Fishing through a 125-degree vat of curds, Spokane’s Karen Hansen pulls up a white glob of fresh, elastic mozzarella that looks strangely like boiled brains.
The object, her instructors tell her, is to knead the “brains” into a smooth, appetizing mound.
Voila! A cheese ball.
“Most of my loaves look like atomic clouds,” said Hansen, one of 26 people graduating today from Washington State University’s annual cheese-making short course. “This is pretty weird stuff.”
At $450 a pop, men and women from Chicago to Texas converged at the WSU creamery in this remote part of the country to learn how to curdle milk into one of America’s favorite foods.
The university had to turn away people, testament to the nation’s growing demand for cheese, said Marc Bates, manager of the creamery, where WSU students also produce Cougar Gold cheddar cheese.
The average American eats 26 pounds of cheese each year on crackers, pizza, sandwiches and straight out of the can.
Cheese making, which dates back 4,000 years to nomadic goat herders in Asia, is a developing science to food companies like Kraft. They are constantly searching for quicker ways to concoct some of the 2,000 different kinds of cheese made worldwide.
The men and women who came to Pullman merely wanted to the learn secrets of an ancient art.
“A lot of them have a romantic idea about cheese making,” Bates said. “Their eyes are opened that it takes big bucks, time and effort.”
During the three-day course, instructors show participants the basics: separating curds from whey; adding cultures and enzymes; cubing cheese loaves. The class will produce more than 1,600 pounds of mozzarella, cheddar, cottage cheese and gouda.
After that, patience is the key. It takes weeks for most varieties to cure to the proper taste.
“It all looks pretty good right now, but you can’t tell much until you eat it,” said John Montoure, a University of Idaho food scientist and course instructor.
Flipping 15-pound bricks of smoky cheddar, Seattle landscaper Peter Walchenbach said he hopes to switch careers and start a cheese company in the future.
He will look for inexpensive, used equipment and target his cheese at West Side wine-sippers and Yuppie consumers.
“In Seattle, we’ve got gourmet coffee and gourmet beer,” he said, covered in blue rubber gloves, a hair net and white smock. “Why not a hand-crafted gourmet cheese? I think we could do pretty well.”
Hansen, who owns Take the Cake bakery in Spokane, took the class thinking she might start making cheese to go with her bread. It’s too expensive and time-consuming, she discovered.
But the $450 tuition wasn’t wasted. Her curiosity was satisfied.
“It’s so amazing to see this,” Hansen said, her hands dripping with mozzarella curd. “I figure what the heck.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo