So we have a new Fowler's Vacola at our house. Do you know what that is? It's essentially a big pot you fill up with water with an inbuilt thermostat; you put in these glass jars with special lids and rings (with fruit inside them) and heat it for an hour at preserving temperature, 80 degrees celsius or so. By the end of the hour the jars will be sealed and you'll have four to eight jars of preserved fruits. Pretty sweet.
Anyway, I noticed a while ago that the urn's thermostat went down to 30 degrees celsius and up to 100 degrees celsius. To quote the classics: "Are you thinking what I'm thinking, B1? I think I am B2!" That's right - this Fowler's Vacola could potentially become a kind of makeshift Cheese Machine!
So I gave it a go yesterday. Somewhat ambitiously I decided to do a cheddar - a recipe with a number of steps that require some close attention. So. How'd it go?
1. Ripening the milk.
Not too good actually; the thermostat seems to be a little inaccurate at lower temps, and it's designed to heat the water inside up to the temp you set it at, and then switch off. Consequently the water that was surrounding my cheesemaking pot was actually a few degrees below what I really wanted it to be. I wasn't too concerned about this actually: the bacteria will have months to sort itself out.
2. Gently cooking the curds - raising the temp from around 31 degrees C to around 37 degrees C over the space of about half an hour.
Again, this step wasn't brilliant. I found that to get the water surrounding the cheese pot to a certain temperature, I had to set the thermostat almost 5 degrees above that temp. This step was fiddly, too, and in the end I may have heated the curds a little too quickly. (The danger, I believe, is that the curds will matt if they are cooked too quickly, and whey will get trapped in them; if that's the case then I think I may be alright as the curds continued to express whey and the cheese now seems fairly dry.)
3. Cheddaring the curds at around 37 celsius for a few hours.
This step went pretty smoothly; I found once I got the right setting on the thermostat I could keep the curds at a nice stable temp.
4. First press.
This is where the brick came in! To avoid problems I've had previously with my screw press and a cheese that tends to shrink, I've started setting a weight on the cheddar in the mould for the first press. Turns out the perfect weight is a house brick (maybe with something on the top to take it up to 10 lbs of pressure). So I whacked the cheese in the cheese mould in the cheese pot in the Fowler's urn and the brick on the cheese and the lid on the Fowler's (are you following me here?) and let them all get acquainted.
Lost one curd when I opened the cheese up but the rest hung together nicely.
The moral of this story is I don't know. Not sure whether I will use the Fowler's regularly though. Using it seems probably as much trouble as fussing over the sink with a pot and a thermometer. However, it certainly has potential for other cheeses. I'm thinking it might be a good device to cook haloumi in - if I can get the whole thermostat thing figured out....