Friday, February 13, 2015

Pure Cheenius (cheese making 101)

As you may know, I’m an Israeli living in the USA. There’s a certain type of cheese which I love, called “Tsfatit” (or Tzfatit) that’s very common in Israel, but does not exist in America. As a result, I had to learn how to make it myself (same reason I learned to cook and make most of the things I do…). I also realized that there are many others who are interested in this cheese and learning how to make it. I also learned that many people are publishing misleading info about cheese-making, making it sound more complicated or difficult than it really is. Here’s my guide to making cheese.

While I’ll be talking a lot today about this Tsfatit cheese, it’s important to know that the basics of making cheese are common to almost all kinds, so this guide isn’t only about the Israeli cheese, but many others as well. The basic idea of cheese making is taking some milk, and causing it to coagulate into curds. Then, these curds can be turned into various types of cheeses based on certain steps and processes. For example, adding just a little salt and applying low pressure to the cheese leads to the creation of Tsfatit, but simply adding more salt and pressure would make it a Feta cheese. If, on the other hand, you add less salt and do some kneading on it, it would become Mozzarella.

The basic ingredients for cheese are:

1. Milk

2. Coagulating agent (Rennet)

3. Additional flavorings, if desired (salt usually, and other stuff at will)

You’re also going to need at least one special piece of equipment – a cheese cloth. It’s a type of cloth that’s specially designed to allow you to press the cheese curd into a final density and texture. Cheese cloth can be purchased at most supermarkets for about 2.5$ per square yard, and naturally, cheaper online. Essentially, you can wash the cloth after making cheese and reuse it, but I find that to be very difficult. You can’t simply put it in the washing machine with cloths, and hand-washing might leave some cheese on it, which would spoil, stink and might be risky for your next batch of cheese. Since it only takes about ¼ Sq. Yard for a batch of cheese, I just discard it after a day of cheese making and use a new piece next time around. Note that not all cheesecloths are created equal. Many are very fragile, which would mean you’d need two layers to hold the cheese together. This also makes them harder to clean and re-use. I recommend this brand: . At $7.5 for 4.8 square yards, your cost would be only about 38 cents per batch even if you don’t reuse the cloth at all.

Another specialty hardware that’s not strictly required, but highly recommended is a cheese mould. This is a plastic cylinder which helps press the cheese into its desired form. A skilled person can simply squeeze the cheesecloth with his bare hands, but the mould gives it a better form, and makes for a consistent and nice looking piece of cheese. A basic mould costs about 20$, such as this one: . Its size is targeted at making about 1-2 pound piece of cheese from 1 gallon of milk.

The coagulating agent used in cheese-making is Rennet, which is a group of enzymes that cause the proteins in the milk (kappa casein molecules) to stop binding to the water molecules in the milk, and instead, bind to each other, forming the curd. Rennet is usually made from meat, but there’s vegetable based Rennet, which is suitable for vegetarians, as well as kosher observant Jews (the Jewish religion forbids mixing of dairy and meat products). Rennet is available in many supermarkets in tablet form, as well as online ( ), typically at around $10-12 for 10 tablets. Only ¼ tablet is actually needed to make a batch of cheese, so those ten dollars go a long way. There are some recipes that call for using various acids (citrus juice, vinegar etc.) instead of Rennet, but my experiments with this didn’t lead to good curding, so I recommend sticking to Rennet. Rennet is also available as liquid, which is a tad more convenient, but its shelf-life is a lot shorter, so I’m not a big fan.

Other items you need, and should be available at any kitchen is a pot to heat the milk, a colander to filter the curds out and a stirring spoon. Here’s how it’s done:

Step 1 – choose and get milk

1 gallon of milk typically makes 1-1.5 pounds of cheese. If you press the cheese more, you will squeeze out more water, making for heavier, denser cheese (and less of it, of course). I advise working with half a gallon, as it’s easier to work-with. You can use any milk, except milk that’s ultra-pasteurized (the ultra-pasteurization prevents the coagulation of the milk into curds). Since most of the milk is water, and the resulting cheese is about 1/5 of the original milk volume, low-fat (1%) milk will product cheese that’s around 5% fat, while whole milk (3%) will produce cheese with around 15% fat. You can also use half-and-half (10% fat) to make 50% fat cheese (YOLO, MOFO!!!).

Step 2 – make the curds

To form the curds, the milk needs to be warm. Various guides out there spit out crazy complicated heating-and-cooling, but I find that it doesn’t need to be crazy hot or crazy-accurate to work. Heat the milk up in a pot to somewhere around 90-110 degrees F. If you are using Rennet tablets, crush and dissolve them in a little (teaspoon or tablespoon) or luke-warm water, and then pour that into the milk. If you’re using liquid Rennet, just drop it in. Mix it up a little and gently. Put aside and wait 10-15 minutes. Once you’re back, the milk should have curded and the entire pot would be like white soft jelly.

Step 3 – slush the curds

Use your stirring spoon or a knife to cut the curds vertically and horizontally every inch or so, to end up with a sort-of “salad”. Don’t be rough or over-do it, because we want to have big chunks and not tiny ones (those will simply squeeze out of the cheese cloth and leave you with little to no cheese). If, for some reason, the curd you have is so soft that it falls apart to tiny curds, dump it and start from scratch. This could happen with certain types of milk and there’s nothing you can do other than get another type.

Step 4 – dry the curds

Use a colander or straining-spoon to filter the curds from the water. I like using a pot with an attaching colander-lid, but you can use any way you like as long as you’re gentle enough not to crush the curds. Don’t feel that you need to filter it COMPLETELY. That’s hard and not necessary, as long as you got most of the liquid out. The curds typically sink in the fluid, so usually swirling it in the pot would send more fluid up for you to spill out until the curds are fairly dry.

Optional: expedite the reduction

If you want to hasten the completion of the cheese, you can warm the curds a little, which causes them to expel their water faster. You can stick them in the microwave for 30-45 seconds, or if they are still in the pot, put it back on your stove for a minute or two. Doing this makes the pressing part a bit easier, as you’ll have less water to squeeze out in the mould. Just be careful when heating to not burn the curds. With careful warming and experience, you could get to a level where the cheese is almost fully done in minutes.

Step 5 – flavor the cheese

At this point, your cheese will have ZERO flavor, so now is the time to add some taste. One table-spoon of salt for ½ gallon of milk produces Tsfatit. Two table-spoons will produce the saltiness of Feta (Bulgarian cheese). Other interesting additives are ground Pesto, crushed Garlic, sun-dried tomatoes or shredded Salmon.

Step 6 – press the cheese

Assuming you have a mould, line it with a ¼ square yard of cloth (about 20”x20”), and pour the curds into it. Now “close” or fold the cloth over the curds (they would still be very soft and gelatinous). Place the mould’s follower (the flat plastic disc it came with) over and press down to compress the cheese and squeeze out more liquid. THIS is the important part…the more you squeeze, the denser the cheese (and less of it you’ll have). If you started with ½ gallon and using an 800 Gr mould like I suggested above, an ideal target would be about 1 ¼-1 ½ “ thick. If it’s thicker, it might be too soft and fall apart. Thinner might be tough to chew. Squeeze gently, and if you reach a point where the cheese resists and you see it extrude through the mold (instead of water coming out), don’t push more. Simply leave the mould in a bowl, with some weight (like a large can of tomatoes) on it, and it will slowly leak out more water and squeeze on its own. I recommend putting the whole thing in the fridge over-night, and by morning, you should have perfectly formed and shaped cheese.


Don’t have a mould?

If you elect not to use a mould, you can simply dump the curds into the cloth, and then tie it around the curds and squeeze it by hand. It’s a lot messier as your hands will be covered by the white whey-water. This also tends to get the cheese-cloth stick, so that when you open it, it will peel off some of the cheese. However, it’s a reasonable alternative if you need to save money.

Step 7 – other types of cheese

Other types of cheese start out almost the same, but additional steps are taken onward. Yellow cheese typically require the curds to be pressed for an extended period in a humid and warm place (3 weeks for simple yellow cheeses and up to several years for advanced stuff like Swiss and Gouda). Mozzarella is another alternative where the cheese is kneaded like dough until it gets to the right consistency and texture. For Bree, parmesan, blue cheeses and other, special types bacteria is added, which gives the unique tastes of these cheeses over a number of weeks to years.

Monday, February 9, 2015

AGT (America’s Got Talent) auditions…changes in Season 10

While attending the auditions to Season 10 today, I noticed a few changes to the process, so I figured I’d share them, and point out a few things a lot of people seem to miss. I’ve only been to the audition in Seattle (actually Tacoma), so these might not apply elsewhere.

1. During the paperwork phase, pens were provided freely, so everyone could focus on writing their info.

2. The exact questions on the form (in case you want to plan your answers) are:

a. Stage name or group name

b. Briefly describe your talent

c. Age or age range of your group members

d. Occupation

e. City of birth and residence

f. Title and artist of the song performing to at this audition

g. How long have you been doing your act and how did you learn it?

h. What is your dream?

i. What obstacles have you overcome in pursuing your act?

j. Talk about your biggest supporter?

k. Why is this talent important to you?

l. What other talents do you have?

m. Have you ever auditioned for this or any other talent competition reality show?

n. Please list any additional interesting information about you or your act that we should know.

3. Here’s the actual form. Note that the lines are fairly small, so if you want to make the producer’s life easier (more about that in a second), copy the questions to your favorite word processor, type in your answers, print and bring with you to the audition:


4. The audition start time was 8am, as opposed to 9am in 2012. I showed up at 6:45 and was no. 52 in line.

5. At least part of the time, The performers were not separated to singers and other, and the audition wasn’t 1:1 for everyone. I was part of a group of 6 that were brought in as a group, and stood in line against the wall, and called up by the producer one after the other to the center of the room to introduce ourselves and perform. I know some other folk who were seen 1:1, though.

6. It was made clear to us that decisions will not be done today, but later, and if we passed, we would get called or emailed within 3 weeks.

7. The 2012 process was a bit messy, but this time around things seemed very finely tuned. Putting aside the 75 minutes I came early, it went pretty smooth and I was done and out by 9:30.

I forgot to mention this last time, but at the audition, the performance is limited to 90 seconds, which isn’t a lot. This doesn’t include the introduction, and it’s not enforced too strictly (as in, the floor doesn’t drop at 91 seconds). However, I strongly advise rehearsing and timing your performance, and aim for 80 seconds to give yourself some buffer. If you end up slipping to 100 seconds, it won’t hurt, but you should risk out-staying your welcome and appear unprofessional.

Another tip I can offer for AGT is that the supply is HUGE. They literally need to screen thousands and thousands of people and thin it down to a few hundreds for each city with the celebrity judges. You might be a great musician or singer, but being good alone doesn’t come close to cutting it. That’s what the form is about…finding people with some sort of distinction. The production likes sad stories and stories of overcoming great difficulties in life (related to the performance or not). There’s also preference for other stand-out talent (weird looking, strange behavior etc). The producers need to give the celebrities the best, but also the worst…people they could make fun-of on national TV. You can’t just be a little out of tune to be among that group…we’re talking crazy hair-dos, weird hats, crazy behavior or voices, mentally-ill behavior patterns etc. Another thing they like is people who will evoke emotions with the viewers, so being cool, well-mannered and polite is not it. If you cry easily, look very nervous or afraid, frantic or super-excited, that’s a bit Boone for your chances. Another thing to keep in mind is that even those who do get to perform in front of the celebrity judges may not end up onscreen. A typical audition day for the judges is 10-12 hours, during which they see around 100 people, but only a fraction of those end up on the broadcast (typically about 15-20). Those who are shown are usually those who are known to have moved-on to the Vegas/NY day step, plus a few others and a handful of terrible/crazy/stupid acts.

Regarding the form and readability – the producers will use what you write to help them pick out the outstanding performers, so writing effectively and clearly is key. If you got a sloppy hand-writing, slow-down and write CLEARLY. You can also pre-print the info as I suggested above. If you write sloppily, the producers will most likely just move on to the next guy, so you’re basically screwing up your chances completely. This is THE place to write clearly.

For comedians, especially, I can offer the following advice:

· You’re performing in front of a single person, who may or may not be interactive. This is VERY detrimental for comedy, so prepare with a friend (to sit 10 feet away and look down at the desk). This could help you keep your balance and not lose yourself.

· The room doesn’t have a Mic, which is very unusual for us used to holding the Mic or using it as a prop. Practice without a Mic for this one.

· The pressure could make the best performers forget their setup, even if it’s only 90 seconds. Prepare a cheat-sheet. Some like to use the back of the hand, but whatever you prefer, as long as you have SOMETHING to back up your human memory.

· Making comedy work in 90 seconds is VERY tough. Many comedians only do 1 or 2 jokes in that timeframe, but keep in mind the producers don’t have the time or willpower to get invested in a story. Keep your jokes short and plentiful. Figure out a way to make them 15-20 seconds, if you can, so you can cram 6-7 jokes instead of 2.

· In addition to funny jokes, try to create some memorable character for yourself…something to stand out as a “personality” rather than another set of jokes.

· Keep in mind that you’re auditioning for a family-friendly show, so make sure your material is clean enough for national TV. That usually means less funny, but these are the rules of TV.

Good luck!