skip to the pastry room reveals molten lava—240-degree boiling sugar—should be added to the 80 quarts of pillowy meringue whirring in the mixer. Once that’s taken care of, it’s time to prep water at just the right temperature for the next batch of sourdough. I see the levain has been doubling hastily, the taste slightly acetic, perhaps the most reliable indicator that spring has arrived in this fertile corner of Western Massachusetts.
Springtime in the milk parlor has similar implications. But here, at Sage Meadow Farm in Easthampton, I am a novice, just beginning to find my footing. Dani, Queen of Sables, stares down at me from the milk stand. Gauging the clunkiness of my inexperience, the goat eyes the paper towels on the wall, calculating how many sheets she can swallow before I drop a pint of grain into her bowl. “None today, Dani-Girl,” I say, scratching the back of her ear. After a couple of stumbles last week, I learned the timing of Dani’s paper towel test, a very particular waltz.
My home kitchen has been sanitized to accommodate the herd’s precious crop: raw milk. Today I aim to guide it through alchemical transformation, a process I am only beginning to understand as I undertake the journey of an amateur cheesemaker. Deep in the glassy pool of renneted milk is a galaxy of reactions, constellations I have mapped out in the pages of my trusty lab notebook. Sketches of casein molecules, lactate isomers, and phosphate groups decorate the gridded pages, now stuck together with the calcified whey that spilled onto the counter, notebook and floor during last week’s test batch of Romano. Theoretically, these organic molecules interact in a way I understand, not so different from gluten molecules, stretched and folded to create elastic, extensible bread dough. But cheese making, like bread making, is not simply science; it is art.
Over a span of ten years as a sourdough baker, I became so intimately connected with the process of bread making that my understanding of the scientific process was undercut by an intuition that guided every step of the way. A firm pinch indicates more detail to the experienced baker than digits on a clock or instant-read thermometer. But as a cheesemaker, my touch, sight, and smell have yet to fully integrate with the knowledge I have foraged from the pages of books. My senses are untrained, ignorant; the lack of memory in my fingertips can be alleviated only with steady practice, consistent failure, and careful observation.
Anxiously, I spin a jam jar in the warm white liquid. As the milk reacts with the rennet, the jar should, ideally, slow to a stop, indicating the point at which the milk flocculates and becomes a solid, jiggly mass. Watching the clock, I think to myself, “Why isn’t it working?” I dip my pinky into the bowl, rinse it, dip it in again, pace around the kitchen. My fingertip is a dull instrument in this medium; I can’t get a good read on the situation. Finally, the jam jar slows its spin, the milk congeals; I exhale. I set a timer and hold it close, relying on this tool to guide my analysis of how time and variables interact in the curd today.
The buttery white jelly responds joyfully to a shake. Sharpened this morning, my chef’s knife pierces the mass into imprecise cubes, and I stir the delicate blobs until my timer chimes. Chris Mulligan, head cheesemaker at Cricket Creek Farm in Williamstown, instructed, “drain the curds when they’re the consistency of a perfectly poached egg white.” Holding a gorgeously plump curd up to the light, I now know exactly what he meant. I squeeze the delicate orb between my thumb and forefinger, soaking up this moment—a small gift, a sensory breakthrough.
After two days of curing and brining, and another six months of affinage, this cheese will be cut open to reveal it hasn’t softened uniformly. A magnificently fluorescent orange washed rind has become slightly slimy, the product of poorly managed humidity. Cutting away from the exterior, I try a piece from a section I know is safe to eat. I jot down some tasting notes in my lab notebook, “foul…socks…slime…”
“The next one will be better,” I tell myself, closing my notebook. I can sense it.”