‘Tis the season! For what, I don’t know, but that’s what everyone is saying. In this country it seems like it’s the season of excess. Even in this recession, people are out of control with buying inane stuff. I’m all about getting and giving useful, particularly perishable, gifts. This year I made organic Maine blueberry jam and rosemary and cracked pepper goat cheese. It’s incredibly easy to make both of these things. You can find instructions for any type of jam in a box of pectin. My favorite is Pamona’s Universal Pectin because it is activated by calcium instead of sugar, which means you don’t end up with sickeningly sweet jam. Basically, you heat the fruit, add a sweetener of your choice (honey and maple syrup are good non-sugar alternatives) and pectin, cook for a short while, put it in a canning jar and then boil the jar until it’s sealed. Simple as can be. (Sorry, no photos!)
The cheese takes longer, but is just as easy. Ever since Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle came out—detailing the ease with which one can make cheese—DIY cheesemakers have sprung up all over the place. I got the few necessary items needed for soft cheese making (hard cheese is indeed more complex and time consuming and I haven’t ventured into that territory yet) for my birthday and have enjoyed several batches of fresh soft cheese since then. The supplies are easily obtained through New England Cheesemaking Supply. Essentially, you heat milk, add some rennet, let it sit overnight and then drain it during the next day in butter muslin (fine cheesecloth). It’s that easy! It’s a great feeling to be able to serve and eat cheese you made yourself. And if you can find a local source of fresh milk, all the better. I am lucky enough to know some local goat farmers that can supply me with fresh goat’s milk on demand! (This time around 2 gallons of the milk made 7 of these approximately 3-inch-in-diameter rounds.)
Making soft cheese in Maine in the winter is a bit challenging because it’s supposed to be over 70° when you’re letting the curds form and drain. On the day I made my holiday chèvre it was 11°. So I rigged up these little draining devices and put them on a radiator in the bathroom with the door closed. It worked quite well. The curds seemed to be the right consistency after about 8 hours. I extracted them from the cloth, mixed in some fine Maine sea salt, shaped the cheese into rounds and patted in festively colored fresh rosemary and cracked multi-colored pepper. Voilà, a perfect holiday gift!