I made cheese recently to use up a half-gallon of milk nearing its expiration date and thought I'd share the process in case you'd like to give it a try. It's actually really easy! Making a basic soft cheese is simple, doesn't take any special equipment, and is a great way to use up milk that's nearing or just past its expiration date.

There are only three basic ingredients (two if you use whole milk) -- the milk, vinegar to curdle it, and some cream for better texture. If you want to, you can make it with just skim milk, with 2%, or with whole. You can use half and half instead of cream, or no cream at all if you don't have any. This recipe is not picky at all, but the basic proportions are a 1/4 cup white vinegar to a gallon of milk. Cream is "to taste" -- the more you add, the creamier your cheese will be, but even a couple of tablespoons will improve the texture, so don't worry if you don't have much.

The equipment is likewise very basic -- some measuring cups, a thermometer, a cooking vessel to heat the milk in, a strainer or colander (more on this in the next step), and a slotted spoon.

When it comes to the colander/strainer, if yours is anything but mesh (mesh has holes that are small enough), you'll want to use a cloth to strain the cheese. You can use cheesecloth, but a clean kitchen towel is fine. I'm partial to flour sack towels because they're cheap and easy to clean, but even a clean tee-shirt or coffee filters will do in a pinch.

Now that you have everything rounded up, measure out your milk. I'm doing a half-batch here, so I've measured out a half-gallon of skim milk and poured it into the pot.

Since my bottle of cream was about to expire, I added a generous dollop and then turned the heat on low. Do NOT add the vinegar yet -- that comes later.

When I said low heat, I meant low heat -- you don't want to scald the milk.

Heat the milk slowly, stirring frequently so nothing gross burns to the bottom

This takes a while -- 20 to 30 minutes -- so you may be distracted by the antics of a cat trying to be ridiculously, disgustingly cute. Don't be fooled. She's just trying to ruin your cheese.

Check the temperature every few minutes. The magic number is 180 degrees F.

Since this takes so long, it's a good time to get something else done -- whip up a batch of bread, make breakfast, do the dishes...whatever. Since David had already baked a delicious fresh loaf the night before, I settled for toast and preserves and a cup of coffee. Mmmmm.... xD

When your thermometer finally tells you the milk has hit 180 degrees F, turn off the heat and add your vinegar. Yep, just dump it right into the pot.

Swish the spoon around in there a couple of times to mix it in, but it's very important that you don't over-mix -- better to mix too little than too much. At any rate, you'll notice very quickly that the milk has started to curdle, and it will start to smell exactly like very fresh buttered popcorn.

Let the mixture sit for ten or fifteen minutes to give the curds time to form. Then it's time to drain it.

There are a bunch of ways you can do this, from using a slotted spoon to ladle out the bigger curds into the colander/strainer to just pouring the whole mess. Either way works, although depending on how tight the weave is on your straining fabric, you might get better drainage with the former method.

I promise this is way more delicious than it looks at this point!

When you're done ladling/pouring, you'll have a gloppy cream-colored mess that will need to sit and drain for a while before you can do anything else with it. How long you leave it depends on what kind of consistency you want to end up with. A long draining period will leave you with a crumbly dry cheese you could use like feta. A short draining period would be ideal if you want to end up with a cheese spread.

Set the draining cheese colander somewhere convenient -- such as back on top of the vessel you heated the milk in, or in the fridge if you're germ-phobic or leaving it for a long time. I usually cover it with a pot lid or by folding the cloth over to keep any unwanted dust out.

Wait a while, and then -- ta-dah! Cheese! I wasn't pleased with how quickly it was draining after a couple of hours, so I switched to the mesh strainer, which sped things up.

Scoop your cheese up into a blob and transfer it to a container, preferably one in which you can both mix the cheese and store it -- a good-sized dish with an airtight lid works well.

This is the fun part! The sky's the limit with the cheese at this point -- you can make it sweet, savory, flavored, plain, whatever. However, before you add anything else, I recommend stirring in a fair amount of salt, or it'll be pretty bland. Kosher salt works well -- just keep adding some to the top and mixing it in with a fork, then sampling it, until it tastes about right to you.

As I said, you can add just about anything. Some batches I leave plain and only add salt, and they're great with crackers. You can add just about any spice or spice blend you might want -- chipotle is fantastic, although you'll need more than a little for the flavor to come through. It can be fun to divide your cheese into several containers and try a bunch of different flavors. This is also a great thing to bring to a potluck or party along with some bread or crackers.

You can add larger ingredients like chopped peppers or sweet fruits as well.

We decided to use some really excellent balsamic vinegar we had around and make a dip. It doesn't usually change color much as you add flavors, but as you can see this is pretty dark, so the end result, while delicious, was not the most aesthetically pleasing food on the planet. Usually it looks more like the portion of cheese without the vinegar on it!

When you've reached a flavor profile you like, you can put the lid on and keep this in the fridge for at least a week -- I've had it last longer depending on what I mix in.


Waiting for the thaw

So much for spring! We got another 5-6" of snow in the middle of the week, which even aside from the 3-hour commute it caused, was pretty soul-crushingly depressing. But it looks like things will finally start thawing out by next weekend. Given that there's only one month in which there's never been snow here, that's not a sure thing, but it's a bit less dubious in April than in March. Also coming up shortly -- and this is definitely a sign of spring -- is the 2011 Friends' School Plant Sale catalog. I am volunteering again this year and am very excited to see what kinds of things they'll have, as this was a great experience last year! If you've never checked out the Plant Sale, I highly recommend it. It's Mother's Day weekend at the State Fairgrounds -- more details can be found here.

I started some of my tomatoes and peppers today; I've never done these from seed before and it will be interesting to see if I can manage it, particularly since I've gone the heirloom/unusual route this year instead of just ordering from one of the big garden stores. Among the varieties I'm growing are "Dancing With Smurfs" from New World Crops and "Big Month", "Jersey Giant", and "Amish Paste" from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. We use tomatoes mainly for sauces and canning, so these seem like better bets than the tomato plants I'm able to find locally. I'm also really excited to have FINALLY been able to track down urfa pepper seed this year.

If you aren't familiar with urfa/isot peppers (and in my experience, most people aren't), they're what's used to make the #1 favorite spice in this household -- urfa biber. We discovered this wonderful spice by accident at the World Spice Market when we lived in Seattle and immediately realized that it's good in pretty much anything. It's fantastic on eggs, meat, and adds a delicious depth of flavor to sauces, and can even be used in brownies or other sweets. It's got just enough spice to be interesting without the heat crowding out the other flavors, and it has a nice undertone of sweetness. We put it on almost everything, but I'd searched for years for seeds so I could grow the pepper, to no avail. This year I finally tracked them down, and while they're pricey (roughly $0.40 a seed), if I can manage to grow the peppers and save seeds from them, it'll be totally worth it, as there's absolutely no local place I can get this spice -- I have to order it online from all the way out in Seattle.

It's probably a good thing I got motivated to start another batch of seeds today...I could wait until next weekend, but I'm thinking with all the upcoming garden resource fairs (the next two Saturdays are taken up by them) and other springtime activities, things are going to get a lot busier very soon. That's what always thwarted my seed-starting in the past -- I'd get too busy during the three or four weeks I should have been doing most of them, and by the time I stopped to think about it, it would be too late. This year we don't have the money for plants, so I don't have much choice. But that may be a good thing, anyway, as starting things from seed is a skill I should have developed by now.


Starting out...

I hear we are due to have more snow this week, but the past few days have felt like spring. Most of the snow in our backyard has melted (no minor thing when you consider we had four to five feet on the ground at one point!), it's been warm enough to go out without bundling up, and it just smells like spring. And while usually I love winter, this year I'm more than ready.

Maybe it's just that we got spoiled last year with weather good enough to do yard work in Minnesota in early March. Maybe it was the absurd amount of snow we had this year, and the fact that I'm commuting 20+ miles each way to work. Or maybe doing all the things I've been doing over the past few years has just gotten me more in touch with the seasons in general. Whatever it is, I feel like it's time for things to get moving again. I want to be planting onions and peas and heading to the farmer's market and to garage sales. I can't wait to throw open the windows and feel some moving air again.