You don't know satisfaction till you've shook your own butter. I did for the first time this weekend, at one of Nance Klehm's Living Kitchen workshops, and to steal a phrase from one of the other workshoppers, holy Matilda! I skimmed the cream from a gallon of raw milk, decanted it into a large jar, made sure the lid was on tight, and started shaking. I shook and shook and shook until, just when I was wondering what the hell I was doing and just how bad this might be for my repetitive stress injuries, I heard a thunk. Voila--milk into butter (and buttermilk) in one moment of simple kitchen alchemy. Judging by the whoops of excitement around the table as the six other participants each felt her thunk, the magic was contagious.
The class, Raw Cheese I, covered the basics of making butter, yogurt, ricotta, and clabbered milk cheese. Working with gallons of liquid gold procured from the northland, Klehm walked us through the makeup of milk in its various varieties (cow, sheep, goat, buffalo . . .) and the processes by which the USDA strips it of most of its best elements through homogenation and pasteurization. Fresh raw milk (which Nicholas Day wrote about for the Reader in August 2005--the link is a PDF), argue its legion fans, not only is easier to digest, because it hasn't had all the lactase (the enzyme that makes it possible to for us to digest lactose) bled out of it, but also tastes great--rich and grassy and alive. Because the fat globules haven't been pulverized by homogenation, it's also a lot easier to work with. To demonstrate, Klehm tried to shake butter out of a pint of ultrapasteurized organic cream and got nothin' but a lot of froth and bubbles. Recipes like this one for using store-bought ingredients suggest heavy whipping cream that's sat in the fridge for a few days; to find raw-milk sources in your area, try realmilk.org's "where" page.
Milk in its natural state wants to be cheese*, and to help it along all you have to do is provide it with heat and time, and maybe some friendly enzymes. We made a tangy clabbered cheese from raw milk (note: this won't work with store-bought milk) that had simply been left sitting on the counter for four days, at which point it followed its nature and separated into curd and whey. Strain off the whey and let the curd drain to your desired point of dryness. Mix with a dash of salt and some fresh herbs (try basil, rosemary, or dill) and you've got a spread for your morning toast.
Ricotta and yogurt require the application of a little more heat, but are still pretty easy. Heat some milk to 160 degrees for 90 seconds, then let cool to room temp. Add a starter (plain, additive-free yogurt from the store works fine--yogurt begets more yogurt) and then just keep it warm for 24 hours--wrap the pot in a towel and stick it on the radiator or in an unlit oven or--my fave--pour it into a Thermos and snuggle into bed with it (though this method may be more appropriate in January).
For ricotta, heat milk to 185 degrees, then add some acid. Klehm uses lemon juice, which may not be local but gives the cheese a certain lemony zing. In seconds the curd will pull together; strain through some cheesecloth and you're good to go.
I'd planned to go on Klehm's urban foraging walk (which she offers about once a month) earlier the same afternoon, but given the heat decided to lie low with a trashy novel instead. Still, I got to sample some of the bounty when the five-hour class broke for a snack. In addition to clabbered cheese and fresh butter we noshed on home-baked bread, a wild pickle of daikon, cauliflower, and kale; kale salad with a tahini dressing; some crazy pickled garlic made with chilies and smoked black sea salt; and a giant bowl of juneberries (or amelanchiers) picked that day from a grove that runs west along 13th Street between Damen and Hoyne.
*A realization Klehm came to after accidentally leaving a few jars out on the counter for days while tending to a bad case of poison oak.