• cheese tasting

    Finally, finally, finally, I’m beginning to cut into my cheeses!

    My plan is to share all my taste test results here; as for the actual recipes: only after we figure out which ones we like best and I’ve locked down my method will I post a recipe. (Well, unless it’s a kicker cheese. Then I might just go ahead and post it.)

    Note: To track methods, notes, and results, I number my cheeses. Thus, the numbers. Obviously.

    ***

    Cotswold (Number 8)
    This one’s probably going to make it into my recipe files in short order. It was the one my local cheese coach recommended I start with, and it was the first one I cut in to. 

    Cotswold is like a Double Gloucester, for those of you who know what a Double Gloucester is (they’re both from England and in the cheddar family), but with the addition of dried onion, dried garlic, and dried chives. Minus the garlic, Cotswold is known as a ploughman’s cheese which, apparently, is a type of cheese that’s served on a ploughman’s breakfast platter which is an English pub “thing,” or so I’ve been told. Cotswold takes only four weeks to age, which makes it a great starter cheese.

    As for the cheese? A solid five stars. Soft and dry, and a little creamy. Salty and flavorful. Not crumbly, and no funk or acidic tang. Just, a straight-up fabulous cheese. I was so pleased and proud, I cackled with glee for days: I made cheese! I MADE CHEESE.

    We ate it sliced, with crackers, mostly, and shared it with friends and, before I knew it, it was gone. I never even got around to cooking with it to see how it melted. 

    I have two more Cotswolds aging now, and I hope to make several more soon. With this one, I want to be well-stocked.

    ***

    Colby (Number 10)
    I don’t know what to say except: it’s actually a colby!

    I mean, seriously: how cool is that?

    There are little holes throughout, and it’s pliable and flexible, with the typical Colby chew. It’s soft and a little bit buttery, with a mild flavor. I did detect an ever-so-slight — and I mean slight slight; I’m being UBER picky — tang which, I’ve read, means it just needs to age more, so I packaged up the second half and am aging it for another month or so. Can’t wait to see how the extra time changes the flavor…or not.

    I did make grilled cheese with this one. The cheese bubbled and melted like a pro.

    And I grated a bunch to go with taco salad. It tastes like the real deal. No, it is the real deal.

    the little bits of white mold on the outside were both flavorless and harmless

    This one is a crowd pleaser and good for cooking, so lots more Colby coming up. 

    ***

    Dry Jack (Number 11)
    This one isn’t ready until March, but since I detected a bit of orange mold on the edge, I decided it was time to vacuum seal it. And since it was so big, I had to cut it in half to pack it. And since I had to cut it in half, I had to taste it. 

    It was sweet and mild, with a slight bite from the peppercorn, cacao nib, and coffee rub. The cheese was firm, solid the whole way through, and almost “glassy” looking, kinda like Swiss cheese. The flavor was good — not offensive or bad at all — but not exciting.

    Come March, I’m hoping there’s a noticeable change in the depth of flavor.

    I wasn’t sure if that red stuff was mold, but tasted fine and I didn’t die, so that’s cool.

    ***

    Monterey Jack (Number 2)
    Because this cheese had a bit of a dirty sock smell after drying it at room temp, and because the weather was so hot at the time, I thought it might be a flop.

    I opened it about a week early. The outside was slimy (which is normal, I understand), so I wiped it down with a salt brine and dried it. 

    The cheese was dry with little holes, and mild tasting. Again, there was a slight tang which, I’m learning to detect and identify as a sign of an under-aged cheese, but it was definitely not a failure. (About the holes: are they a sign of something gone wrong, or is this how it’s supposed to be? I do not know.)

    I kept a quarter of it out for snacking and re-packaged the remaining cheese. We’ll see how it is in another month or so. 

    ***

    And now, lest you think I’m getting overly confident with my cheesemaking, here’s a photo from today’s project: 

    Camembert, my butt. I’m so mad! The curd took hours to set and then it was still too runny and leaked out the bottom and then the stupid mold decided not to stay put and the curd gush-pooped everywhere. I salvaged what I could (so much for sanitized conditions) and, because Gavin says no cheese failure is actually a failure, I strained the curd in a bag and then put it into ricotta molds. It’s a mess and I’m peeved because the instructions betrayed me and because white mold cheese already has me nervous and now I feel utterly incompetent and stupid for actually thinking I could do fancy cheese. The nerve!

    Signing off for now. Gotta go nurse my wounds…

    This same time, years previous: vanilla fondant, nourishment, letting go, growing it out, the quotidian (10.26.15), in the garden, sweet potato pie, the morning kitchen.

  • the quotidian (10.25.21)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary;
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace

    Reading material.

    I taught my older daughter how to make pie crust and then she left these in my freezer.

    Green tomato: does anyone actually like it?

    Stretching the salsa.

    Squeeze me. I’m soft!

    If kept unopened in the back of the fridge, it has a surprisingly long shelf life.

    Careful. Bundts stun.

    Work lunch: savory oatmeal.

    Hey.

    Simple pleasures.

    Tucci on my table.

    Thinking of making like Delilah and grabbing some scissors.

    Crisscross.

    Spooky.

    This same time, years previous: vote!, snowboarder cake, 2017 garden stats and notes, the quotidian (10.24.16), winter squash soup with corn relish, our cracking whip, random, breaking news, the first teenager, the quotidian (10.25.11), tales of terror and woe.

  • soft sourdough bread

    Know this: I was not after a soft sourdough recipe. I love our bakery sourdough, and I love my homemade sourdough. But when one of you pointed me in the direction of Kate of Venison for Dinner (because of all her milk and cheese posts which have been awesome, by the way — thank you!), I couldn’t help noticing she had this soft sourdough recipe that kept popping up in her posts, and I became curious. According to Kate, she uses this recipe for everything from buns to loaves to cinnamon rolls.

    Why soft sourdough instead of the regular fabulous stuff, you ask? Well, some people, apparently, take issue with sourdough bread’s crustiness. This, I think, is weird — the crunchy, chewy crust is half the fun, right? — but I do get it that for anyone with tender teeth or weak jaws, a hard crust could be an inconvenience. Plus, some people just prefer billowy, soft bread without a sour tang.

    Like I said, weird.

    But, since I have a raging case of FOMOOF (Fear Of Missing Out Of Food), of course I had to try it — and it was totally different from any sourdough I’d ever made!

    In fact, my family thought I was lying when I said it was sourdough. “Nah,” they said, “this is more like Wonder Bread,” a comment which, I suppose, could be seen as offensive, but I happened to agree. It was so soft and white and non-tangy that I actually made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the fresh bread, the first PB&J I’d made in years, probably, and it was divine.

    Even though the bread is fully sourdough (which I still kinda can’t believe), it’s incredibly tender with just the gentlest bit of chew and only the faintest hint of sourness. And the loaves are so soft, they’re squeezable. Each time I pick one up, I think of babies’ butts.

    But wait! It gets better! Because then I decided to try making cinnamon rolls with the dough.

    Since subbing ordinary bread dough for cinnamon roll dough has never failed to be anything but a crushing disappointment — the rolls always seem to end up tasting like bread trying to be something it’s not — I was deeply skeptical. But they turned out wonderful: caramelly and soft and chewy.

    My husband says he much prefers this version to my regular potato-based dough which, he says, is too soft and sweet. This one has a little more heft, and it’s less sweet, so it feels more real. (Sweetness with a spine. Like me.) Normally, he eats one cinnamon bun and is done. With these, he couldn’t stop. 

    at night: my starter, my baby

    The process for this bread is simple but, since it stretches over two days, I recommend jotting down a schedule for the first couple times, just so you know what happens when and don’t have to think about it much.

    in the morning: double-batch of levain, ready to go

    While you can do these steps at different times so that you end up with fresh bread whenever you want it, for simplicity’s sake, my method goes like so: in the evening, make the levain; in the morning, make the dough, let it rise for two hours, punch it down, let it rise for another two hours, shape into loaves, buns, whatever, let it rise for two hours, bake. (For variations on the scheduling theme, see Kate’s post.) 

    baby butt-soft whole wheat sourdough buns

    As for ingredients, I’m still messing around with flours. I wonder if a higher-gluten flour may yield a chewier bread? When I want whole wheat, I use coarsely ground whole wheat in place of the AP flour for the levain (so far, using whole wheat in the main dough has resulted in a bread that’s too heavy) and then proceed as normal with the actual bread dough ingredients.

    soft whole wheat sourdough

    However, I think the all-purpose flour may be key to making a soft bread so I recommend starting with that and then branching out.

    Soft Sourdough Bread
    Adapted from Kate of Venison for Dinner.

    In place of butter, use coconut oil, lard, olive oil. Though I haven’t tried it yet, Kate says you can sub eggs for the milk — 1 egg for a quarter cup of milk. 

    Note: brushing butter all over the top after it’s done baking and then letting it cool in the bread pan are both key in getting a soft bread. Do not skip this step.

    I almost always double the amounts.

    evening levain:
    ½ cup cool water
    ½ cup sourdough starter
    ⅔ cups all-purpose flour

    Stir together, cover, and let set at room temperature overnight.

    morning dough:
    1 tablespoon butter, melted
    1 tablespoon honey
    ¾ cups milk
    the levain
    2 teaspoons salt
    2½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more

    Melt the butter and stir in the honey. Add the milk. Pour the liquids into the bowl of your stand mixer (they should be only slightly warm), and add the levain, salt, and flour. Mix until combined and then let sit for 20-30 minutes. (I’ve actually been skipping this step, but I think I oughta do it.) Using the dough hook, mix (or, if by hand, knead) for a long time — like 8-10 minutes. Cover and let rise until double, about 2-3 hours. Punch down. Let rise another 2-3 hours. 

    Turn the dough out on a floured counter. Pat into a rectangle and fold into thirds, as though folding a business letter. Place seam side down on the counter and rest for ten minutes. (If making cinnamon rolls, here’s where you roll the dough into a rectangle and then fill, roll, and cut as per any other recipe. Or, if making buns, same thing — shape and proceed.) Pat the dough into a rectangle — or circle or triangle or whatever — and then roll into a loaf shape, tucking in the ends as you go. This sounds complicated but is really easy. Just do it. Place seam side down into a greased bread tin. Let rise for another 2-3 hours.

    Slash the top of the loaf and bake at 375 degrees for 30-40 minutes, rotating halfway through, until golden brown and the internal temp is 190-195 degrees. Remove the pan from the oven and brush butter all over the top. Let the loaf cool for at least 20-30 minutes in the pan before turning out on a rack. Both the additional butter and the cooling in the pan are key to getting a soft loaf.

    This same time, years previous: another farm, another job, impressing us, three feet, field work, the reading week, autumn walk, a pie party!, moments of silence.

  • Menopause: seven stories

    At a friend’s 50th birthday celebration this summer, a bunch of us were standing around the campfire when I hissed at the birthday girl, “Hey, do you still have your period?”

    And just like that, we were all firing questions at each other: What are your symptoms? Do you have more energy now that you’re no longer bleeding? Did your periods get heavier towards the end? And, what, exactly, is the difference between perimenopause and menopause anyway?

    It was so weird, we all agreed. Here we were, a bunch of grown-ass women yet we knew next to nothing about this big physical change our bodies were beginning to go through. 

    It’s because no one talks about it, we decided. Everybody talks about getting your period or getting pregnant — that’s easy; it’s so obvious — but since menopause is a gradual shift, and messy and complicated to boot, it’s often not until women are on the other side looking back that we begin to comprehend what we just went through. Or at least that’s how it feels to those of us who are perimenopausal. Now, we bleed. Then, we won’t. WHAT HAPPENS IN BETWEEN???

    So I sent emails to a bunch of women asking them to pretty please share what menopause was like for them. As the responses came in, I was surprised by how many of the women discredited their experiences. Oh, my menopause was medically-induced, they said. Or, It was really confusing because I was going through other stuff at the same time. It was almost as though they thought that, if their experience deviated from textbook menopause, then it didn’t count.

    “But it’s the complicated and confusing experiences that we [perimenopausal women] especially need to hear,” I told one friend who felt like her experience was too much of an exception to be helpful. “The greater the variety, the better we can manage our expectations.”

    Besides, textbook menopause (which, to me, is: turn fifty, periods taper off, hot flashes and mood swings, then, BAM, done) was too simplistic, too narrow. I craved the stories, the real women sharing the details of what menopause was actually like.

    So here is my attempt at getting the conversation started: seven women, seven stories. Many thanks to the women for taking the time to share with us! (All names have been changed to protect privacy.) 

    A final note on terminology (which I had to look up, and even then I got it half wrong and had to be corrected): premenopausal women can reproduce, perimenopausal women are in the process of losing their ability to reproduce (this can last 10-15 years), menopausal women can no longer reproduce — a woman is considered menopausal when she’s not had a period for twelve months, but she’s in menopause during that year-ish — and postmenopausal women are, well, done with menopause entirely, though some symptoms do linger, I’m learning. 

    photo credit: my younger daughter

    ***

    Meet the Women

    Rachel, 57 
    I have no idea when I started menopause, how long it lasted, or when it ended. I had a hysterectomy at age 42. My uterus was removed, due to fast-growing, grapefruit-sized benign tumor, but my ovaries remained — the idea was that they would still do what they do, hormone-wise, I guess. I stopped having periods immediately, obviously, so I lost that gauge on what was happening with my body. 

    Sarah, 77 
    I started perimenopause in my 40’s and it lasted for 10 years. When I was about 50, I started having very heavy periods and had several D&C’s, which would help for awhile and then the heavy bleeding would start up again. I remember having a period for six weeks before one of the D&C’s. Everything quit at age 55. 

    Rosanna, 65
    I was about 50 when my periods started to become less predictable. This was not normal, so I knew something was changing. At 53, I had one very heavy period (while we were out of town at a wedding, of all places!), and then after that they were more irregular. Then, just before I turned 55, we had a traumatic life event and I never had another period. That was the end of that.

    Nancy, 72 
    By age 34 or so, I could no longer reproduce like a rabbit — conceiving our youngest took a year. Then, at around age 36, pregnant again, I spontaneously aborted. This was expected, since I’d been told I had a low progesterone count and hadn’t felt inclined to interfere with nature by taking hormones. I don’t remember when I reached menopause. 

    Liz, 60 
    I was 41½ when I noticed a change in my periods. I’d just stopped nursing my youngest, but I don’t think that had anything to do with it. My periods had never been clockwork regular, but I noticed they became increasingly irregular over the next couple years. It’s hard to remember exactly when I stopped; I just continued to go longer and longer between periods. In the end, I hadn’t had a period for six months, and then I had the mother-of-all-heavy-periods. That was the last one! I remember telling my sister about it; she’d experienced the very same thing, with the very same timing. 

    Leslie, 72
    My hysterectomy was so sudden and so completely unexpected that it was as detrimental to my mental health as any of the other extreme medical procedures that I’ve had, and there have been a few. Part of this is due to the fact that I had no time to even consider the procedure. I was at the hospital, prepped for a hysteroscopy — a procedure where, as I understood, they’d simply look at the uterus — when the doctor casually suggested that he might do a hysterectomy if he saw lots of endometrial tissue adhered to the uterus. If so, what did I want him to do with my ovaries? I paused a bit, and then replied, “Oh, just take them out. They won’t be functioning much longer anyway. I don’t want to wake up and find that I need another surgery!” So, you see. I have my own ignorance for some of the blame. When I came out of surgery, I learned that the doctor had cleaned me out. One ovary was adhered to my uterus. The other he just took because it was easy to do.

    Karla, 53
    I don’t recall a specific start time to all the changes. It was so gradual, the slow drip of the water. No day to pinpoint, but maybe I’m just not remembering it…. maybe it started four years ago? I think my first realization was a spotty menstrual cycle, but since my cycle wasn’t ever really bad, I didn’t pay attention until I had my annual midwife visit and she started asking questions. She commented that I could be in perimenopause, which I’d never heard of. So there’s that! After that, I paid attention a little more.

    ***

    Symptoms

    Rachel: Four to five years after my hysterectomy, I had a “breakdown” of sorts: a very difficult period of insomnia, depression, anxiety, unexplained weight loss, zero libido, frequent crying. One night I ended up in the ER with chest pain that ultimately was called anxiety. In hindsight, I can see I was doing more than was healthy in terms of a stressful job (and there were unusual stresses at work). I felt like, and maybe was, a horrible mother. 

    Sarah: Perimenopause hit me as extreme anxiety and insomnia. I would go night after night with no sleep at all while teaching full time. I also started having night sweats (but not very many hot flashes during the day). Because of the lack of sleep, I started having depression, weight loss, and, because I was always tired, I didn’t want to go anywhere, except for my job. I was also parenting a teenager who was into partying and drinking, which contributed to my anxiety.

    Rosanna: I must not have had many symptoms because I really don’t remember drastic changes. I started having hot flashes in my early 50’s — they were almost welcome because I have always been cold. (When I was younger, I couldn’t wait for menopause so I could maybe be warm; alas, it’s a different kind of heat and has not solved my problem of being cold. I hate winter!) I remember going through a phase where I could not wait for the hot flashes to be done, but I don’t think that lasted much longer than a year. 

    Nancy: No problems. Nothing like many other women’s crazy-making experiences. 

    Liz: I had hot flashes off and on, but I wouldn’t say they were very severe. Through the whole experience, I kind of felt like I was someone else. I can’t quite explain the feeling — kind of jumpy inside, and I found it hard to focus. That went on for quite a few years until I felt more calm and focused. 

    Leslie: Right away I had terrible night sweats and panic attacks. Another very definite consequence: drying up. I noticed my hair changed texture, my skin lost some of its elasticity, and I started using drops in my eyes for “dry eye.” On the plus side, there were no more odd pains in various parts of my body — migraine and leg aches — that, in retrospect probably were connected to endometriosis, the disease I probably had and that no one ever mentioned.

    Karla: The absolute most frustrating thing for me (besides a decrease in libido) has been memory loss and forgetfulness. It feels like it snuck up on me, which made me feel like I was losing it. I’ve had moments of crazy thoughts of thinking I had Alzheimer’s. I don’t remember some “obvious” events from just the year before — it’s become a family joke. And really, is this just aging or is it all connected to perimenopause? I say that because, around the same time, my eyesight started to go, I felt like I only had to look at food to gain weight, and I developed the ability to predict weather through my aging knee. Also, I started having hot flashes at night, I began constantly asking my kids to repeat things, my hair began greying, there was more hair on my chin, I started having hot flashes during the day and times I had higher-than-normal levels of anxiety.

    ***

    Coping Mechanisms

    Rachel: I tried everything: exercise, eating right, supplements, prayer, mediation, massage, consultation with a natural healer, cognitive behavioral counseling, medication. Somewhere in there, a nurse practitioner suggested HRT (hormonal replacement therapy), which I did. I lost track of how long I was on Estradiol — I just took it to help with everything: insomnia, moods, libido. In recent years, a nurse practitioner suggested it might be time to stop since I’d been on it for ten years. 

    Sarah: My doctor put me on a hormone replacement regimen, which wasn’t very helpful, so then he put me on a depression medicine. I put on a happy mask when I was out with people, and very few friends knew what I was dealing with. 

    Rosanna: When I realized that regular coffee made my hot flashes worse, I started making either full or half decaf and that seemed to help. 

    Leslie: The doctor immediately offered a prescription for fake estrogen, but I refused since I was already phobic about blood clots.

    Karla: Talking to women friends: the most valuable resource to be found. Exercise is now more for mental health than physical health. Also, I lasered my facial hair, I began to move to the couch when my husband started snoring (sleep is not overrated), and I bit the bullet and joined a weight loss program.

    ***

    Relationships and Sex

    Rachel: During menopause, my marriage was extremely strained. Was my marriage strained because I was depressed/menopausal? Or was I depressed and desperate because my marriage was crap? Chicken and egg. Who knows.

    Sarah: I didn’t share my problems with my female work colleagues, since many of them were younger than me. My husband was kind, but not a great support, as men just don’t understand.

    Rosanna: Funny you should mention sex! Again, it is one of those things that nobody talks about but I am really curious, too. I have very little to no sex drive and it has been that way ever since that traumatic life event. I’m not sure if the trauma brought that on, or if it was menopause. I think the changes in our relationship may be been partially on account of menopause, but I also think that it is much more complex than that. So much in our everyday lives has also changed as we are getting older, and that factors in big time!

    Nancy: My husband still thinks I’m the cat’s meow. But sex takes a lot of patience and kindness. It just doesn’t seem important. It’s not something I think much about. Those hormones aren’t driving me. No libido.

    Liz: I don’t feel the desire for sex that I had in my younger years. That was the only downside to the whole process. 

    Leslie: As well as all the other drying up, my vaginal area dried up as well. All you women who are about to have your uterus removed, take note: Sex will never yield quite the same degree of pleasure, as you will no longer have a contracting organ in there to “move mountains” for you (so to speak).

    Karla: There’s definitely a decrease in libido. It is hard to be the instigator when it’s lost its fun. I feel guilty for making him be the initiator so I am trying to be more intentional, which totally takes the fun out of it. I’m still learning to communicate better about this and be truthful and honest. I’m also still happily married and feel grateful for my main squeeze. I do put up with a lot — but he probably puts up with more.

    ***

    Looking back, any insights? How do you feel now? 

    Rachel: I didn’t ask women much about this when it was going on. Looking back, I think it was pretty much survival time. Maybe more conversations with women who were 10 or 15 years older would have helped. Also, I notice when I am hating myself and try to reframe my thinking. For example, I hate my feet. They are ugly — not cute in sandals. But I try to switch those thoughts to appreciation that I can walk and run and hike and bike. I like the concept of referring to my body as “she” rather than “it.”

    Sarah: I was so thankful when I was in my 50’s and felt normal again!

    Rosanna: I can’t say that menopause has made me feel different physically, but it has affected my metabolism. I try to walk 1-2 miles several days a week since my work is pretty sedentary, but I still struggle with weight gain.

    Nancy: I don’t mourn the changes. I still feel womanly. 

    Liz: Now that it’s all over I feel really good. No more emotional ups and downs. No more of that monthly bloated feeling. No more worries about when the next period would come. And I have lots of energy. 

    Leslie: I realize I’ve focused more on the cataclysmic nature of my menopausal experience, and I often feel bitter about the perhaps ten more years I might have had at least one functioning ovary (I have no idea if there are other treatments for endometriosis now, or even at the time), but my advice is: Hang onto all your female organs as long as possible!! And TALK, TALK, TALK to your doctor — nowadays perhaps a woman. Wow, unheard of in the day! — about each and every detail of every aspect of what they suggest. Also, ask about prescriptions and other solutions to deal with whatever it is you’re experiencing. 

    Karla: I finally paid the money and joined Noom. I was so tired of doing all the right things and not losing weight, but, like a good Mennonite, I hated to pay for it. So I vowed to do exactly what they said so for the first 3 months so I could quit and not pay more. And it worked! I lost what I hoped to and have kept it off for six months. This has made me feel more confident and feel better about myself. I’m so glad I did it and I feel like my weight is back to where it was before having kids. Additionally, other things that I have noticed and am grappling with are more facial wrinkles and hair, loose skin, and wiry white hair. I’d like to say that I’m slowly accepting these things, but I’ll probably be working on this for the rest of my life. I’m such a work in progress.

    ***

    This same time, years previous: curbing the technology addiction, where the furry things are, the quotidian (10.19.15), rich, would you come?, how to have a doughnut party: part 1, Italian cream cake.

  • the quotidian (10.18.21)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary;
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace

    The new vacuum sealer arrived.

    Another Wednesday, another lunch for the CCU.

    I went to The Pie Chest to stage and, instead of working, ended up visiting with the owner, aka my new best bud, for hours, and then she sent me home with lots of treats.

    When work leftovers include pulled pork and pastry dough, pot pies are what’s for supper.

    Not in the dish pit anymore.

    Thumb wrestling at small group. She won.

    Just a dog, casually lounging with one elbow on the door sill.

    We’ve got t-shirts!

    This same time, years previous: three things, kitchen notes, practical and beautiful, the quotidian (10.17.16), the adjustment, grab and go: help wanted, that thing we do, pepperoni rolls.

  • my travails as a self-proclaimed kid environmentalist: an essay

    My thirteen-year-old niece recently started her own (private) blog and agreed to let me repost one of her essays. Enjoy!

    ***

    When I read about Greta Thunberg, her family, and their activism for the environment, my eyes welled up, the words blurred by my sadness and anger. I did not finish that book. My parents and I decided that I should stay away from such dramatic stories to preserve my sanity.

    Instead, I started learning more about ways to counter this problem that has been passed down the generations. At the library, I raided the sections on climate change, plastic pollution, and low-waste living. I shared resources with my friends. I sewed cloth napkins and wrote to officials. I was using every reasonable* tool in my inadequate, kid-sized tool belt.

    I have gotten stronger, mentally and emotionally. I have come to terms with the disrespect and harm coming to our tossing sphere. I no longer cry myself to sleep with a drowning feeling of helplessness. I find ways to help instead of sitting in a puddle of my own tears. I think I’ll read the rest of that Greta book.

    The rain outside my window is the aftermath of hurricane Ida. The garden is only now getting the moisture it needs, after the miserly corn harvest. The stalks stand in their dead rows in the field, a sight becoming more common over years of abuse to the Earth we depend on whether we like it or not.

    I am outraged every time I see food in styrofoam and plastic on the roadside–basically all the time. I feel like nobody cares. When I hear about plastic bag bans or a pipeline blocked, I am temporarily consoled. But the fear and anger sneak back in. They still sometimes overwhelm me. I must learn to harness this grief and negative energy and bring my voice to the world.

    *Some examples of – as deemed by my parents and the overall society –“unreasonable” tools: never driving, not buying any dairy or meat whatsoever, only making our own clothing out of only organic cotton, not buying anything in plastic, etc.

    ***

    photo credits: my niece

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (10.14.19), a weekend away, soiree!, peanut butter fudge, a list, three vignettes: my husband, why it ain’t happening, puzzling it out.

  • show and tell

    I’ve been knocking out cheeses for a couple months now and am slowly become more adept. More precise. More confident and informed.

    However, considering I still haven’t tasted any of them (as of the first draft of this post, anyway, wink-wink), the whole endeavor feels more than a little ludicrous. All this work and they might be terrible, can you even imagine? But cheesemaking is like childbirth, I suppose: given enough time, the labor pains are forgotten. In other words, six months out when I open a cheese only to discover it’s putrid, I’ll just laugh and toss it, my hours of toil a distant memory. 

    Also, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know: aka, the perennial problem that applies to pretty much everything.

    Also also, none of my burgeoning expertise stopped this weekend’s cheese from being an absolute trainwreck: took the rennet five hours instead of thirty minutes to set up, ran out of time to keep it in the press, had to store it in the fridge overnight before I could salt it, etc, etc, grumble-grumble SIGH.

    ***

    When one of my friends read that I was wishing for more milk, she invited me to come get some at the farm where their family is in charge of cleaning out a neighbor’s milk tank. Take as much as you want, she said. So after my birthday campfire supper, my husband and I zipped across the county to get us some free milk — three, five-gallon food-safe buckets worth of the stuff.

    Plus, she gifted me an entire homemade cheddar cheese. I was over the moon. 

    The next morning my younger son and I devoured about a fifth of the cheese for breakfast, and all the next week I made cheeses — Gouda and Cotswold and Derby — as well as a couple huge batches of yogurt (with a thick layer of cream on top — behold the Jersey!)…

    dessert, basically

    …and two different kinds of cream cheese: Swiss and French. The cream cheese is delicious but it acts a little too much like butter the way it melts and softens on a bagel. It’d make a great herby dip, though.

    the Swiss-style version: my favorite

    And now my cheese fridge is full!

    Here, let me give you a tour. 

    air drying: Derby, Cotswold, Gouda, Colby, and Belper Knolle

    And in the fridge (with multiples of some of the following): Dill Havarti, Monterey Jack, stirred-curd cheddar, Leicester, traditional cheddar, stirred-curd jalapeño cheddar, halloumi, dry jack, Parmesan, Ibores, Butterkase, caraway farmhouse cheddar, and a bunch of bags of Belper Knolle.  

    I have other fresh cheeses in stock, too, that I use to cook with on a regular basis. For example, the other day when I made quiches, I threw in fresh mozzarella, cubes of salty halloumi, cream cheese, and some of the gifted homemade cheddar. Supper the other night was pasta with pesto, spinach, and chicken, and a bunch of homemade mozzarella and Belper Knolle. In the freezer, I have cottage cheese, more mozzarella, and Farmers cheese.

    Halloumi in brine.

    The cheeses made from the Jersey milk yielded more curd and were, subsequently, substantially larger than the one’s made with Daisy’s Holstein milk. To counter Daisy’s lack of cream, and in hopes of increasing the yum factor, I’ve taken to dumping in a quart of store-bought heavy whipping cream for every four gallons of milk.

    (Actually, the full cheese fridge isn’t really a problem. I can transfer the sacks of Belper Knolle to a regular fridge and, once cheeses are vac-packed, I will stack them and/or transfer them to a regular fridge. And soon [!!!] we’ll start eating them which will clear out more space.) 

    ***

    I find cheddar to be a tricky cheese. The curds have trouble knitting together in the press, and I can’t quite figure out why. But in the Biegel Family videos, their cheeses are quite cracked and lumpy, so maybe it’s how they’re supposed to be?

    Also, I can’t figure out why the directions say to “tear” the curd? Why not cut it in cubes? Because they surely aren’t hand-tearing it in the factory…

    I recently made a Farmhouse cheddar, which was a lot easier to make and seemed to yield a larger cheese. I think I might want to try a few more of those, in case the traditional ones turn out funky.

    Caraway Farmhouse Cheddar

    I’m getting more comfortable with washed-curd cheeses, like Gouda and Colby. Washed-curd simply means that, once the curds are cut, some of the whey is scooped out and then temperature is raised (or lowered) by adding hot (or cold) water and stirring. This removes the milk sugar (lactose) from the curd and lowers the acidity, making a more mild, smooth cheese. 

    Colby

    Dry Jack is an aged Monterey Jack and a traditional American cheese. The unique shape comes from hanging the curd in a bag and then pressing it between two boards — the hole in the center is from the bag’s knot — and the rub is a blend of ground cocoa nibs, coffee beans, and black pepper mixed with olive oil.

    It’s too big to fit in my vacuum sealer bags, so I’m just aging it in the fridge, flipping it daily. They say it’s supposed to age for six months, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to wait that long. I snuck a few shavings prior to applying the rub and it was soooo yummy — both sweet and dry. If it’s anywhere as good as I think it’ll be, we’ll plow right through it, so I probably ought to make a couple more right now.

    Ibores is a Spanish cheese, traditionally made with goat’s milk, but they say cow’s milk is fine, too.

    It’s a low-temp cheese — the curds don’t go above 86 degrees — and after soaking the pressed cheese in a saturated brine and letting it air dry, it’s rubbed all over with an oil and smoked paprika paste.

    ***

    A couple of my cheese goals: 

    *stock up on cottage cheese and mozzarella for the freezer. 
    *Settle on a halloumi recipe: since methods vary widely, this cheese bewilders me.
    *Learn to make Feta and Manchego
    *Make a few more repeat cheeses, like Havarti, Monterey Jack (I have a feeling that the one I made isn’t going to be good), Ibores, Dry Jack, Gouda, and farmhouse cheddar.

    I would love to level up to fancier cheeses — ones that use red bacteria, and blue and white mold — but I don’t have the proper space or equipment, Daisy will dry up in a couple months, I’m not sure my family would enjoy them, and, perhaps my biggest reason: I’m scared of mold. How will I know the difference between good mold and bad? How to keep the mold from not contaminating my other cheeses? How to maintain proper humidity? I am considering buying some Propionic shermanii powder to make Gruyère, Jarlsberg-style, and Emmental. The aging time for these cheeses is long but I’m mighty curious… 

    Oh, and one more thing? It’d be super fun to learn to bandage cheeses (start at the 50-minute mark): layer upon layer of gauze smeared with butter? Yes, please!

    ***

    A few notes on equipment.

    *I have three cheesemaking books and the best one, by far, is this one. It’s clear and accessible and I love, love, love it. 
    *My younger son made me some cheeseboards for air drying and storing my cheeses — you can see one in the cheese fridge photo. They’re perfect, and I wish I had more (take note, kiddo). 
    *My ancient vacuum sealer bit the dust and a new one’s in the mail (update: it’s here!).

    the one that died

    ***

    The other day, just for the heck of it, the kids and I pulled up the Monty Python cheese clip.

    Watching it, I kept interrupting, “Hey! I made that cheese!” Or, “Cotswold is basically the same as a Double Gloucester!” Or, “I just read a recipe for that one!” Or, “What about Havarti?” The clip over, I marveled at how much more of the dialogue I understood, now that I’m making cheese.

    “Well,” my older daughter said, “the only world I understood was cheddar.”

    This same time, years previous: the quotidian (10.12.20), the relief sale doughnuts of 2019, English muffins, the relief sale doughnuts of 2017, roasted red pepper soup, what we came up with.

  • the quotidian (10.11.21)

    Quotidian: daily, usual or customary;
    everyday; ordinary; commonplace

    Look who came home for a visit!!!

    She slept. . . a LOT.

    First family supper in over eight months.

    We had an early Thanksgiving!

    It was so good I may have to do a repeat.

    Butternut.

    After-dinner entertainment.

    Overproofed, grrr.

    Lunch delivery for the critical care unit.

    Crossword puzzles: such a bundle of thrills.

    I’m playing Ultimate again.

    Does your kitchen have a supermodel?

    This same time, years previous: khachapuri, if you ask a Puerto Rican to make a pincho, the relief sale doughnuts of 2018, the quotidian (10.10.17), the quotidian (10.10.16), the boarder, home, party on, the quotidian (10.10.11), old-fashioned brown sugar cookies.

  • Belper Knolle

    When I went to that guy’s house to make cheese, he introduced me to Belper Knolle.

    This hard, dry, peppery cheese originated in Belp, Switzerland, and is actually a fairly new cheese (or so I’ve read). It’s similar to quark, but with fresh garlic and salt mixed in, and then shaped into balls, rolled in black pepper, and left to age at room temperature for a couple weeks prior to vacuum packing and refrigerating. 

    after the curd’s hung for 24 hours, dump it in a bowl and add the fresh garlic and salt

    knead in the salt and garlic

    shape into balls

    roll in pepper and airdry for 2-4 weeks

    Since the process is low-tech — no cutting and stirring of curd, no cheese press, no saturated brine — this is a great cheese for beginning cheesemakers. Plus, it’s ready to eat relatively quickly (only a few weeks of wait time) which makes it a gratifying one to start with.

    Regarding texture, I’ve had varying results. At the two-week mark, the cheese was firm yet sliceable, but at the four-week mark, it was so dry that it shattered under the knife. The cheese came from two different batches, which may explain the difference. Or maybe I air-dried the one batch too long? (But the cheese guy’s Belper Knolle was sliceable and his was six months old.) Or maybe Belper Knolle’s supposed to be dry and crumbly? Either way, it doesn’t really matter. The taste is incredible. Earlier cheeses are more pungent from the garlic and in older ones, the garlic is more mellow. In both, the pepper gives it a serious kick. Some bites are downright fiery.

    I like to eat Belper Knolle shards with crackers, but it’s actually supposed to be a food condiment, like a truffle. (Not that I’ve ever cookes with truffles.) I’ve read that some people keep it on the counter and grate it into everything: scrambled eggs, pasta, roasted veggies, baked potatoes, soups. A couple weeks ago, I grated two little balls and added them to spaghetti carbonara in place of the Parmesan and black pepper — the reviews were off the charts.

    Belper Knolle
    Adapted from a variety of recipes and sources: Gavin Webber, New England Cheesemaking, and The Biegel Family.

    Any kind of mesophilic culture will work, I think, but I like flora danica. Also, when scaling up to three gallons of milk, I don’t really increase the dry culture — maybe just a smidge more.

    If mold grows on your Belper Knolle, don’t worry about it. Just scrape it off.

    And finally, how to pronounce Belper Knolle.

    2 gallons milk
    ½ cup whey leftover from making cheese with mesophilic culture
    (OR ¼ teaspoon dry mesophilic culture)
    4 drops rennet in ¼ cup cool, unchlorinated water
    3-5 teaspoons salt
    4-6 cloves fresh garlic, pressed
    ½ cup ground black pepper

    Pour the milk into a stockpot and heat to 86 degrees. Stir in the mesophilic culture and then the rennet. Cover with a lid and let sit at room temperature, undisturbed, for 24 hours. After 12 hours, the milk should be solid, like jello; at 24 hours, the milk jello should have condensed and shrunk, and there should be a layer of whey on the top. 

    Pour/ladle the curds into a cheesecloth and hang for 24 hours. Lots of whey will come out, so you may have to dump the whey-catching bowl a couple times — keep an eye on it. After 12 hours, open up the bag and stir in 2 teaspoons of salt (this will help express more whey); retie and rehang.

    After it’s drained for 24 hours, dump the cheese into a bowl and add the crushed garlic and 3-5 more teaspoons of salt, depending on how salty you like your cheese. Form the cheese into balls — somewhere between a golf ball and a tennis ball. They will shrink as they dry. Roll each ball in the ground black pepper, until you no longer can see any white peeking through.

    Place the balls on bamboo mats, or very clean wooden boards or cooling racks, and let air dry for 1-3 weeks (I usually aim for 2 weeks), turning the balls daily. If little bits of mold form, brush them off, pat on more pepper, and proceed.

    After a couple weeks, the cheeses should feel firm when squeezed. Vacuum seal them and continue to age in a wine fridge (or regular refrigerator) for another 2-6 months. The flavor should improve with age — deeper, stronger, more mellow — but you can eat them at any time. 

    This same time, years previous: fig walnut biscotti, pasta with chicken, broccoli, and oven-roasted tomatoes, o happy!, salted caramel ice cream, contradictions and cream, the quotidian (10.8.12), pear butterscotch pie.

  • the trauma of bearing witness: a nurse’s lament

    While messaging with one of my friends, a critical care nurse, she mentioned that “…we should be doing virtual community tours so people know about unvaccinated hell,” and then she told me she’d written about her experiences. I’d love to read what you have, I said. 

    I cried, reading about her experience, and then wrote back, “People need to hear this. May I share?” 

    She said yes, and now, after a bit of back-and-forth collaboration, here we are.

    ***

    A Nurse’s Lament

    I write about each of the Covid patients I care for in the Intensive Care Unit — just a short blurb jotted down in my personal Covid journal reviewing the major events of their progression, things they shared with me before they could no longer talk, and things their family told me about them. Initially, I did this as a way to remember them, to capture their struggle in Covid isolation that only the medical staff was witness to, and so I wouldn’t forget their journey, but now, eighteen months later, I realize I also need to do it out of recognition of my own trauma. Work feels different this second wave of the pandemic — so needless, as our ICU patients have almost all been unvaccinated. 

    Recently, when one of the families finally decided to stop the weeks of futile treatment on their middle-aged brother and son, they wept over our final video chat, asking me to please stay with him so he would not die alone. 

    “Of course,” I said. “I will be with him the whole time. My patients never die alone.” 

    I stopped his dialysis, unhooked the IV meds that were keeping his heart going, and disconnected the ventilator. His body hung on longer than I anticipated. I stood by his bedside, stroking his hair, holding his hand, periodically repeating the 23rd Psalm, and singing the hymns and lullabies that I sang to my children at bedtime. He never woke up, but if he had any awareness at all, he was never alone. 

    Later, I felt angry that I’d been put in that position, yet again: I bore the burden of his decision to refuse a life-saving, preventative measure at the cost of my own mental trauma. My own community has decided not to trust us — the healthcare providers who are also their neighbors, friends, and family, and who have their best interests in mind — and instead follow the inflammatory advice of radio and YouTube personalities, performers who are far more dynamic and entertaining than I am but who are woefully uninformed regarding medical treatments and evidence-based practices. And we — me and my fellow medical workers — must bear the brunt of the fallout. 

    Three days later I was once again in the same room, this time doing CPR on a previously healthy man in his 40s who’d been admitted the same day as my last patient, the one who had just died. Once other medical staff arrived to help, I got the patient’s wife on a video call and sat the iPad in the corner of the room to watch so she could make informed decisions about his care. “We didn’t believe in Covid,” she’d wept into the phone each time I talked with her in the days prior. By now, her husband’s organs had been ravaged by the clotting malfunctions of Covid and, after forty-five minutes of watching us attempt to save him, she requested an end. My heart went out to her, but my head just couldn’t comprehend — how is it we’ve been living in such different realities? 

    In Covid ICUs across the country, these scenarios are commonplace. The suffering is staggering. Covid patients are subjected to many hours of laying on their bellies to maximize viable lung tissue. Their faces and eyes swell due to the pressure from the face-down position, the excess fluid, and their stressed circulation. Because of the high-pressure ventilation required to recruit and maintain oxygen levels, their chest, neck, and arms fill with air directly beneath the skin, causing it to pop and crackle with every touch. They no longer look like the people their families once knew. 

    My coworkers and I watch as patients who are not yet at the point of needing a ventilator slowly wear out and give up. They cannot remove their oxygen devices long enough to eat, and their mouths are parched from the constant high-pressure airflow from the face mask. They struggle for each breath, and even though they hold as still as possible to reduce all demands on their bodies, they’re practically panting, breathing 30 or 40 times a minute. To help their families understand the dire situation, we try to carve out time for the family to video in — this is yet another distressing interaction that we must bear witness to. 

    Our ICU is on divert, almost continuously. We have some empty rooms, but there is not enough staff with proper training to care for the Covid patients, so sometimes patients are shipped several hours away in search of an available ICU bed. Beds open up when patients die. Does our community know this? Would knowing this help change people’s minds in favor of getting the vaccine? Would it make the unvaxxed a little more cautious? A little less invincible?

    We have lost so many of our ICU staff, and I, too, have considered walking away in favor of lucrative travel nursing position, other less-intense hospital departments, maybe another career entirely. I understand why medical staff leave — this job is hard. But when I get the desperate texts from work for help and see the holes in our staffing matrix, I often say yes, mostly because I know how overwhelming it is to work with inadequate staffing. I don’t want to put my coworkers in that position. And yet I am so tired of sacrificing my own physical and mental health, and my time with my own family, for people who have declined, discredited, and denied our medical advice. 

    I have been working in these conditions for the last eighteen months. I am numb, angry, and heartbroken, sometimes all at the same time, and I am exhausted. I often go hours without a break to eat or drink. I have learned to make a quick run to the restroom before gearing up because it may be hours before I can go to the bathroom again. The bruise across the bridge of my nose and cheeks is painfully tender from relentless hours in my N95. 

    I see photos on social media and TV of people eating in restaurants, of packed college football stadiums, of full grandstands at county fairs, and I feel betrayed by my community where the vaccination rate hovers around fifty percent. Seeing these large gatherings, I feel both angry and teary, overwhelmed by the virus’s continued, unchecked transmission and hopeless that this will ever end. 

    I understand the deep desire for normalcy, but at what cost? Mine? 

    I want normal, too.

    ***

    Thank you for sharing, friend. I am so grateful for the work you do.

    This same time, years previous: it’s for real, one foggy morning, maple sugar and cinnamon popcorn, rustic cornmeal soup with beet greens, serious parenting, sweet rolls.