From cheddar to ‘moldy brain,’ it’s all good cheese

Amateur cheese-maker Becky Patterson approaches her hobby with the intensity of a scientist and the imagination of an artist. (Katherine Larson photo)

Story and photos by Katherine Larson

October means Halloween, and Halloween means … moldy brain cheese? Becky Patterson’s laugh fills the room. Patterson is a passionate amateur cheese-maker, which means that she approaches the task of creating cheeses with the intensity of a scientist. She is also an artist, and her cheeses reflect free-spirited imagination.
“Moldy brain cheese” is actually a ripe Camembert-style cheese, infused with edible ash to create that creepy appearance suitable for Halloween. But there’s nothing rotten or brain-like about it; it tastes delicious.
Patterson started making cheeses years ago, when she and her late husband lived in Chicago. She started in their downstairs bathroom there, she said. “I was just fooling around, and then I got intrigued.” By the time the Pattersons retired to the Marquette area, it was clear that the house they were going to build had to have a dedicated cheese-making room.
That room was built, and Patterson spends hours there practicing her craft. She also teaches voice at Northern Michigan University and sings with the Marquette Choral Society, which she joined during her husband’s last illness “to keep my soul together. It was a life-saver.”
Before retiring, she had taught and sung for years in Chicago, even performing once as a soloist with the Chicago Symphony. Now Patterson loves “being immersed in the U.P.’s natural beauty,” including her new-found passion for snowshoeing. “It’s wonderful—you can do it just anywhere.”
Cheese, though, can’t be made just anywhere; for this dedicated cheese-maker, the dedicated cheese room is important. She said, “When I started, I went about it like a cook—a little of this and a little of that. I had a lot of failures. Then I changed my approach and went about it like a lab technician. That works much better, except when I haven’t done proper obeisance to the fickle cheese gods.”
Her approach demands discipline. For example, Patterson plans her vacations so that there are no cheeses in the cooler requiring babysitting while she’s away—some soft-rind cheeses have to be tended daily until they are ripe. She is also careful not to open ripe cheese in the same room where a new cheese is draining: “I don’t want stray spores from the one to wander over to the other.”
There’s a lot to stray. Over several visits, Patterson showed me a bewildering variety of cheeses, both in process and fully ripened: Red Leicester, Tomme, Rustic Blue Camembert, Bandaged Red Cheddar, Cotswold, Camembert. We sampled some great flavors: nutty, creamy, pungent, mild.
Patterson showed me the complex process whereby two gallons of milk transform into a two-pound cheese. After steeping milk, culture, proteins (needed because the pasteurization required of store-bought milk damages some of the milk’s original proteins), and a vegetarian rennet product in a warm bath for an hour or two, whey separates out and curds congeal. Then Patterson gets to work to remove the whey from the curds and bring the curds together into an actual cheese. Here, a few pictures are worth a thousand words, so please enjoy a few shots of the process Patterson uses to make cheddar cheese.

How a cheese is prepared for aging varies wildly. Some, like Patterson’s Cotswold (which features minced chives and onions embedded in the cheese), are coated in food-grade wax; some, like her Red Leicester, are wrapped in butter-smeared bandages; some, like her Tomme, have washed rind cheeses that she must swab daily; some, like her Camembert, are bloomy-rind cheeses where a little spritz of appropriate spores helps Mother Nature do most of the work.
How long a cheese ages also varies wildly. Some cheeses are ready in days or weeks, while others need months. Patterson pointed out that in the aging process the milk’s natural lactose is converted to lactic acid, which despite the similarity of name is quite a different entity. Even lactose-intolerant folk can enjoy cheese that has been aged long enough.
What if a cheese-lover doesn’t want to go through all that work? “Try making labneh,” Patterson advised. For this tasty treat, you drain plain (unflavored) whole-milk yogurt or kefir through a fine strainer “until it’s really stiff. Then roll it into little balls, and roll the balls in za’atar,” a Middle Eastern spice blend, which is available at local bulk and spice shops that typically includes thyme, oregano, sumac, toasted sesame seeds and salt. Store the balls immersed in olive oil, and bring them out for a snack or appetizer.
I tried it and she’s right—it’s delicious. But do give it plenty of time; I let the yogurt drain only overnight, and the result was gloppy. Maybe I didn’t adequately propitiate the fickle cheese gods.
An even better option is to become friends with Patterson; she makes the occasional custom cheese upon request. After several days of delicious eating, I can hardly wait for more.

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