A traveling computer software specialist by trade, Jean Groves of rural Hillsboro loves to relax on days off, with a pot of bubbling milk on the stove making cheese, while symphony music plays in the background.
“I grew up in a farm family where we made a lot of our own food,” she said. “My aunts had their own cows and we always had very good, homemade cottage cheese. It took me a long time to appreciate the fact, but I have developed a palate for homemade cheese. Now that I can make my own, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Not everyone has a passion for making cheese, but Groves describes herself as a unique individual. Amid a wide variety of interests, she particularly enjoys fishing, quilting, and making cheese.
“My husband, Russell, is such a good cook, he makes the best homemade bread,” Groves said. “I’ve always been interested in making cheese, mainly because the flavor is so much better than what you buy at the store. When he makes bread and I make cheese and we eat it together — oh, it’s so good … just amazing.”
In 1997, the couple attended a cheese-makers’ seminar at Langston University in Oklahoma. There they learned to make fresh cheeses. Since then they have experimented with several other recipes, and now have perfected several types of fresh, semi-hard, and specialty cheeses that they enjoy thoroughly.
“I still buy other peoples’ cheese, just to see what it is like,”
she said. “But mostly I think I can probably make it taste better. Making cheese is such a fun hobby. I am inspired by the intricate things that can be done to change the flavor and love to work at finding the perfect way to do it.”
Making cheese is a bit of a seasonal enterprise for Groves. She gets fresh cow milk year-round, but finds fresh goat milk only readily available in spring and summer.
“I can make cheese with store-bought milk,” she said. “But I much prefer to get my milk fresh off the farm. Good cheese depends on good, fresh milk; the fresher the better.”
Fresh farm milk is not homogenized, which also makes it a better choice for the home cheese maker.
“I know the animals have been milked that day, the same day I get my milk,” she said. “Fresh milk curdles better, it just behaves better.”
Groves buys both cow and goat milk from local dairies in the Hillsboro area. She gets cultures and rennet mostly from online sources, as local grocers do not carry supplies needed for home cheese making. Citric acid, also used in home cheese making can be purchased locally.
“I never use the little junket tablets from the grocery store,” she said. “They are for making custard and just don’t work for making cheese, ever.”
The rennet Groves uses in her cheese recipes must be diluted in water, measured out to one-sixteenth of a teaspoon.
“You have to be careful to get the right amount, but it is one of those things you can play with,” she said.
Too much rennet results in a bitter flavored cheese, while too little causes the cheese not to harden up as expected.
“I’ve had some colossal failures,” she said. “But you have to not be afraid to try different things. It is just milk, after all. You can always get more and start again.”
In addition to rennet amounts, culture used dictates the type and flavor of cheese made.
Learning how to culture the milk is one of the basic steps of cheese making that Groves said anyone could learn.
“Anyone getting started just needs to find a recipe and follow it,” she said. “There are three main types of culture and those determine which kind of cheese will result.”
Citric acid or an acidophilus culture makes yogurt, buttermilk, sour cream, or fresh cheeses. A mesophillic culture is used for low-heat cheese such as cheddar or mozzarella. Thermophillic culture added to milk heated to 165 degrees or more results in parmesan or other hard, long-aging cheeses.
“I prefer to buy the premeasured packets of culture and make the fresh cheves or the semi-hard cheeses,” Groves said. “I have some pretty high standards for myself and haven’t been happy with my efforts making the high-heat, aged-type cheeses yet.”
In addition to understanding culture, Groves said cleanliness was imperative to making good cheese.
“Everything that touches the milk must be very, very clean,” she said. “Sometimes there are things floating in the air that affect our cheese and we might never know what it is, but cleanliness is very, very important.”
Groves said one way to tell if the cheese was going to be good or not was by the color of mold growing on it.
“Some cheese we inoculate with penicillin in order to grow a white fuzzy mold on it, which we want,” she said. “But if black specks appear or if the mold is gray or black, then we are in trouble.”
Groves and her husband grew up in the McPherson area, then moved to Colorado for several years, but have lived south of Hillsboro since 2007. For many years they experimented making several different kinds of cheeses, including fresh chevre rolled in herbs or seasoned in different ways. Other cheeses made include paneer, camembert, cheddar, and mozzarella. Groves’ favorite, however, is something she calls “hockey pucks.”
“When making cheese you have to be willing to fail,” she said. “Sometimes the best recipe is a result of failure and the resulting changes you have to make.”
She made “hockey pucks” by starting with an easy basic recipe and changing little things about it each time.
“Basically I just heated the milk, added the culture, then poured it into these one-cup molds with holes in them for drainage,” she said.
After the cheese drained for a time, Groves rolled the small, hardened disks in edible charcoal; then set them aside to age.
“I’ve spent a lot of time messing with these,” she said. “And I am very happy with how they turn out now. The flavor is just insane.”
Groves and her husband agreed the best way to eat homemade cheese is on a slice of homemade bread, made by Russell using leftover whey from Jean’s cheeses.
“Food just tastes better when you know where it comes from and how it is made,” she said. “It is nice to know how to do things, instead of just going to the store to buy pre-packaged things. We rarely do that.”