A traveling computer software specialist by trade, Jean Groves of Hillsboro, Kansas loves to relax on days off with a pot of bubbling milk on the stove making cheese, with symphony music playing in the background.
"I grew up on a family farm where we made a lot of our own food," she said. "My aunts had their own cows and we always had very good, homemade cottage cheese. It took me a while to appreciate the fact, but I developed a palate for homemade cheese and now I wouldn’t have it any other way."
Groves became serious about making her own cheese in 1997 after she and her husband, Richard, attended a cheese maker’s seminar at Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma. Together they learned to make fresh cheeses and got recipes for some other semi-hard and hard cheese, which they continue to experiment with.
"Making cheese is such a fun hobby for us," Groves said. "I still buy other’s cheese occasionally, just to see what it tastes like. But mostly I think I can probably make it taste better. I am inspired by the intricate things that can be done to change the flavor and love to work at finding the perfect way to do it."
Groves uses both cow and goat milk in her cheese making, but prefers to work with goat milk if she can get it.
"The flavor is just so much better with goat milk," she said. "There is more room for experimentation, plus I love to use raw, fresh milk right off the farm. Good cheese depends on good, fresh milk."
Jean Groves heats milk for cheese in her Kansas kitchen.
Groves gets fresh milk from local dairies, but often finds it more readily available in spring and summer. She buys cultures and rennet online, as local grocery stores in her area do not carry the items she often needs for her flavorful hobby.
"I never use the little junket tablets from the grocery store," she said. "They are just for making custard and do not work for making real cheese, ever."
The rennet Groves uses in her cheese creations must be diluted in water, measured out to 1/16 of a teaspoon.
"You have to be careful to get the right amount, but it is one of those things you can play with," she said. "Too much rennet results in a bitter flavored cheese, too little causes the cheese not to harden up as expected."
In addition to rennet amounts, culture variations dictate the type and flavor of cheese made. Groves said that learning to culture milk was one of the basic steps of cheese making that anyone could learn.
"I’ve had some colossal failures," she said. "But you have to not be afraid to try different things. It is just milk after all. You can always get more and start again."
Groves said she used three types of culture to create different cheeses. Citric acid or acidophilus culture made yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream, or several types of fresh cheeses. A mesosphillic culture she used to make low-heat cheeses such as cheddar or mozzarella. Thermophillic culture added to goat milk heated over 165°F resulted in Parmesan or other hard, long-aging cheese.
"I prefer to buy the premeasured packets of culture to make the fresh or semi-hard cheese," she said. "I have some pretty high standards for myself and haven’t been happy with my efforts making the high-heat, longer-aging cheeses."
In addition to understanding rennet amounts and culture types, Groves said cleanliness was imperative to making good cheese.
"Everything that touches the milk must be very, very clean," she said. "Sometimes there are things floating in the air that affect our cheese and we might never know what it is, but cleanliness is very, very important."
Groves said one way to tell if the cheese was going to be good or not was by the color of mold growing on it.
"Some cheese we inoculate with penicillin in order to grow a white, fuzzy mold on it, which we want," she said. "If black specks appear or if the mold is grey or black, then we are in trouble."
Groves, whose husband is a bread maker and often uses the leftover whey from her cheese making for his baking, said she had experimented with several different kinds of cheeses, including chévre logs rolled in herbs, paneer, camembert, cheddar, and mozzarella. Her favorite, however, was the result of a failed then tweaked recipe, which created something she called "hockey pucks."
Cheese drains in a colander.
"When making cheese you have to be willing to fail," she said. "Sometimes the best recipe is the result of failure and the resulting changes you have to make."
Groves made "hockey pucks" by starting with a basic recipe and changing it each time, in small steps.
"Basically, I just heated the milk, added a culture, then poured it into these one-cup plastic molds that had drainage holes in them," she said.
After the cheese drained for a time, Groves rolled the small, hardened disks in edible charcoal; then set them aside to age.
"I spent a lot of time perfecting that recipe," she said. "And I am very happy how it turned out now. The flavor is just insane when you cut into those and spread it around on a piece of bread."
Groves and her husband agree that the best way to eat homemade cheese is on a slice of homemade bread.
"When he makes bread and I make cheese and we eat it together—oh it is so good, just amazing!" she said. "Food just tastes better when you know where it comes from and how it is made."
The couple lives on a small-acreage farm but does not yet have any animals.
"I just don’t have time to care for them," she said. "Maybe someday, that would be our dream…to have our own goats and sell our cheese and bread. For now we just enjoy the flavors of the food we can make."