Mood lifter

A big package from New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. arrived yesterday afternoon.

Cheesemaking supplies

In the package: Crottin and Valençay molds, fresh rennet and starter cultures, drying mats (aka sushi mats), cheese cloth and butter muslin, ash, calcium chloride. It’s almost like a little chemistry set, and if we do the experiments correctly, we get cheese!

We have about a gallon of Willow’s milk in the refrigerator. I’m hoping to take my first step into mold-ripened cheesemaking this weekend.

Greek Island Mizithra

I somehow managed to squeeze Forging Fromage’s October challenge, Greek Island Mizithra, between our trip to Scotland and the end of the month, but am just getting a chance to write about it now.

Mizithra - Sliced

The truth is, I don’t have much to say about this cheese.

It was simple enough to make (heat milk, add salt, add rennet, let curd form for an hour, cut curd, pour curd into cheese cloth and let drain for several hours at room temperature, and then 12 more hours in the refrigerator). The problem is that its simplicity resulted in a cheese with very little flavor. It was sweet and milky and fresh, but that’s not what I’m looking for in a cheese. At least, not these days.

It was only after I made this cheese that I learned that it’s traditionally made from a combination of leftover whey and goat or sheep milk, which may lend it some real tang. I wish I’d tried making it from goat milk instead of cow milk. And then aged it a bit.

Honestly. though, it’s not the cheese’s fault that I found it uninspiring. It’s my fault for spending too much time in the land of fresh cheeses where things feel easy and safe. It’s time to push myself and move on to the cheeses that convinced us to get goats and make our own cheese: soft, mold-ripened, tangy little goat cheeses.

I love the Forging Fromage group and plan to continue on with their challenges (next up is Queso Fresco, a fresh cheese I do like and will love using in our Mexican cooking), but I’m also going to leap ahead with my own cheese challenges. First up I think will be the beautiful, pyramid-shaped, ash-coated Valençay.

Love being elbow deep in milk? Come join us at Forging Fromage. Check the web site for the current recipes and their due dates. Make the recipe, write about it, then use the link on the site’s sidebar to post your creation to the group.

Ricotta Salata

September’s Forging Fromage challenge was Ricotta Salata, a pressed, salted, and slightly aged cheese made from fresh ricotta. So, in a way, this is a double challenge: make a batch of ricotta, then turn that ricotta into ricotta salata.

I was excited about this challenge. I’d already mastered making ricotta (a very simple cheese to make). This recipe would give me another way to use the ricotta, and more experience on aging cheeses.

Wait. What’s that sound? Is it the sound of the Cheese Deities snickering?


I’m not entirely sure where I went wrong, but my first two tries at making ricotta for this recipe were dismal failures. I tried first with a half gallon of cow’s milk (store bought). I ended up with very few curds and a milky whey. For that batch, I think I got too overconfident and didn’t watch the temperature closely enough.

Fine. A gallon of milk down the drain. What a waste.

Rather than run out to the store to get another half gallon, I figured I’d use what I had on hand: fresh goat milk.

Failure again. This time I think my mistake was too much stirring and checking. Once again, I ended up with very low yield: maybe a 1/4 cup from a half gallon of precious milk. Milk I had earned the hard way. A pint at a time.

I couldn’t even bear to look at that pitiful little pile of ricotta in the cheesecloth.

I seriously began to wonder if I was cut out for this cheesemaking adventure at all. (I won’t go into details here, but it was around this same time that I wasted a gallon of milk on a failed mozzarella making session.)

But I’m determined to get this right, so, a few days later, I bought more milk and tried again.

After pouring the milk in a large pot, I mixed a teaspoon of citric acid with 1/4 cup of cool water, then thoroughly stirred the citric acid mixture into the milk.

Ricotta Salata - Mixing ingredients

Then I calmly and patiently let the milk heat up to 190 degrees, and resisted the temptation to stir the mixture too much.

Patience rewarded: curds and whey separated right around the correct temperature. I thanked the Cheese Deities and then carefully ladled the curds into a butter-muslin lined colander to remove any extra whey.

Ricotta Salata - Ricotta

With the ricotta itself made, I was ready to venture into Ricotta Salata territory.

I measured out 1 cup of the ricotta, and put it in a cheesecloth-lined press, put the press on full pressure (which is, I believe, from 40-50 pounds on this little press) and let it sit for 3-4 hours.

Ricotta Salata - Pressing

Thinking back on this process, I wish I had pressed for two hours on one side, flipped the cheese over, and pressed for another two on the other side, just to give the cheese more even pressing and texture. Next time.

After it was pressed, we had a nice solid round of cheese. My beautiful assistant helped me rub it with 2 teaspoons of salt, then I wrapped it in a clean piece of butter muslin, put it on a plate, and then into the refrigerator for the cheese’s first two days of aging.

Ricotta Salata - First salting

Two days later, I unwrapped the cheese, resalted it with 1 teaspoon of salt, flipped it, rewrapped it, and returned it to the refrigerator.

Ricotta Salata - Second salting

At this second salting, I noticed a rind had developed, as well as several cracks on the outside edges. The cracks are likely due to the low humidity in the refrigerator.

Ricotta Salata - After aging four days

One way to deal with this is to age the cheese in a plastic container in the refrigerator (with or without a damp cloth in the container, depending on the level of humidity needed). I didn’t try this for this cheese, but it’s something I ought to do if I make it again.

One more salting, two more days of aging, and the cheese was ready to cut and eat.

Ricotta Salata

After all the effort and wasted milk and second-guessing my cheese-making worthiness, I wish I could say I loved this cheese, but I don’t.

The paste is smooth and creamy. It tasted great in slivers in my salad last night, but the overriding flavor is salt. And the short aging time means the cheese never develops a complex flavor. As this post says, it’s the cheese that can’t stand alone. You don’t really want to take a slice of it to nibble while you sip your glass of burgundy. Instead, you want to cube it or sliver it or shave it and add as an ingredient or garnish to whatever else you’re cooking.

Even if I never make this cheese again, Ricotta Salata helped me remember something I’ve been (re)learning in the barn, too: slow, steady patience gains me more than any frenetic effort ever does.

Last night, I optimistically took a full gallon of fresh goat milk out of the refrigerator and made ricotta. It made the most tender, sweet ricotta curds I’ve ever tasted. I took a small bowl, filled it with warm ricotta made just minutes before, sprinkled it with a little salt, and then drizzled it with honey.

I didn’t hear any snickering.

Love being elbow deep in milk? Come join us at Forging Fromage. Check the web site for the current recipes and their due dates. Make the recipe, write about it, then use the link on the site’s sidebar to post your creation to the group.

Cultured Butter

Cultured Butter

The Forging Fromage group had two challenges for August: cultured butter and Colby cheese. I’d love to say I made both, but this month has been a bit crazy (which explains why I haven’t been writing much here) and I just haven’t yet had a day this month where I could set aside enough hours for real cheese making. Sorry, Colby, we’ll have to reschedule for another time.

Butter making, however? Sure, I had time for a quick get-together with butter!

The fact is, butter making is very simple. Take heavy cream, agitate it for awhile (shake it in a cup, beat it with a whisk, tell it all the things it’s done wrong) and before you know it the milk fats consolidate, the rest of the milk falls away, and you have butter (and, as a side benefit, you also have buttermilk).

Making cultured butter is much the same process, only you first let the cream ferment briefly either by letting the cream sit around for a few days to naturally begin fermenting, or by introducing the cultures directly, either via cheese making cultures or an already fermented dairy source, like yogurt. The recipe we followed used yogurt as the starter.

The first step is to mix the cream with some whole milk yogurt in a glass or ceramic bowl (you can find the recipe with quantities here). Then let the mixture sit overnight. The next morning, it will have thickened and started to bubble a bit. Taste it to see if it’s slightly tangy. You want that slightly sharp flavor. That’s the “cultcha”.

Cultured butter - Cream and yogurt

Once you’ve got the flavor you want (it could take from 12-18 hours or even more, depending on the temperature of your kitchen), put the mixture in a mixing bowl and beat it, preferably with a whisk attachment. At first you’ll just have a liquid mess, then you’ll have whipped cream (which is a tempting place to stop the whole enterprise), and then, suddenly, magically, you’ll have butter on the beater and buttermilk in the bowl. Stop mixing!

Cultured butter - Mixing

Strain off the buttermilk and reserve for another use, and then press the butter to remove as much remaining buttermilk as you can. Then pour ice water in the bowl of butter, to cover the butter, and start kneading the butter under the ice water. The idea here is to keep the butter in a solid mass while still extracting as much buttermilk as you can. Buttermilk left in the butter tends to make the butter spoil more quickly, so you want it out.

I started kneading with my hands, and while that was satisfying, the water was so cold, the process quickly turned painful. So I reached for our potato masher instead and that made a fine kneading tool.

After kneading for a few minutes, pour off the water/buttermilk, add fresh, clean ice water, and repeat, until the water remains clear.

Cultured butter - Straining and washing

When the butter is clean, remove it from the bowl and knead it on the counter or a board for just a minute to make it smooth. You can’t knead for too long outside of the ice water because the butter begins to melt and you get a mess. Just knead it long enough to smooth it out and consolidate all the separate bits of butter. At this point, if you wish to add salt, you can knead that in, too.

Cultured butter - kneading

You have buttah!

If you don’t eat it all right away (this recipe makes about 12 ounces of butter, so I really hope you don’t eat it all immediately), you can store it in your butter keeper or dish, or you can roll it into logs, wrap in plastic, and put it into long-term storage in the freezer. You can also freeze the buttermilk, or use it in the next couple of days for any recipe that calls for buttermilk.

Cultured butter - results

We made buttermilk biscuits, which we then slathered with the butter we made (doesn’t that sound slightly, I don’t know… wrong?).

I put one third of the butter in a small butter dish, and the other two thirds are wrapped and safe in the freezer. ‘m thinking about that butter right now. It’s calling to me. Time to make a fresh loaf of bread?

Love being elbow deep in milk? Come join us at Forging Fromage. Check the web site for the current recipes and their due dates. Make the recipe, write about it, then email your link to the contact email listed on the site to be included in the posted round-up.


Gouda - Ready to cut open

The Forging Fromage group had two challenges for us in July: the quick and easy Yogurt Cheese, and our first aged cheese: Gouda.

I had hopes of making this a goat gouda, but the scarcity and cost of goat milk around here until very recently had me think twice about that, so we made this cheese with some fresh, local cow’s milk instead.

The process for starting the cheese is similar to that for making the feta: warm the milk (this time to 85 degrees F), then mix in the starter culture (this time, we used prepared mesophilic starter culture, rather than the cultured buttermilk that did the trick for the feta), then thoroughly mix in the rennet and let the milk sit for a couple of hours until the curd is set and we got a clean break.

Gouda - Ingredients and curd setting

After the curds had set up, we cut them into 1/2″ cubes, let them sit for 10 minutes to begin draining the whey, and then began to cook the curds. This is where things get difficult for me.

Even with a double-boiler setup and a deep sink filled with cold water, I find it challenging to maintain a constant temperature over a long period of time. I slowly bring the curds up to just below the target temperature (in this case, we needed to go from 85 degrees F to 102 degrees F over the course of about 45 minutes), and then the curd temperature inevitably goes higher than my target temperature and I pull the milk pot out of the double boiler, put it in the sink full of cold water to drop the temperature, then put it on the counter. It works, but it means constantly monitoring the thermometer and juggling the pot from temperature to temperature to maintain a more-or-less consistent temperature where the curds are being cooked enough to release the whey, but not too much so that they harden and turn rubbery (which detrimentally affects both the consistency and acidity of the final cheese).

The next step is where we diverged from all other cheese recipes we’ve tried so far: once the curds were up to temperature, we carefully removed three cups of whey and replaced it with three cups of 102 degree F water. Every 15 minutes (while maintaining that temperature), we repeated the process, until we had removed whey and replaced it with water three times.

Gouda - Cutting and cooking curds

At that point, the curds were fully cooked and it was time to drain the remaining whey. (Note: Since this was a hard cheese, I had planned on making ricotta from the drained whey, but I was unsure if it would work with the watered down whey. I saved the whey we drained off and did make ricotta by adding a bit of whole milk. You can see the delicious results here.)

Now it was time to press the cheese. In the past, when we’ve made pressed cheese (paneer and similar cheeses), we’ve used the age-old method of stacking heavy tomato cans or pots of water on the cheese, and that’s what I was prepared to do this time around. The recipe called for two pressings, the first at 20 pounds for 45 minutes, the second at 40 pounds for three hours. My plan was to use a combination of bags of flour and pots of water.

And then M found us a really inexpensive little cheese press on ebay! It’s nothing fancy, and the mold that comes with it isn’t useful because it doesn’t have any drainage holes, but I had bought a hard cheese mold already and it just barely fit into the press. With a few other adjustments and some tinkering, we figured out how to make it work with our mold and then pressing was easy as pie.

Gouda - Putting curds in press

After pressing, turning, and then re-pressing the cheese for a total of about four hours, we had a cheese! It was soft and delicate, but it held together and looked like, well, cheese. Honest-to-goodness cheese. We did a little Happy Cheese Dance in the kitchen.

The last step before aging is to brine the cheese by floating it in a salt solution (1.5 cups of salt in one quart water) for 3 hours, flipping the cheese every 45 minutes to make sure it’s evenly coated. The brine initiates the rind development that would continue over the next 25 days in the “cave” (in our case, that’s currently our regular refrigerator). After brining, we patted the cheese dry, and put it on a sushi mat in the refrigerator and crossed our fingers.

Gouda - Pressing and brining

For the next 25 days, we turned it daily, and rubbed all the surfaces with a salt water solution. From time to time, a tiny amount of blue/green mold appeared on the rind — just a few spots — but we rubbed that away with the salt water and the mold never progressed beyond that.

This morning, we took the cheese out and sliced into it (having aged it for 26 days).

Gouda - Cut after 25 days

And we did another little Happy Cheese Dance, because, you know what? It looked and tasted like gouda! It’s mild. It can use some aging to develop the flavor, but it definitely tastes like a real gouda. The rind’s a bit thicker than we’d like, but that’s due to the less-than-ideal aging conditions in our refrigerator.

We made gouda! In our own kitchen! Maybe we really can do this?!

(Before I get too carried away, I should tell you about my recent cheddar disaster, but that’s a tale for another day…)

We’re going to eat half of the wheel this weekend, and we’re going to try waxing the other half and letting it age some more. And I have a feeling it won’t be long until we’re trying our hand at a goat’s milk gouda.

Love being elbow deep in milk? Come join us at Forging Fromage. Check the web site for the current recipes and their due dates. Make the recipe, write about it, then email your link to the contact email listed on the site to be included in the posted round-up.

Yogurt cheese

The Forging Fromage group this past month has taken a leap in complexity as we’ve moved from soft, fresh cheeses to some aged, hard cheeses.

Aged cheeses are the types I most want to learn to make, but I’ve been chicken about making them because they take work, and patience. You can spend a whole day making the cheese, and another day (or more) pressing it (if it’s a hard cheese), and then you have to put it in the “cave”, and let it age. And be patient. And wipe off the mold that inevitably accumulates on the outside. And turn it daily. And watch it. And be patient. And wonder what’s going on inside that rind that’s developing.

And hope that sometime in the future, maybe a month, maybe six, when you cut open that cheese, you’ll have something in your hands that resembles the type of cheese you set out to make, and not just a nasty science experiment gone awry.

Fortunately, for those of us who need some instant gratification, our hosts wisely threw out a quick and easy cheese challenge that anyone can meet. Anyone.

Yogurt cheese

Yogurt cheese is essentially just strained yogurt. If you strain regular yogurt for just a bit (say, a few hours), you’ll get thickened yogurt: Greek Yogurt. If you continue straining (say, overnight), you get something firmer – a sort of dip-like or spreadable cheese that you can then mix with whatever additions you happen to like: spices, herbs, honey, dried fruits, roasted vegetables. Maybe even chocolate?

The process couldn’t be simpler. Line a bowl with cheese cloth or even a dish towel, get some yogurt (I used goat’s milk yogurt), pour the yogurt into the cloth-lined bowl, tie the corners of the cloth together, and hang it up somewhere convenient. I hung mine on the kitchen faucet.

Yogurt cheese collage

Let it sit there and drain until you get the consistency you want. I let mine go overnight and I still could have strained it more to get an even firmer cheese, but I had a birthday party to go to and I wanted to take the cheese with me, so I called it ready.

I snipped some chives from the garden, minced them, and mixed them into the cheese, then added a few long sprigs for garnish.

Yogurt cheese collage - adding chives

The resulting cheese was tangy and goaty, soft and spreadable, delicious spread on bread. It even made a respectable dip for tortilla chips. I imagine if I had added some onion, it would have almost made a home-made french onion potato chip dip!

Want to make cheese but feel afraid? Make this one. It requires no special equipment, no special skills, and, best of all, hardly any patience at all.

Love being elbow deep in milk? Come join us at Forging Fromage. Check the web site for the current recipes and their due dates. Make the recipe, write about it, then email your link to the contact email listed on the site to be included in the posted round-up.

Goat’s Milk Feta


Remember that little bread project I did way back when? When I finished that, I wondered aloud what project to move on to next. I wondered if there was a cheese version of the BBA Challenge. Well, Natashya at Living in the Kitchen with Puppies (fellow BBA Challenge baker and very accomplished food blogger) heard my wondering and told me there was such a thing: a little group called Forging Fromage that was learning how to make cheese together, month by month.

I missed the start of this cheesy adventure (it began in September 2009), but the group graciously let me start forging with the June/July challenge: Goat’s Milk Feta for June, and Gouda for July.

M and I had made several fresh cheeses before, including paneer, chèvre, creme fraiche, mozzarella, and ricotta, so I felt pretty prepared to tackle the feta and was looking forward to getting initiated into another classic goat’s milk cheese. If all goes well, we’ll soon be milking a goat of our own and we’ll want to make more than chèvre with what Willowherb gives us.

The forging fromage group is using the feta recipe from The Home Creamery. Before beginning, I compared the recipe to the one in Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheese Making, the cheese making book I know best, and found them to be fairly similar except that The Home Creamery recipe called for using cultured buttermilk as the starter, while Home Cheese Making called for direct-set mesophilic starter. I had the mesophilic starter on hand, but since this was my first “forging” project, I decided to go with the recipe used on the web site and see what happened.

I started by buying the goat milk, which you’d think would be easy enough to find around here, but, in fact, it’s difficult to lay hands on. The local co-op has it for a ridiculous price per quart, but that’s our only current option, so this cheese was a bit of an investment from the start. Less expensive than building a barn and buying three goats, but not that much less expensive.

Feta - goat milk

We set up a double-boiler with the lobster pot so that we could gently, indirectly heat the milk up to 88 degrees.

Feta - Heating the milk

Once at 88 degrees, we removed the pot from the heat, stirred in 1/4 cup of cultured buttermilk, and let the covered pot sit for an hour. I tested the milk’s temperature periodically and found it continued to rise while it sat, so I removed the cover, put the pot in cold water in the sink for a few minutes, and lowered the temperature, then recovered the pot. The milk sat at a nice, stable 88 degrees for the rest of the hour.

Next, we dissolved liquid rennet in a small amount of cool water, thoroughly mixed that in to the milk, and let it sit again, covered, for an hour. The recipe didn’t say specify what temperature to keep it at, but since the next step again mentioned 88 degrees, we kept it at 88 for the next hour.

After an hour, we uncovered the pot and tested to see if the curd had set. And, as if by magic, it had!

Feta - Curd break

We cut the curd into 1″ cubes, then cut again diagonally from both directions.

Feta - Cut curds

Then we cooked and stirred the curds gently, for 15 minutes, still keeping everything at 88 degrees.

Feta - Curds

After 15 minutes, we drained the curds into a butter muslin-lined colander, catching the whey in a bowl beneath the colander.

Feta - Draining the curds

Then we gathered the corners of the butter muslin

Feta - Gathering in butter muslin

tied the top, and hung it to drain from a hook in the perfectly cool basement.

Feta - Hanging to drain

While the cheese was draining, I took the excess whey and watered the blueberry bushes. The dog loved that.

Six hours later, the feta had firmed up nicely and taken the shape of the butter muslin bag.

Feta - After hanging for 6 hours

When we opened the muslin, I was happy and relieved to see the nubbly feta texture I was hoping for.

Feta - Before cutting

I sliced it, placed it in a dish, and salted it.

Feta - Sliced and salted

After 24 hours, it was ready to taste.

During the brief aging, the feta had firmed up even more and it smelled great. On first tasting it, we thought that it was much too salty, so we rinsed off the excess brine. The cheese’s firm texture stood up fine to being handled and rinsed. After it was rinsed, the taste was great: mildly goaty, slightly salty. The texture was firm while still being creamy, and not at all “squeaky” like many store-bought fetas.

The recipe says the feta will store in a covered dish in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Ours didn’t last that long. We ate most of it straight from the dish, in long slices, the first day it was ready. I also cubed some to serve to a group of Hyla’s friends, who visited for a morning of goat cuddling and cheese making. I put the small amount that remained on a salad along with dried cranberries and toasted, slivered almonds. The goats would have loved that.

What’s next? Gouda! I’m excited (and a bit nervous) to try making a semi-hard cheese, but fellow forgers have already begun theirs and it sounds like they’re meeting with some success. The due date for the Gouda is the end of July, so meet me back here in a month to see if I’ve made cheese, or a nasty, moldy science experiment.

Update: To see how everyone fared on this challenge, check out the fabulous Feta roundup on the Forging Fromage blog!

Love being elbow deep in milk? Come join us at Forging Fromage. Check the web site for the current recipes and their due dates. Make the recipe, write about it, then email your link to the contact email listed on the site to be included in the posted round-up.

RR, R & R, and arias

A week ago today, we were in New York, New York, that stunner of a city where anything can be yours if you have the cash. I guess that’s why our trips to NYC tend to be brief — get in, do what you want, get out, and hope you have a little money left in your wallet for the cab fare back to the train station. Brief though our trips to NYC are, we do our best to pack them full (that “R & R” in the title is a bit misleading, I guess). So full that we need to go to bed early for several nights afterward just to recover from the late nights and early mornings. I mean, who’s going to go to bed early when you can go out to dinner at 10.00 at night?

On previous trips, we’ve driven ourselves down. It’s not a long trip (just 4-5 hours) and driving into and around the city is a relative piece of cake compared to driving in Boston. This time, though, we decided to try the train. We’d thought about taking the train before, right from our lovely little station in White River Junction, but when we saw that it takes said train 7.5 hours to do what we can do in 4.5 in our car, we decided to skip it. But Hyla seemed interested in taking the train (she’s ridden subways, but never a real train) and we thought it would be relaxing, and why not have a long, leisurely trip down to the city?

We arrived at the train station about 20 minutes before it was due to arrive — and learned that it was running two hours late. First time in four months that the train had been late, the station caretaker tells us. Cafe car broke down near St. Albans, he explains. That means the train probably won’t include the cafe car by the time it gets to us, he adds.

We review our options. We could wait. Or we could drive. Hmmm. Hyla’s first train ride. 9 hours until we get there vs. 4.5. Relaxing fun vs. hectic driving through southern Connecticut. People watching vs. highway watching. We opt for the train. And learn shortly after that it’ll be only 1.5 hours late and will include the cafe car (though it turns out that it’s not such a big bonus to have a cafe car, unless you like pre-packaged steamed hot dogs and the like).

One of the cool things about riding south from Vermont is that the train is practically empty when you get on, especially in the middle of the day on a Thursday.

The Train

So you can stretch out, take all the seats you want, have the laptop aboard, and feel like you own the place.

Hyla on the train

The whole reason for the trip was for our annual pilgrimage to Lincoln Center to see an opera. This time, we were joined by my sister and our good friend, Arthur. We also got to meet up for lunch with our old friend, Jill, and her kids. Since we were lunching with kids, we planned in advance to meet at a creperie, where we were sure there would be something to suit every picky palate in the group. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that that place was pretty much strictly takeout (no tables). We looked longingly at the extensive menu of things that could be put into crepes, and then wandered until we found a very nice, friendly little bistro where we could have lunch.

We did eventually make it back to the creperie, of course. While Hyla was content with the basic butter and powdered sugar crepe, here’s what Jill’s crepe looked like:

Jill's Crepe - pre-fold

I don’t think you can tell from the picture that there were huge SLABS of chilled chocolate mousse on that crepe, before the bananas and chocolate syrup et al hit it. And, of course, once it was all folded into the crepe and tucked into a takeout container, our friendly crepe chef covered it with whipped cream.

I think Jill made the right call here.

By the time we were done with lunch and crepes, we were, unfortunately, too full to eat this, which was right next door do the creperie:

Doner Kebab

Why oh why don’t we have food like this in Vermont?!

That morning, on our way to meet Jill, we wandered through the Village, window shopping and looking at cool buildings, and accidentally came across Murray’s, a cheese mecca.

Murray's Cheese

Not only do they have an incredible selection of cheeses, cheese-serving implements and tools, gourmet items, and other goodies:

Murray's Cheese Case

they also have the most entertaining cheese labels we’ve ever seen:

Up In Smoke Label

“Like a gift from the Wood Elves. Oregon’s Pat Morsford – not an elf as far as we know…”

Goat Gouda Label

“Is it cheese, or is it candy?”

We tasted this goat gouda. It was amazingly delicious. Complex. Rich. Not overtly goaty. Slightly sweet. With a taste that lingered (pleasantly) for minutes after we left the store. C’mon. Isn’t it a beauty?

Goat Gouda

We looked at a lot of cheese, and tasted the one, but didn’t buy any since we were on our way to lunch and thence to the incredible Frick Collection, which doesn’t allow anyone under 10, and certainly not hunks of stinky cheese.

Have you ever been to the Frick? I never had before this trip. M had been there a year-and-a-half ago and couldn’t wait to show it to us. We thought about going during last year’s opera trip, but we’re law abiding citizens and didn’t want to make H lie about her age. This year, we figured nine-and-a-half was close enough, and of course no one blinked when we bought our tickets. It helps that she’s tall. And it helps that she knows how to behave in an art museum.

I don’t have any pictures of the collection to share with you because, of course, they don’t allow photography in the museum, but you can browse the collection on their web site. One of the (many) nice things about the Frick is that it’s small. You can visit all the rooms, and then go back to linger over favorites like this, and this, and this and feel like you really had time to sit and stare.

Years ago, Laurel and I had a memorable dinner at Picholine, where we experienced the majesty of their cheese cart. Ever since then, I’ve been wanting to try Artisanal, the fromagerie and bistro run by Picholine’s chef. I was particularly anxious for M to get that same cheese experience that we had at Picholine. I knew in advance that the overall menu wouldn’t be that impressive (fine, but nothing special), but I figured the cheese had to be great. So that’s where we were headed for dinner that evening.

Maybe the cheese at Artisanal is great. I suspect it can be, but we wouldn’t have known it from the insipid selection our waiter placed before us. It’s a shame, because it really could have been a wonderful experience. They clearly know what they’re doing with cheese there, and they have a little cheese shop right in the restaurant, with at least a hundred cheeses on display. I guess it was half our fault for not telling the waiter that we had were interested in trying something a bit daring, but, really, at a place like that, they ought to have asked if we had any particular interests or expectations before setting down a plate of four cow’s milk cheeses (nope, not a goat or sheep to be found), with the one blue selection the most complex of the bunch. They weren’t offensive cheeses;but they didn’t teach us anything new except the fact that we should be more outspoken when we order a cheese plate, even at Artisanal.

But, then, we did have a nice dinner and some wonderful cocktails and we were, after all, out for an evening in New York. Not too much to complain about.

Our palates were pleasantly soothed the next morning by a stop (okay, I admit it, our second stop) at the French patisserie, Payard, on the way to meet up with Arthur and his sister at the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum.

Ooh la la! We went for the macarons and we enjoyed the petit fours

Payard - Macarons

but we returned for the croissants, apple turnovers, and, of course, these beauties:

Payard - Caneles

I had never seen so many Canelés in captivity! It was our duty to free half-a-dozen of them.

Caneles in the wild

Aside from the fact that they were no longer warm, they were absolutely perfect. Dark, crunchy and caramelized on the outside, and creamy, but firm on the inside, with just the right notes of vanilla and rum. All this, and meeting up with friends at the Design museum in the same morning! The sun was shining, the temps outside were climbing. We felt very lucky to be just where we were.

The Cooper-Hewitt (actually our national design museum; it is part of the Smithsonian), is a very small, focused museum, housed in the Andrew Carnegie Mansion, which appears to be much smaller than the Frick Mansion, but is many times the size of all of our houses combined.


Inside, the Carnegie Mansion seems a little rundown (peeling paint, etc.), and a lot of the house itself is hidden by the art displays. I suppose the difference is that the Frick houses Frick’s own collection (plus some later additions) in the locations where he chose to display the pieces. By contrast, the Cooper-Hewitt museum inhabits the Carnegie Mansion, but the house really isn’t part of the artwork.

The current big exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt is called “Fashioning Felt” and displays examples of felt used in fashion, manufacturing, architecture, jewelry, furniture, and artwork. I’ve always thought that felt was neat, and we’ve even recently played around with needle felting, but I didn’t know if the exhibit would be all that interesting. It was. It was fascinating. And the best part was the huge Palace Yurt (unfortunately, I can’t find pictures of it on the C-H web site; there is some info here, including some design sketches; oh! and someone else snuck a picture and another picture while visiting.)

The yurt covers the entire Conservatory, so you can walk right in and sit down on thick felt pads and watch the sunlight stream through the fabric (seven layers of silk batting alternated with felts made from all sorts of fibers). The Conservatory has high ceilings, with windows that start about three feet off the ground and continue to the ceiling. The felt panels covered the entire room. The affect was exhilarating and soothing all at once.

That afternoon, we also visited the Guggenheim, just because it was there, and because a couple of us had never been in it before.


The coolest thing about the Guggenheim is always the building itself. We spent a lot of time in the lobby, starting up at the spiraling railings, and watching an installation that made use of those railings by sending a little wheeled assembly (with wings) on a track fastened to the railings from the top floor to the bottom. It traveled around the building (and us), occasionally hitting something (intentionally) fixed to the track that jostled the assembly so that the prayer bells attached to it rang. When it reached the bottom of the spiral at the lobby level, it crashed into a stack of book trimmings that were suspended from the ceiling, dislodged the stack, and sent the stack down onto a (very slowly) accumulating pile of book trimmings.

Maybe I’m just not sophisticated enough to understand the importance of this.

It took no special effort to enjoy our last major stop, and the reason for the trip in the first place: a performance of La Sonnambula at the Metropolitan Opera. We chose this opera partly because it fit everyone’s schedule and partly because the performance starred Natalie Dessay and Juan Diego Flórez, the two dazzling singers/performers that we had seen at last year’s La fille du régiment. The opera’s story itself is a simple love triangle/misunderstanding (Laurel likened it to an episode of “Three’s Company” and that seems a pretty accurate assessment) — the new staging was controversial, and the plot certainly didn’t have the excitement or humor of La fille, but the melodies were gorgeous, the singing was rich and moving, and the acoustics were wonderful. We’re already looking forward to next year’s trip, plotting how we can maybe catch two operas in a single trip.

We had thought we’d might go out to dinner after the opera (we had a pre-performance picnic of cheese, bread, and prosciutto on the steps of Lincoln Center), but by the time it ended, we were ready to go back to the hotel and rest. We wrapped up the evening in the hotel lobby with some drinks and a pizza (Laurel bravely dashed across Times Square at 11.30 pm to score it for us!) and chatted until Arthur had to go, and then it was bed time.

We had an 11.30 am train the next morning, but we weren’t quite through with the city yet. We checked out of the hotel and Laurel drove us over to 2nd Avenue Deli — who knew you could get pastrami sandwiches at 9.30 in the morning? And half-sours? And egg creams? And latkes? And chicken fingers and fries? And guess what? When you go at 9.30 on a Sunday morning, there’s on-street parking and no line, and the friendliest, most competent waiter you can imagine. We ate half of what we ordered, and then packed the rest up for the train ride home. Cafe car or no cafe car, this time we were going to be feasting on our way back home.