One evening after work, over a decade ago, I shared an elevator with a former boss of mine down to the parking garage of our Los Angeles law office. I have no memory of what we were discussing in the elevator, but I will always remember that whatever it was prompted him to ask me once the doors opened, "Do you want to know the meaning of life?" I remember looking at him sort of sideways, equal parts dubious and curious, and saying, "Of course I want to know the meaning of life. What is it?" He said, "It's relationships." I remember falling silent, thinking to myself that the answer did not sound profound enough, and then wondering if he might be right.
All these years later, I'm pretty sure he was right. It seems like the best things in life come out of relationships we build and connections we make with other people. For example, this weekend alone, thanks to fantastic friends and acquaintances, we enjoyed a parade, a farm visit, a cheese party, and a food swap.
On Saturday morning, Wyatt, Marc and I attended the Chinese New Year mini-parade. It's the greatest, most low-key, kid-friendly Chinese New Year celebration in San Francisco, and it seems like hardly anyone has heard of it. I only know about it because my friend, Raejean, took me to it one year to teach me photography basics. She and I had the best time, and I got some good photos, too. Raejean moved away several years ago, but thanks to her, we now take Wyatt, who is already looking forward to next year's parade.
And then there was Sunday.
A couple of months ago, I was listening to the Local Mouthful podcast, and the hosts were discussing the magic of Food Swaps. Intrigued, I looked online to see if we had one in San Francisco. When I found one, I asked to be added to the mailing list. The date of the swap has been on my calendar for a few weeks. But the event wasn't until the afternoon, so there was time for some fun in the morning. Some cheesemaking, perhaps! Darcie and I decided to make a surface ripened blue cheese (like we had learned in our workshop). I invited another friend who is interested in learning to make cheese, and her daughter, one of Wyatt's friends from kindergarten, to join the fun. Darcie's wife, Lauren, planned to join us, too. Even though it seems impossible, our day got even better when Darcie texted me that she had made a goat milk connection. Could Wyatt and I meet her and Lauren at 8:00 a.m. in Oakland to milk some goats? The answer was a resounding, "YES."
We got up early on Sunday and were on time to the urban farm where we met the farmer, his chickens, and his goats. The farmer milked the goats, I gave milking a try, and then we all enjoyed a goat's milk tasting before we took our fresh milk back to San Francisco to make some cheese.
When we got back to our house, our cheesemaking party began. We made a surface-ripened blue camembert style cheese from cow's milk and also some blue goat's milk cheeses, using the blue mold that I cultivated on our homemade sourdough bread. We also started a batch of fresh chèvre, because who wants to wait a month or more before tasting any of the cheese? When we were done straining the curds from our blue cheeses, we made a fast ricotta out of a mix of the whey of both types of milk. We also enjoyed a delightful array of amazing snacks, pretty much all day long.
When cheesemaking was over, Marc, Wyatt and I pulled together the ten eight-ounce jars of organic cultured cream cheese that I had made to trade at the food swap, along with the rice salad I had made for the potluck (I substituted sunflower and pumpkin seeds for the pine nuts in the recipe). We headed over to Sports Basement on Bryant Street, and we proceeded to set up our cheese shop. While we were swapping food, we met an entire room of delightful makers and tasted their delicious wares. I also got to meet a friend I had only previously known on Instagram!
We "sold" all our cheese, including our sample jar! Obviously, our entry was a huge hit and it was fun to hear people marvel at how they had only ever eaten store-bought cream cheese, and how different (and better) fresh tasted. In exchange for our cheese, we got plum butter with grand marnier, apricot jam, peppermint creams, vegan lox, carrot ginger miso dressing, garlic confit, pickles, apple ketchup, baba ganoush, and some handmade soaps.
Regardless of whether you want to make cream cheese to trade, share, or keep for yourself, it's very easy to do, as long as you're willing to maintain a kefir grain cheese pet. (They're really not that much trouble. I promise.) I found the basic cream cheese recipe in David Asher's book, The Art of Natural Cheesemaking, and I tweaked it only slightly by replacing some of the cream with whole milk.
Fresh Cultured Cream Cheese (makes about 12 ounces)
- Clean, fine cheese cloth or butter muslin (NOT the loose stuff you can get at the grocery store)
- Fine mesh strainer (for straining kefir)
- Quart jar or other similar vessel
- Pot or bowl for catching whey
- 2 cups of fresh, heavy cream (not ultra-pasteurized)
- 1 cup of fresh whole milk (not ultra-pasteurized, and preferably not homogenized)
- 1 teaspoon (or so) of kefir grains OR about 2 tablespoons of homemade kefir
- Kosher salt
Mix the cream and milk together with the kefir grains or prepared, strained kefir in a quart jar. Loosely screw on the lid of the jar. Let the jar sit for about 24 hours at room temperature. You're basically making crème fraîche, so keep an eye on when the mixture has thickened to that consistency.
Once the cream and milk mixture has thickened, strain out the kefir grains (if you used them) and place them in fresh milk. (If you used prepared kefir, there's no need to strain anything.)
Spread the cheese cloth evenly over a colander that you have placed over a pot or bowl and pour the thickened cream and milk mixture into cheese cloth. Knot the cheese cloth at the top and hang it from somewhere in your kitchen with a pot or bowl below to catch the whey. I hung the knotted cheese cloth from a wooden spoon that I placed across the top of a tall pot. Let hang for about 8 hours at room temperature, or until you have the consistency of cream cheese that you prefer. Add kosher salt to taste. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator. You may notice that after your cream cheese has sat in the refrigerator for a day or more that it becomes slightly effervescent. That's totally normal.
(Thanks to Darcie and Lauren for sharing their photos for publication here. Once again, friends make everything better. Even blog posts.)