Kitchen is classroom for Washington and Jefferson cheese-makers

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Say cheese! That’s what eight undergraduates at Washington and Jefferson College have been doing all month during a novel "Science of Cheese-Making" class.

Students can opt to take the three-week intersession course, some of which involves out-of-the-country travel, sandwiched between the fall and spring terms right after the Christmas holidays.

"I like the intersession courses because they allow you to be a little more creative than usual," assistant professor of biology Kelly Weixel said. "This particular class is a great synthesis of science and culture."

Four days a week, students have been learning how to make four fresh cheeses -— mozzarella, ricotta, feta and chevre (goat cheese) —  going through an average of two gallons of cow and goat milk daily, bought locally to tie in with Mrs. Weixel’s penchant for sustainable agriculture and the buy local movement.

Students work in groups of four. While one does hands-on work in the kitchen of the Alumni House, the other does research. Then the groups reversed roles. At the end of the day, all get to sample their work.

"Students gained an understanding of the manufacturing of cheese, knowledge of milk composition and how microbiology combines with good sanitary practices to form the foundation of consistent, high-quality cheese," Mrs. Weixel said. "It also taught them tasting terms like those used in the wine industry such as malted, floral, sweaty, caramel and coffee flavored and bucky."

The course began with a yogurt-making session, then segued into other bacteria-induced fermentation to produce the fresh cheeses. The course was too short to allow the production of aged cheeses, which Mrs. Weixel said take a minimum of four weeks to ripen properly.

Along the way the students went on field rips, one to Pennsylvania Macaroni in Pittsburgh’s Strip District to sample cheeses and another to Bedford where they met with cheese maker, Lori Sollenberger of Hidden Hills Dairy. The trip also made a stop at the Horn O Plenty restaurant, which not only serves a lot of local cheeses but also gave them a chance to try a grilled cheese sandwich made with raw milk.

"I think it’s good for the students to talk to someone in the business," Mrs. Weixel said. "Lori’s advice was to be adaptable, flexible and use your skills in novel ways."

Cheyenne Mangold, a cell molecular biology major from San Antonio, Texas, said she took the class because her parents are cheese fans and cook with it often.

"I also thought it would be a good idea to be able to make your own because it’s cost-effective and you can flavor it any way you like," she said.

In addition to making all four cheeses, the students also got involved in discussions that emphasized the chemical and microbial changes in each step of the process. Critical steps along the way included getting the milk to the right temperature without boiling it, which affects the protein of the milk.

Mistakes were sometimes made, like the time the bacteria were put in the milk at too high a temperature.

"I asked them if there was something they could do with the batch and they suggested adding more bacteria after the milk had cooled. They tried out the solution, but it didn’t work out and the batch had to be thrown out."

Corey Young, an English major from Meadville who plans to go to medical school, said he took the class because he thought it would be a good way to combine the humanities aspect of his major with the scientific aspects of his future in medicine.

Along the way, the students were given short quizzes and assigned a number of readings on topics like the microbiology of the fermenting process and the chemical properties of milk. They were also asked to research recipes in which they could use the cheeses they made.

Saad Ahmed, a cell molecular biology major who is from Pakistan, said he took the class to see how the concepts he learned in his science classes could be translated into everyday life.

"The field trip to Hidden Hills Dairy also familiarized me with issues like sustainable farming and the buy local movement, concepts I didn’t know much about,'' he said.

Dave Zuchowski, freelance writer:

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